“I can understand English well when I read, but I can’t understand anything when I listen”
If you have ever said this (or something similar), then this article is for you. We’re going to look at why listening is so difficult and also give you some specific strategies to help you improve this skill.
Why is it that listening is so much more difficult than reading?
The main reason is that written words stay still, while spoken words move fast... VERY FAST!
When you read, if you don’t understand something, you can read the sentence again. Then again. And again. And again and again and again.
When you listen, if you don’t understand, you might be able to ask the speaker to repeat once or twice, but more times than that and it can be embarrassing!
In addition to the above, native English speakers use a lot of contractions and when some words are next to each other, sometimes they sound different. For example, if I said “would you....?”, that might sound like “wud ya” (wuʤu) and make it much more difficult to understand.
So, we know it’s difficult, but what can you do to help you to understand better?
Let’s have a look at some strategies.
1. Don’t worry about understanding every word
When you listen in your native language, there will be times when you miss a word. Maybe because you don’t know it, or maybe because you simply stopped listening for a second. This is fine and is a very natural thing.
However, when we listen in a second language, we want to get EVERY word. If there is a word we miss we think “what was that word?” and the speakers continue speaking and then we start to panic and think “oh god, I don’t know what she is talking about now... I’m lost... I hope she doesn’t ask me a question!”
There will be times you hear a word that you don’t know / don’t understand, but the important thing is to react as you do in your own language: don’t panic. Concentrate on what the speaker is saying and try to understand the GENERAL MEANING. This is MUCH more important than understanding every small detail and will enable you to have much more meaningful and interesting conversations.
2. Listen to things just a bit above your level
There is nothing more demotivating that watching or listening to something and understanding nothing. It’s impossible to do because after 5 minutes you just think “I’m going to stop now”. So the important thing is to find the right material.
Obviously you don’t want to listen to things that are too easy, as this won’t challenge you and won’t help you improve. So you need to find something that isn’t too easy, but at the same time, not too difficult... something just slightly above your level.
This is not easy, but there are materials available. There are some podcasts that have different levels and if you search on Amazon “listening for intermediate English” (for example), you will find many things.
3. Listen to something you enjoy
Motivation is the most important thing when learning a language. Without it, you have nothing. However, it’s not just “motivation to learn English”, but your motivation to open a book, or even your motivation to listen to something.
So don’t just listen to things because ‘you have to’, find things that you like in your native language and listen to them in English.
4. Try active listening instead of passive listening
When you watch a film or listen to a podcast, you are not ‘doing’ anything, so that would be passive listening. ‘Active’ listening is something like taking notes of vocabulary you hear and guessing what they mean or writing down what the main message of the speaker was. Another alternative is completing listening exercises as you do in English lessons, as these will check for your comprenhesion.
This is not to say that passive listening is bad, absolutely not. It is very useful and something you should continue to do, but mixing it with active listening will help you see better results more quickly.
5. Listen with the transcript
This is a great exercise to do, but first of all, make sure you listen without it. Listen the first time and think about what the main message was, then listen again with the transcript and pay attention to any sounds you had difficulty with. This will help you to recognise those sounds in future.
Finding material that comes with a transcript can be difficult, but it’s definitely out there so just look harder! You can find some at https://www.ted.com/talks.
Try to vary what you listen to. If you enjoy watching TED Talks, that’s great, and you should continue doing so. But make sure you try other things: listen to podcasts, watch TV Series, do listening exercises from a text book... just to keep it interesting!