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12 Simple Tips to Improve Your Listening Comprehension in a Foreign Language

by Michele
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12 Ways to Improve Your Listening Comprehension in a Foreign Language
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Struggling to understand what is being said in your target language? Here are 12 failproof tips that will improve your listening comprehension.

When learning a foreign language, it’s easy to fall into the trap of solely focusing on building a large vocabulary and memorizing all the grammar rules. But true mastery in a language requires so much more than that. 

Even if you memorize a whole dictionary or grammar book (which would be quite impressive), it won’t lead you to fluency and help you use your target language in real life. 

Of course, vocabulary and grammar are important, but equally important are the communicative skills that will actually help you use the words and rules you know to communicate such as reading, writing, speaking, and listening. 

The latter is notorious among language learners. Naturally, people’s experiences vary depending on the target language and various individual factors, but quite a large number of learners admit that they find listening one of the hardest aspects of learning a foreign language. 

In this guide, we’ll take a look at some of the factors that make listening challenging, and then I’ll share with you some of the best tips on how to improve listening comprehension.

5 Reasons why listening comprehension is so hard

Compared to other comprehension skills such as reading, listening can be objectively harder because there are quite a few factors that can affect your understanding.

  1. Talking speed. If you are a beginner in your target language, you can probably understand speakers if they slow down and speak clearly – if they talk too fast, even familiar words become unrecognizable. Even at higher levels, the faster the speech, the harder it becomes to understand what is being communicated. 
  2. Dialects. People speak one and the same language differently in different parts of the country or the world. While some dialects may not differ much from each other, others can be quite a challenge. When you come across an unfamiliar dialect, understanding it might be hard, even if your knowledge of a language is quite high. 
  3. ‘Wrong’ sounds. Native speakers don’t always pronounce words the way they are represented in dictionaries and textbooks: they use contractions and reduced forms and sounds change when joined together in speech.
  4. Lack of practice. No matter how well you have mastered other language skills, your listening skills won’t improve without sufficient practice. 
  5. Bad tech. An old scratchy recording, bad headphones, an unreliable Internet connection – all this can add to the difficulty of listening comprehension. 

This listen may be a bit daunting, but don’t worry: you can easily improve your listening comprehension, you just need some patience to practice this skill. And, of course, the tips on how to improve listening skills in this article will help improve faster and avoid some common mistakes. 

How to improve listening comprehension 

Learning a foreign language in general or improving listening skills doesn’t involve any kind of black magic or require special feats or big sacrifices. The main idea is that if you have ample and regular practice, you will progress. 

However, there is practice and there is practice. While there isn’t necessarily a ‘wrong way’ to practice listening (apart from not practising it at all, of course), some methods are more effective than others and will help you improve listening comprehension faster and more effectively. 

1. Prepare yourself before listening 

They say, ‘if you fail to prepare, you prepare to fail’. While listening practice is not a matter of life and death – you won’t fail at understanding everything if you come unprepared, preparation still plays an important role in your success. 

Part of such preparation is mental. It may come as a surprise, but your attitude to listening can affect how well you can understand what you hear. One of the most damaging ideas here is that you have to understand 100% of what you hear. Rest assured: you don’t. 

Very often, especially if you are just beginning to develop your listening skills, your goal should be to understand the gist of what is being said. Whether you are chatting to a language exchange friend or watching a movie, missing a few things here and there doesn’t matter that much as long as you get the main idea. 

Trying to understand every single word can get very stressful, and by focusing too much on a word you can’t understand you will most likely miss quite a lot of what else is said.

Language-related preparation is helpful as well. Where you can, take a few minutes to think about what you are going to listen to. What is the subject and how familiar are you with it? What related useful words do you know or might need to look up in a dictionary? 

Depending on the situation, you may need to read up on some cultural aspects or peculiarities of this or a specific dialect. By taking this short time to prepare you can significantly increase the effectiveness and success of your listening.

2. Practice active (deliberate) listening 

Listening actively is one of the most important ways to improve your listening skills. Too many language learners fall into the ‘passive listening trap’: they believe that playing something in their target language, like radio, music, or a podcast, in the background while they are doing something else helps them learn and improve listening comprehension. 

The truth is, passive listening is virtually ineffective. Firstly, it doesn’t motivate you to learn anything: there is no goal, there are no consequences if you don’t understand anything, there isn’t anything to push you to improve. 

Secondly, you are not learning anything because a very small amount (if any) of information is being processed by your brain. Something playing in the background quickly becomes background noise while you are concentrating on doing other things.

There are some minor benefits to passive listening. For instance, it helps you get used to being surrounded by the language and pick up its rhythm and intonation. There is no harm in listening to something passively every now and then if you cook or clean, but it will never help you improve listening comprehension the way active listening can. 

What does listening ‘actively’ mean? It means giving your full attention to whatever you are listening to and engaging with it. The stakes and your motivation level can differ depending on the situation, but active listening is always more effective than listening passively. 

Here are some things you can (or may even have to) do when listening to someone or something actively:

  • Find out specific information 
  • Answer questions 
  • Transcribe what you hear 
  • Write out useful words and phrases 
  • Repeat what you hear after the speaker(s)
  • Sum up what you have listened to in the written or oral form 
  • Chat about what you have listened to with a language exchange partner 
  • Analyze your practice, identify your weaknesses, and find ways to address them in the future  

Active listening is a much more effective use of your time, which will help you improve your listening comprehension much faster. 

3. Don’t overuse the dictionary 

When you come across an unfamiliar word, it’s tempting to pause what you’re listening to and look the word up in a dictionary before continuing. There is nothing wrong with this impulse, but doing so for every single word isn’t a good idea. 

Looking up a word in a dictionary can take quite some time – it will slow you down and interrupt your flow; whatever you are listening to will ‘break into pieces’, decreasing your interest and motivation. Moreover, it is not a natural thing to do: when communicating in real-life situations, you won’t be able to ‘pause’ speakers to translate what they are saying. 

What can you do instead? Here are a few useful strategies:

  • Do your best to understand unfamiliar words and phrases from the context. Quite often you will be able to understand a sentence or paragraph without translating every single word. If the main idea of a sentence is clear and you can guess what the unfamiliar word means, don’t waste time; continue listening. 
  • Only lookup keywords. In some situations, an unfamiliar word or phrase can prevent you from grasping the meaning of a paragraph or even a whole text – these are the key words and phrases that actually contain the main ideas. In this case, if you have the opportunity, pausing to look up such a word may actually save you some time: it will prevent you from misunderstanding and having to listen to the text over and over again. 
  • Write down unfamiliar words to check their meaning later. If you have doubts about the meaning of some words, want to expand your vocabulary, or don’t want to pause even when you don’t understand a key term, keep a piece of paper and pen (or a note-taking app) nearby and write out words and phrases to look-up in a dictionary later. 
  • Listen a second time. When you listen to something a second time around, you always pick up new things and generally understand more: the first listening has probably provided you with the context and the main idea, but with the second listen you can concentrate on the details. 

4. Listen to content according to your level (aka Comprehensible Input)

How to Improve Your Listening Skills in a Foreign Language - Listen to Podcasts

Avoid listening to and consuming content that is either too easy or too hard.  You know your listening material is ‘too easy’ when there is nothing challenging about it and you walk away having learned nothing. All the words are familiar, you are used to the speaker’s accent and speed with which they talk and there is no new information. 

There’s nothing wrong with consuming such materials every now and then – either for entertainment or a more relaxed practice. However, if all your listening activities are too easy for your level, your listening skills won’t improve. 

When the listening material is so hard that you can hardly understand anything, using it for practice won’t help you improve listening comprehension either! Working with such materials requires a lot of effort. You’ll probably spend more time using a dictionary than actually listening which is a surefire way to demotivate you. This is neither productive nor fun.

The solution? Use Comprehensible Input.

Comprehensible Input is a powerful learning theory developed by linguist Stephen Krashen. Krashen found that to learn a language you need material (or ‘input’) that is slightly more advanced than your current levelThe idea behind this theory is that you watch or listen to ‘input’ where you can understand what’s happening, but maybe miss some of the words here or there. Krashen describes this as being one level above what you can understand. 

By consuming content that is slightly above your level, means you learn the language naturally, rather than learn it consciously. Krashen takes his theory a step further and states that your ‘input’ should not only; be comprehensible but also compelling.  After all, if you’re not interested in the material, you won’t pay attention to it and you won’t learn.

You know your listing material or ‘input’ is right for you when you can understand the main idea fairly easily, but there are still a number of new words and expressions – but not so many that you have to constantly look them up. You can often understand their meaning just from context.

Nowadays, finding materials that match your language level is much easier than it once was. Most materials you find online, such as podcasts or YouTube channels for language learners let you know the level it is aimed for.  This means you can search for listening materials for beginner, intermediate, or advanced learners. If you’re not sure what level your listening skills are, you can find listening comprehension tests online or take one with your teacher.

Learning Italian? Want to improve your comprehension of fast, everyday spoken Italian? Join Intrepid Italian for Confident Conversations my online self-paced course that uses Comprehensible Input to help you push past your plateau so you can understand real-world colloquial Italian. 

5. Vary your listening practice 

If you always listen to one and the same person, for example, your favourite podcast presenter, you will get used to the way they speak pretty quickly: their vocabulary, speech patterns, talking speed, and accent. 

You can still learn a lot from one listening resource but listening to podcasts, audio courses, YouTube channels, and other listening resources that feature multiple presenters or invite guest speakers, will expose you to different ways of speaking including accents and dialects. 

Even so, you will benefit from adding other resources to your favourite one(s): the more different speakers, styles, and topics you are exposed to, the better. 

6. Listen extensively 

No guide on how to improve listening skills would be complete without this tip: to improve your listening comprehension in a foreign language, you need plenty of regular listening practice. It may sound fairly obvious, but it’s worth highlighting.

A song in your target language or a short video here and there, a 10-minute podcast once a week, an occasional chat with a native speaker or a fellow learner is not enough. To truly improve your listening skills in your target language, you need to listen to it a lot and on a regular basis. 

Individual listening practice sessions can be short – if you only have a 5-minute window, by all means, watch a short video or listen to just a fragment of a podcast, – but do it daily and do your best to find as many windows for listening practice as you can. 

Don’t neglect your listening. Many learners tend to do this because it’s quite hard or ‘not convenient’, ‘I’ll do it some other time’ (which may never come)… Do your best to practice listening at least as much as you practice your other skills in your target language. If you feel that your listening comprehension is lagging behind then make it even more of a priority to bring it up to speed with the rest of your skills.

7. Listen to something you enjoy 

Listening to what you find interesting and enjoyable helps you stay focused and motivated and ultimately makes for more successful language learning. After all, language learning is hard enough as it is, so why make it harder by listening to something you find boring or don’t really enjoy?

Fortunately, nowadays there is no shortage of materials, especially if you are learning one of the more widespread languages, such as Spanish, Italian, or French so you can afford to be a bit picky. If you don’t like a podcast presenter’s voice, ditch it and find another one. Take some time to look for materials that match your interests, for example, find a YouTube channel related to one of your hobbies or a news podcast covering the news you find relevant. 

If you choose materials you like you’ll be more motivated to understand what the speakers are saying and put more effort into your listening practice. 

8. Create a suitable environment 

The conditions you practice listening in can play a big part in your success. For instance, I mentioned earlier that bad technology can have a negative effect on your listening comprehension. 

Of course, you don’t need the latest smartphone or the most expensive headphones for good listening practice, but if you are still using headphones that are falling apart, it is probably time to ditch them in favour of some more up-to-date tech. 

Other conditions are important, too: are you in a loud room? Are you constantly distracted by kids, pets, or smartphone notifications? Do your best to find a time and place when/where you won’t be distracted or distractions are minimal. 

9. Listen and read simultaneously 

Listening while reading the same text at the same time is a great exercise that can be especially beneficial. Doing this will help you connect the way the words are written with the way they are pronounced, which can be particularly important for languages that aren’t phonetic or have a large gap between spelling and pronunciation. 

Many podcasts and audio courses aimed at learners often have transcripts you can follow while listening. If you are watching a movie or a TV show, you can turn on the subtitles in your target language to better understand what the characters are saying. Listening to an audiobook whilst following along with the written text is also very effective.

Reading while listening can also be a way out when you are in a noisy environment but it is your only ‘window’ for listening practice.

10. Experiment with audio playback speed 

How to Improve Your Listening Skills in a Foreign Language - Change the audio playback speed

Talking speed is one of the things that can make listening quite hard. Even if you know all the words and grammar the person is using, if they are talking really fast, most of their speech can become unrecognizable. 

If you are talking to someone in person, politely ask them to slow down a bit – most people will do their best to accommodate you. 

If you are listening to audio files, there is a great technical solution: changing the playback speed. Platforms like YouTube, Audible and many podcast apps have an in-built speed changer, or you can download speed-changing programs to listen to files on your smartphone or PC. 

Slow the playback speed down until you can understand what is being said. Don’t stay on this level forever, though. Try to increase the speed a bit every now and then – if you do it regularly, you’ll soon be able to listen to the speaker at their natural speed. 

This works the other way, too. Sometimes you may come across speakers that say interesting things, but talk so slow that listening to them makes you drowsy… If you’re not planning on falling asleep during listening practice, speed the recording up a bit to make it a bit more palatable. 

11. Use visual materials to help you 

When we talk to people we have various non-verbal clues to help us understand them, such as body language, gestures, and facial expressions. Such visual clues are important to understanding what is and what isn’t being said.

To recreate this experience, use audio-visual materials for your listening practice such as movies and movie trailers, news, or YouTube videos. What you see on the screen will provide you with more context and extra non-verbal clues to help you understand what is going on, even when some words are unfamiliar. 

Visual clues also support your listening comprehension and help you recall vocabulary. You often learn more from watching and listening together than from watching alone. 

12. Communicate with native speakers 

If you want to improve your listening comprehension so you can talk to native speakers, you shouldn’t wait to reach a particular language level to start communicating with them – you can (and should!) do it as soon as you start learning the language, no matter what level you are at. 

Granted, it may be harder at the beginning and things will go slow at first but just ask your speaking partner to slow down, to repeat things, and to explain things you don’t understand. The more you do this, the better you will get at understanding what people say. 

While challenging at first, talking to native speakers is one of the best ways to improve listening comprehension and your overall language level, so don’t be shy. 

Final thoughts 

Improving your listening skills isn’t impossible. By implementing one or more of the tips in this guide, you will be able to increase the efficiency of your listening practice and eventually improve your listening comprehension. No tip will work unless you do, so get out there and get started!

Want to know more about learning languages? Start here!

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12 Ways to Improve Your Listening Comprehension in a Foreign Language

Over to you!

Which of these tips is your favourite? What else would you add? Do you have a question? Let me know using the comments section below or join me on social media to start a conversation.

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