5 great ways to improve your listening skills

5 great ways to improve your listening skills

written by Lilian Ndongmo. ESL Teacher

A student once asked, “Which is more important when learning a language: listening, reading, writing or speaking? The answer is very simple: all. A language comprises of all these four aspects. No single one is more important than the other if your intention is to fully use that language.  If, for instance, you decide that reading is more important and spend a lot of time and effort working on your reading skills, that is good. However, the other three aspects will suffer. Let’s put this in a more practical way. Imagine that you have four fruit trees in your backyard: mango, guava, pear and orange. All the fruits on the trees are ready for picking. Every day, you pick fruits from the mango tree and ignore the other trees. You decide to harvest fruit from the guava, pear and orange trees only during the weekend. If you repeat this action over the next four to six weeks, what will happen to the unpicked fruit on the other trees? Rot and fall to the ground, you say? Perfect answer. That is exactly what will happen if you work on one language skill and neglect the others.

Learners who have made the mistake of neglecting some aspects of the language find themselves in a very uncomfortable situation when they need to use the language in its entirety. Recently, I met three gentlemen who could write and read relatively well, but had a lot of difficulties with their listening and speaking skills. “When my colleague is giving a presentation or when someone is talking in a meeting, I can only understand about 70 percent of what they are saying,” one of them said.  The other added, “When I watch the news on TV, I don’t understand everything I hear.  It’s even worse when a native speaker speaks to me. I don’t understand a thing. This is very frustrating for me.”

Many English language learners tend to, ever so often, find themselves in this situation. When you learn a language you want to try as much as possible to create a balance among your skills. You want to make sure that your written English is as good as your spoken English; your listening and reading skills are on the same level. This may be hard to achieve but not impossible. Working on one skill to the detriment of the other is like crossing the finish line of a 10 km race only to be told that you skipped two turns and you have to go back. No one wants that.

If you are looking to improve your listening skills, this article is for you, as well as all English language learners in a similar situation. Here are five tips to help you.

1. Listen without listening

This is a very important step especially for new learners of a language. When you begin to learn a new language, your listening skills are about the same as that of a toddler’s. A child’s first words are a moment of great joy for a parent.  Usually, parents would enter a friendly competition to ensure that their child would call them first. So, mothers would repeat the word “mama” to their child at every given opportunity, and fathers would do the same with “dad”. When this happens, there is a conversation that takes place between the child’s ear and brain.  Long before a child even begins to speak, he already knows and understands a lot of words. Studies have shown that one of the ways a child gathers vocabulary is through vocalizations. Whenever  parents speak to their child, the sound of their voice goes through the child’s ear and is processed in his brain. As the child hears the same words over and over, his brain registers the words and stores them. That is why when you tell your child “Go bring your toy”, he does just that. This is all thanks to listening. His ear has had time to hear the words and his brain has had time to process the information.  Then, one day the brain tells the mouth to form the words. And the rest is history.

Learning a new language as an adult is not as easy. But we can apply the skills that toddlers use – with a twist. The goal is to train your ear and your brain to process, register and store words. To achieve this, you have to listen without listening. Turn on the radio or the TV and then go do something else. Go to the kitchen and make dinner, do some housecleaning, check your emails. The idea is not for you to understand everything you hear but to allow your ears to process the sounds that pass through them. The more you listen, the more your ear is able to distinguish the sounds into words. When this happens, it sends a message to your brain which registers and stores the information you have just acquired. The next time you hear the same word, your brain will remind you that this word is already in your vocabulary. This is how you become familiar with words, accents, expressions and sentences. They will no longer be strange to you. This is how your listening skills improve.

2. One good thing about music

Reggae legend, Bob Marley says it just right. “One good thing about music, when it hits you feel no pain.” Listening to music is a great way to work your listening skills. Find a genre or singer you like and listen to  music in your car radio, on your ipod or mp3 player. The fun part of this is, the music helps you relax and enjoy yourself, and you don’t feel the pain of trying to grasp every word you hear. If you follow the technique explained above and give your ear time to process the sounds and words, you will understand everything. If this doesn’t come to you easily, try using lyrics. You can find the lyrics of nearly any song on the internet with a simple search. Look up new words in your dictionary and sing along.

The same applies for children’s songs. If this appeals to you, by all means go for it. The advantage of listening to songs for children is that the speed of the singer is usually moderate, the pronunciation is clear, and most songs are accompanied by lyrics, like this one.

3. Listen to books

Instead of reading books listen to them. Many traditional books and ebooks are also available in audiobook format. Buy an audio book and listen to someone read the book to you. Put your audio player to good use. Download your audiobooks to your ipod or mp3 player and listen to them on the bus, subway, in your car, on your way to work and on your way back home. Use them as a lullaby.  Fall asleep while listening to a book and let your ears keep on processing the information even while you sleep.

You can get audiobooks on the internet free of charge too. Just make sure you can download them without breaking any laws. Look for audiobooks marked “public domain”. These are the ones you can download and use without copyright attachments, with some exceptions where necessary. See a short list of some of such websites at the end of this article. Here is an example of an audio story. Click on the player to listen.

4. Listen to your lessons

This is great for those who are self-studying. Many textbooks now come with CDs containing listening exercises. These CDs are not for decoration. They complement the listening section of the book. You would be doing your ear a favour if you listen to them.

There are many other great ways to learn with audio. The most popular nowadays is English grammar explained through video clips. You can find many of such on Youtube and other popular websites. If you prefer to see the person who’s talking in the video, that’s fine. But for more effective listening, my advice is to choose videos with only voice and words on a slide. That way, you will be less distracted by the speaker’s physical appearance and more focused on trying to understand what is being said.

5. Watch TV

Movies, talk shows, soaps, series all help to improve your listening skills. If you have some English channels at home, make the switch. Find one you like and watch it for at least 30 minutes every day. You can also buy movies or borrow them from your local library and watch them at home. I suggest watching  movies at home because you have full control of the movie. You can replay parts, forward it, pause it, and turn on subtitles. Start slow. Don’t try to understand everything you hear from the  get-go. You will be frustrated and your head will ache from trying too hard. At the beginning, you can watch a movie in English with French subtitles, for example, if that makes you comfortable. But over time, you are expected to change the French subtitles to English. When you watch a movie in English with English subtitles,  that is improvement already. After doing this for some time, you will get to a point where you no longer need the subtitles – another sign of improvement.

If you aren’t doing any these tips already, I urge you to try them now. Choose one and give it a try, then share your feedback with other readers in the comments.

You can get free audiobooks from:

1. www.audiobooksshouldbefree.com  You can download in mp3 and mp4 formats. Reading speed is moderate to fast depending on the reader. Reader accents vary.

2. www.storynory.com contains stories for children. Very clear, beautifully read stories. Moderate reading speed. Suitable for adults, especially beginner level learners. Listen online or download on your ipod.

3. www.audiobooks.org offers free, downloadable full-length audiobooks.

4. www.librophile.com Books are free and you can listen online. To listen, all you have to do is click “Play Audio” beside the book. Books are arranged on the frontpage by book cover.

Happy listening