How To Master Listening In Foreign Languages

Listening is not as effortless as it appears to be.

A lot of people mistake it for the process of hearing. You’re constantly hearing sounds and words and you can’t help it because you can’t force yourself to stop hearing. But when you listen, you’re actually paying attention and attempting to understand what is being said.

Listening requires only passive information processing and doesn’t demand the 100% command of words and vocabulary. Our listening ability is merely restricted to the size of our passive vocabulary and our proficiency in decoding the language according to our known grammar. Or you could say, listening is when you match what you hear with what you already know.

The first step in effective listening is to be able to separate words at a conscious level. This requires you to break down a string of syllables and tell them apart. At first, this may seem difficult since it all sounds like one long word. If that’s the case, you need to go back to an intermediate (or even elementary level) course audio material and listen through the whole level about 5 to 6 times (spend less than 10 hours for each time, you’ll progressively become faster) and develop the basic listening skills.

The second step is to be able to pick out words you’ve already stored in your passive vocabulary list and decode them at an unconscious level. For most of what you hear, the “80/20 rule” will apply. That means if you understand 20% of the total words or majority of the keywords. You’d be able to guess the general meaning of the whole text.

As a result, in the beginning you may experience a boost in performance but then your progress starts to slow down. Don’t be discouraged. This only means you have already surpassed the beginning level and you are now stretching yourself.

Anticipate What Others Say

If you think about it, listening to someone speak in a different language can be like trying to catch eggs that are constantly being bombarded at you. You have to be constantly alert and ready for them or you’ll get covered in messy yolk.

Be as prepared as you can be before a native speaker starts talking.

Anticipate what they are going to say before they say it. For example, if your friend has just returned from the grocery store, then she’ll probably say something about what she bought.

Focus – if you don’t focus on what is being said, you’ll lose track and “space out”. Maintain constant eye contact with the speaker if you’re in a conversation. If you’re listening to a tape, or a recording, make sure you’re not doing anything else that can distract you.

Guess – Try to guess the word from the context and from the visual/audio clues of emotion. So if you’re being chased down the streets of Rome by a baker screaming in Italian, he is probably saying something to the effect of “You forgot to pay me!”.

Confirm What You Have Just Heard

Listening is hard, and you won’t always get it right. But if you keep at it, and react to what you’re hearing then you’ll learn a lot faster.

Ask questions if you’re not following what someone is saying. It is better to stop them in between before they go on to other topics and forget what they’ve said previously.

Confirm what you have understood to make sure you’re on the same page as the speaker. Interrupt them politely and ask questions like “So you’re saying that…?”

You can easily lose track of what is being said due to the speed at which native speakers tend to speak. But it is important to keep listening, and to keep asking them to repeat themselves. I’m sure most people would be happy to oblige.

It would also greatly help if you knew how to say the basic “What does this mean?”, “I don’t understand…” or “Could you repeat that, please?” as you would probably need to use these phrases a lot in the beginning. Trust me, it is better than looking dumbfounded and expecting someone to decode your blank expressions.

Comprehend Directly In The Target Language

Listen to a description of something, and at the end of it try answering a few questions based on what you have heard. You can start out with a slow description of an easy topic, and progress to more complex things later on. This way you can measure and see how much you’re progressing with your listening abilities.

Just as with reading, make sure you know enough vocabulary and grammar so you’ll at the least be equipped to listen effectively. If you don’t understand a word, make a quick mental note of it, and later look it up or ask the person after they have spoken.

Do not to translate each word you hear and re-piece it back together in your native tongue. This is a bad practice as you’ll only be thinking in terms of your native tongue, and this doesn’t improve your thinking skills in the new language. Try this instead: Listen to the entire paragraph as a whole and before translating each word, try understanding the overall idea behind the paragraph. This is how native speakers listen to each other.

Some More Tips On Listening

  • Listen while you read. You can either read out aloud and listen to yourself say the words, or read a passage that is being spoken by someone else. This helps associating the images of the words to the sounds that you hear. You’ll remember what you hear while also knowing how to read them at the same time and you won’t draw a blank the next time someone says the word to you.
  • You can’t always have running subtitles to what you’re hearing. So you should also practice listening without visual or text cues. This way you can check how many words you can pick up purely by their sound. This will help you in real life conversations and similar situations.
  • Don’t concentrate on each word. Surprised? Just listen to your friends or family while paying attention to each single word they speak. Quite hard to keep up with the speed, isn’t it? Listen in terms of sentences. When we listen to speech in our first language we tend to skim over the words and absorb just the meaning of what is being said. Putting together individual words will take forever and will slow down your listening and conversational skills a lot.
  • I’d like to stress again the importance of repetitive listening. Do it as frequently as possible: in the morning, before you sleep, etc. Surround yourself with that target language.
  • Don’t start challenging yourself too early. Begin by listening to relatively easy materials as this improves pronunciation, rhyme, and “flow”. The inputs must be genuine usage from native speakers, as you do not want to go off track by getting feedback from less reliable sources. When listening, watch out for speech styles as well as tones, accents, stress, pronunciation, rhythm and so on.
  • Listen repetitively, especially in the early stages. Focus on a small amount of content and get used to it, rather than trying to listen to constantly changing content. By listening to the same content repeatedly you will get better at identifying when a word or phrase ends and when the next one begins. You will also start to recognize familiar words when you listen to new content. Let the phrases ring in your mind even after you stop listening. Repeat certain phrases out loud. Try to imitate the correct pronunciation.
  • Listen progressively. If you’re listening to a long tape, play the first few lines and pause it to see if you’ve understood anything. Keep repeating it until you do and then move onto the next part.