Ask 100 language learners what they struggle with most, and many of them will say ‘speaking with a native speaker’.
I say: this is misleading! Because if you dig a bit deeper, you’ll often hear that the speaking bit is only part of the problem. The bigger problem is “I can’t UNDERSTAND anyone during these conversations!”.
You see, during conversations in your target language, most of the time you can get your point across. Maybe not always with perfect, eloquent sentences, but with both verbal and non-verbal communication, you’ll probably be able to say what you want to say.
But if you don’t understand the other person, then you have a problem…!
Not understanding someone can make you feel dumb and frustrated. Especially because the language learning materials you used often contain very slow spoken dialogues – nothing like what you find out there in the real world! Faster speech and a high-stress conversation environment are a recipe for disaster if you’re not trained for it.
There are no easy fixes for this. But there are ways to improve, so you’ll start understanding natives and conversations will go much smoother. And I’m going to lay them all out here in an easy-to-follow Perfect Listening Practice Framework!
Then let’s dive in…
Step 1: Before you start listening
Why is understanding native speakers so hard?
Understanding a language takes a lot of ‘ear training’. You see, when you don’t speak a language yet, everything a person says just sound like blabber: a disorganized pile of sounds.
A couple of months later, most of these sounds will have come together for you and have meaning now…
Just because you’ve put your attention towards them, your brain became aware of them and you’ve given it lots and lots of practice!
That’s the only way to go forward.
Now, in some languages that might not be enough, because you just won’t hear the difference between some sound. For example, in Japanese there is no difference between the ‘l’ and the ‘r’ sound. Because their brain never had to distinguish between these sounds, they just can’t hear the difference… which means that they can’t pronounce it either!
This can be fixed through a lot of deliberate practice, of course, but it might take longer for some languages with specific sounds (like click sounds in some African languages) or tones (like Chinese).
Don’t worry, though, most of this can be fixed… through MASSIVE exposure!
That’s really the only way to go forward.
No quick fix, it will take some time… but it’s not difficult and can be quite pleasant!
The two listening goals
You can practice your listening skills for two reasons:
- To improve pure comprehension + conversation skills (casual listening)
- To build your vocabulary (intensive listening)
You can do both at the same time, but for effective practice, you better focus on only one of them at the time!
For example, if you’re having a conversation, you’ll already have a lot on your mind so it might not be the best idea to look for a lot of new vocab to learn (except during tutor/tandem sessions maybe).
Step 2 – How and where to find listening materials
What should I listen to?
We’re circling back to goal-setting here. Just like with reading, speaking and writing, you need to ask yourself the questions: in which situations do I see myself using my target language? And what am I interested in? These are the things most of your conversation will be about anyway.
Once you have that list, you can look for specific listening materials about these topics (more on that later). This will be very high-value practice material that will give you a lot of useful vocab.
On the other hand, to improve pure comprehension + conversation skills, it’s not a bad idea to just listen to as many things as you can get your hands on, about a variety of topics! Radio, podcast, news broadcasts etc. are excellent for this.
Go for comprehensible input!
It’s no use listening to something if you don't understand a single word. The input you need is what linguists call comprehensible input. That means: texts or audio that you understand for the biggest part, but that’s still a bit challenging: there are still things you discover, new vocabulary that you had to deduce from context, etc.
This is the input that’s really helping you make progress. It’s easy enough so you enjoy reading it, yet difficult enough so you learn new things.
I can’t tell you what comprehensible input is for you, of course. It depends from person to person. But I can tell you it’s something you feel. It’s also how textbooks like Assimil work. If you’re a complete beginner in a language and you open an Assimil book on lesson 85, you’ll probably be completely overwhelmed.
Go through lesson 1-84, though, and lesson 85 will now have become perfect for your level: some new grammar and vocab is introduced, but you understand most of the dialogue.
Now, with listening skills, there are some other factors that come into play! For example, a dialogue that was completely incomprehensible for you at first might be very much at your level if the speakers just slow down a lot.
Having a transcript or subtitles at your disposal might also make incomprehensible input much more accessible.
If your focus is on listening comprehension:
Start off with authentic material (so made for native speakers, not for language learners) without any aids (so normal speed, without subtitles or a transcript). If you notice that you don’t understand anything, then add subtitles/transcript. If you do so, keep paying attention to the spoken word! Try to hear everything you see written.
The only exception here is if you’re a complete beginner in a language. Authentic materials will probably be completely incomprehensible to you, so you might need to use some slower material made for language learners.
If your focus is on vocab acquisition:
You can start off immediately with subtitles/transcripts. Podcasts and audio from language courses that’s a bit slower is perfect for this in the beginning.
Find speech with text!
Building on the last point; you’ll make much faster progress if you have a transcript of some sort with your listening materials. So series with subtitles (series are better than films because there’s continuity, you’ll have more context which will improve your comprehension), Netflix, YouTube with captions, podcasts with transcripts.
Especially if your focus is on vocabulary acquisition, transcripts are almost indispensable! If you rely purely on your listening skills, you might still misunderstand a lot of things. With a transcript, you just look up the right word, right spelling, right grammatical construction, and you can add it to e.g. a flashcard easily.
Bonus tip: if you’ve found a useful piece of audio but can’t find a transcript anywhere, just go to fiverr.com and hire someone to make a transcription for you! It’s very affordable and that way you can make your own, super-personalised language learning materials!
What kind of listening materials are there?
You can get listening exposure EVERYWHERE. I’m building resource lists for several languages. In the meantime, here’s an overview of materials you could use:
- Friends/tutors/meetup groups/language exchanges
- News broadcasts
- Series (Netflix!)
- Audiobooks (although they won’t really prepare you for real-life conversations)
- All tv programmes, really
Step 3 – Effective Listening Strategies strategy
Vocab acquisition (intensive listening)
If you’re practicing listening to build your vocabulary, here’s a strategy you can use:
- Listen first and try to understand as much as possible (without transcript)
- Listen with the transcript/subtitles
- Look for interesting vocabulary, especially collocations, specific expressions, word combinations (so basically chunks: check The Vocab Cycle for more info on this)
- If you’ve found useful vocabulary, write it down in notebook or immediately in app like Anki (use cloze cards)
- Prioritize! Decide if you still want to enjoy the story/content or not. Listening might get a bit boring if you stop every 2 seconds to write down some vocabulary. I personally try to find the balance by setting myself a target of how many chunks I want to find.
Listening comprehension (casual listening)
If you’re practicing listening comprehension, follow this strategy:
If you’re doing pure listening, not in a conversation:
- Listen to the whole thing without subtitles/transcript!
- Do some shadowing (=repeat what’s been said out loud immediately; for more info see perfect speaking practice). This is not only good for speaking, also for listening skills because it makes you more aware of the sounds.
- Listen for keywords that help your understanding
- Use the (visual) context to deduce meaning!
- Then use the text/transcription to fill in any things you didn’t understand.
If you’re in a conversation:
- Listen for keywords and deduct meaning!
- Use context to deduct meaning (I’ve written an article with some useful strategies for the Magnetic Memory Method blog a while ago, check it out here: https://www.magneticmemorymethod.com/conference-interpreting/)
- If you understood something but don’t remember exactly how to say it, ask back
- If you’ve heard sth interesting, REPEAT! Say, oh, … didn’t know you said it like that! By repeating actively you’ll probably remember. and if people know that you’re learning their language they won’t find it weird that you repeat them (if you explain)
- Or just repeat back what they said
- Don’t be afraid to ask back, or tell them to talk a bit more slowly. It’s normal!
- Bonus: try to listen in to group conversations! It’s often difficult and very tiring to try to understand everything, but you don’t get put on the spot if you don’t understand, you can focus purely on listening. I did this a lot when I just arrived in Italy and although it was hard, it helped my comprehension a lot!
Step 4: bringing it all together in your Perfect Listening Practice Strategy!
There you have it: some basic guidelines and specific strategies to improve your listening comprehension, build your vocabulary, find resources and become a listening comprehension master!
Here’s your action plan:
- Incorporate both ‘listening comprehension’ and ‘vocab building’ listening in your routine
- Find comprehensible input with transcript/subtitles (don’t use them from the beginning, though)
- Depending on your focus goal, use either the Vocab Acquisition Strategy or the Listening Comprehension Strategy.
- Become a listening expert!
Again, the real power of listening skills comes if you implement what you learn using your other language skills. Listening comprehension is a passive exposure skill; you’ve already combined it here with the other passive skill, reading comprehension (through the transcripts and subtitles).
If you’ve done some focused studying to internalize everything you’ve learned, the best way to make sure you make fast progress is by now either speaking about the topics you’ve learned about, or writing short texts.