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How to Improve Your English Listening Skills?

Listening is one of the most difficult skills when it comes to learning English, especially for beginners.

If you still struggle with this important skill, keep reading on. In this post, I’m going to show you some mistakes most people make when learning English listening and how to improve your English listening effectively.

Why is listening skill so important when learning English?

English teachers consider listening the very first skill to be taught, followed by speaking, reading, and writing. Listening gives an important input to second language acquisition. It can also determine the development of the other three skills.

The learning of other skills starts from hearing sounds like the way babies acquire their mother tongue.

No listening means no input. No input means nothing stored in your brain. And that means nothing will come out when it comes to speaking, or no output.

So without listening, you can do NOTHING. Definitely.

Now you know the importance of listening skill in learning English; so, you decide to start doing something right away. But how?

To find out the best listening methods, it makes sense to examine some common challenges in the learning process.


5 reasons why you still struggle with your English listening

There are different factors that prevent you from perfecting your listening skills. Here are 5 main reasons:

1. Limited vocabularies


Lack of English words is probably the number one reason why you cannot fully understand what you hear. Languages are formed by words, so without words you can do nothing. If the number of unfamiliar words is too big, it may be hard for you to understand the given message.

Another case, which even hurts you more, is the fact that you know the vocabularies, yet can’t recognize their meanings while listening.

That usually happens because you learn new words by your eyes, not your ears. You have learned the word only in its written form but have missed the “sound” form.

Besides, sometimes you know the words, but it happens that you don’t hear them very often, so you fail to recognize the words immediately. You usually need some pauses to recall memory about the words instead.

And after that, you realize that you’re still stuck there while the listening ended just a minute before.

2. You try to understand every single word.

This is a wrong mindset almost everybody has. English learners tend to think that in order to understand the whole listening, they have to know the meaning of every single word.

If you try to understand every single word while listening, when you don’t know a word, you tend to stop for a while to think, which affects the whole listening process.

You’ll miss the rest of the listening since your mind is busy thinking about what’ve gone. It’s a very common mistake that many English learners make.

When you learn English or any other languages, you have to accept the fact that you cannot fully understand every word all the time, as there will arise new words every time you listen. Agree?

How do you deal with this?

Based on the key words, prior background knowledge, and linguistic context, you can definitely comprehend the given message.


That’s to say that in order to comprehend listening, you don’t need to manage to know the meaning of every single word.

3. Unfamiliar grammar structures

Since you’re learning English as a second language, its grammar structures are new and strange to you. You won’t know it well because it isn’t what you’re used to in your mother tongue.

Although grammar isn’t the very first thing in learning English, it has its place in listening. Without understanding grammar rules, listening may be hard. It’s even harder if you’re a beginner.

You may have difficulties comprehending the listening since you’re not familiar with the way words, phrases and sentences are organized.

Let’s take a simple example. You’re sure to know the words: long, airport, take, how, aren’t you? Let’s say if they’re put together like this: How long does it take to get to the airport?

Even if you know all the words in this sentence, but you don’t know the structure “How long does it take to (do something)?”, you cannot understand its meaning.

Listening is a receiving language processed through the ears. While listening, you become a passive information receiver. You have no idea what will come up next.

If you don’t know that language organizational structures well, how can you understand or fully understand the given message?

4. Different accents

The world now is more open. Every country speaks English with a unique accent, which changes the term from world English to world Englishes.

Research has shown that 66% of English learners consider accents one of the biggest factors affecting listening. There may be different ways of pronouncing the same word depending on where the speakers are from.

If you speak American English, it won’t be easy for you to listen to Indian English or other non-native accents. The reason is you fail to recognize the sounds; or even when you can identify the sounds, it takes time for you to think about what it means; so, your communication may be slowed down.

5. Limited background knowledge

Background knowledge includes understanding of many fields: sciences, culture, economics, politics, religions, art and so on. Among all, cultural knowledge is the most important since it strongly affects communication.

Have you ever experienced the situation in which you can hear every sound in the conversation, yet fail to understand the speaker?

That’s caused by the mismatch in culture. Culture and language are connected. They can’t exist without one another for sure. Differences in culture cause misunderstanding not only in listening but also in other aspects of English language.

Cultural background knowledge plays an active role in English listening. You may talk to people coming from different backgrounds. How you understand their culture influences the way you interpret the message received through listening.

Listening materials may deal with any area of life. Existing background knowledge helps listeners with prediction and meaning interpretation.


How to improve your English listening?

Based on the problems listed above, there arises some solutions to better your English listening skill as follows. Just sit down and relax, because you definitely don’t need to keep the textbooks by your side.

*1. Improve your Pronunciation

Yes, the very first thing you must do is to improve your pronunciation. The correct way to perceive the sounds will lead to good results in hearing the sounds.

That’s right. Let’s say if you pronounce the word “environment” exactly, we mean, with appropriate phonics, stress and intonation, you’ll immediately recognize that word in listening. This rule is used for the sentence level as well.

I know you’re tired of boring pronunciation classes when the teacher just asks you to listen, look and imitate each sound such as /e/, /æ/, /t/, /u:/ like a parrot.

You’re sure bored to death, I know. You can completely change your learning style.

But how?

We’re so lucky to live in the age of information technology thanks to the internet. Let’s take full advantage of this development.

Learning pronunciation may be done indirectly by watching Youtube films, news, broadcasts, or thousands of videos available on the Internet.

While watching, just notice the way the speakers move their mouth and lips, take notes, and repeat again and again; continue doing this for months and you’ll be surprised at your improvement.

*2. Listen everywhere, all the time

Of course, to improve listening, you have to listen; listen unconsciously and listen all the time. Just listen while you’re doing some work-out or housework, taking a shower, gardening or moving on the bus.


There are many types of listening: podcasts, news, songs, audiobooks and so on.

Never stop listening. Just absorb yourself in English listening as much as possible. This method is called extensive or passive listening. There are at least two benefits you can get from this.

Passive listening familiarizes your ears with the sounds, stress, and intonation. In other words, that’s an ear training. When your ears get used to the sounds, you will gradually listen better.

Another advantage of extensive listening is your vocabularies will be enriched steadily. The more you listen, the more vocabularies you know. The more vocabularies you know, the more comprehensible input you have. The more input you can build, the better your listening will be.

Start listening to what you’re inspired and interested in first, then extend to other areas. That gives you a lot of motivation.

Reading various materials is also recommended to broaden your language input and general knowledge, which makes listening much easier.

Repeat this step every day for months until it becomes your daily routine. Your ears need time to get familiar with a totally new language. Remember “practice makes perfect”.

*3. Watch English movies with subtitles

Is it your favorite? I hope so. Watching movies may be relaxing, but you have to follow the suitable steps.

Why should you watch movies?

Suppose that you can choose between learning listening by textbook, tape, and movies? Which one do you prefer? Movies are much more enjoyable, aren’t they?

Once you’re keen on something, you pay a lot of attention to it and engage in it. That’s the reason why you listen better.

Movies model real life situations; so, movie language is natural, authentic, and closer to you than textbook language. Language in movies gives you some comprehensible input to listen better in real life.

Watching movies helps you learn phrases, vocabularies, grammar and pronunciation (They’re called input). More importantly, they are put in social contexts, so you may receive input while doing some mental activities like guessing, predicting, anticipating, inferring, which makes listening smoother.

Just one thing I want to emphasize, watching movies is an easy way to enhance pronunciation. You may not recognize, but you’re learning it indirectly. Pronunciation is very important in listening since it decides if you recognize the sounds or not.

For listening, there’s no need to go to pronunciation class for intensive learning. Just keep on what you’re doing, and you’ll see the improvement.


Why movies with subtitles?

Reading and listening at the same time may help as well since it combines two senses: seeing and hearing. Reading or listening alone may take more time for comprehension than doing two at the same time. Words coming to your eyes and sounds coming to your ears will promote your comprehension.

In case you miss a point in the movie, you don’t need to pause or go back again. The subtitles are there to help as you read along. But don’t rely too much on words since you watch movies to improve listening skills, not reading.

If you don’t like movies, that’s ok. Try watching TV shows in English. Beginners should choose kid programs. Kid language is more simple and demonstrated with colorful images. You can listen while visualizing things, which supports the listening process a lot. 

Some classic English television shows to practice listening are:

- “Friends”

- “How I met your mother”

- “Extra”

*4. Practice speaking with foreigners

These two strategies above are called passive listening. Now it’s time for active listening when you listen and take actions based on what you’ve heard.

In a conversation, you have to listen and respond. Listening with interaction or actively engaging in the dialogue is actually much more exciting than just being a passive listener and letting the insiders lead you to anywhere they like.

Speaking and listening at the same time makes you an active listener. You’re trained to listen with some mental activities processing in your mind.

While listening, you may judge the speaker, predict what he/she is going to say, analyze, and synthesize the given information. Those are good strategies for listening activities.

Listening and speaking always go together. If you can say a sound, you’ll be able to hear it better. That’s always true. It’s perfect if you can speak to native speakers since you can learn standard English from them.

And to deal with unfamiliar accents? Of course. Communicating with foreigners from different countries helps you with the ear training. Once you recognize various accents, you can listen better.


How to find a native English speaker to practice Listening and Speaking for FREE?

That’s the question you may wonder, right?

Let’s join the language learner community all over the world by actively participating in activities on language exchange websites.

Keep in mind that you’re not alone. Your fellows are there waiting for you. Just come and say “hello” to them. You can support each other in learning a new language. 

Some suggested language exchange websites:

1. mylanguageexchange.com

2. conversationexchange.com

3. www.language-exchanges.org

4. www.speaky.com

5. www.interpals.net


*5. Combine English listening and reading

This is a dual training, which benefits two skills at once.

There are two ways to do the training. Listen and read along at the same time (shadow) if the listening is short and familiar to you; or listen, pause, then read again if the listening is long and complicated.

One of the materials you can use is movie or video with subtitles. But this time, you need more intense practice. No attention to the social context is needed; focus on the word or sentence level instead.

Everything will work well with shadow technique. It’s especially a great technique for practicing pronunciation.

Just watch a scene or a two-minute video many times, repeat after the actors/speakers many times until you can “shadow” at the same time as the actors/speakers without pausing.

Now it’s time for speaking. You turn off the subtitles. Just watch and “shadow” the actors/speakers; try to imitate their movements and facial expressions. Pronunciation will be improved a lot, leading to progress in listening.

There are many other ways to apply this technique. After reading a book, you can take advantage of the audio file of that book. Follow the shadowing technique, then listening will become easier and easier.

*6. Practice deep listening

What does it mean by deep listening?

It means to listen attentively and repeat listening again, again and many, many times. Do it four or five weeks until you’ll never forget it. Make it a habit because language is both a cognitive and habitual construction.


Listening to the same thing many times strengthens your memory concerning vocabularies, phrases, structures, or pronunciation.

Listen again to what you’ve listened before in the passive listening stage. Now you listen to it many times attentively day by day. You will be amazed at your listening progress. You can recognize every word, phrase, and sentence fast, easily, and automatically for sure. That’s a huge improvement, huh?

Another question coming to your mind may be, “How can I choose great materials that fit me?”

The key is simple.

Rule 1 is to choose something that you love or at least are interested in.

Rule 2 is not to choose too complicated materials. Provided that you understand at least 70-80%, that will be fine. 

Conclusion

The simple learning approach that will GUARANTEE your success is to “make it so easy you can’t say no”.  Start really, really small, and then make the listening activity a habit.

People have tried, and most have succeeded. I do believe that they work out for you, too. Follow these tips, and you’ll see how fast and greatly your listening will be improved.


What are your best tips to improve English listening skills?

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