Strategies for Improving Your Listening in a Foreign Language
If you prefer to read. Below is a transcript of the video
Hello my name is Anthony Ash.
I’d like to talk today about listening skills.
In particular, how we can go about developing our listening skills when we are learning a foreign language.
The most obvious answer to that, that normally comes to mind for most people is simply…listen!
Get lots of practice in listening, listening to the TV, to news, to the radio, to programmes.
Find something interesting that you want to listen to in a foreign language and practice, practice, practice!
Whilst that is quite good and sound advice. Listening, a bit like reading, speaking, writing, is a skill in itself.
It involves a number of smaller sub-skills.
When we listen in our mother tongues, so in my case in English, we use a number of these sub-skills, almost simultaneously.
We are often not conscious of that!
So for example, if you’re watching TV.
You’re watching a crime drama, you’re about 15 minutes in. As you’re listening and watching, you’re processing simultaneously, a variety of information.
You’re looking at the images and listening to the sounds. You’re thinking what will that lead to next? You’re predicting, you’re using the sub-skill of predicting.
You’re processing the images and sounds to get an overall view of things.
The second you see a scene on TV, you don’t analyse that scene part for part, bit for a bit. You just take an overall look, and base a lot of understanding on that.
Kind of getting the general gist of what is happening.
You also listen out for very specific details, and you know when to listen out for specific details.
So if you miss what someone says.
If you find something a bit unclear, you don’t really worry about it because you know that part wasn’t so interesting, wasn’t so important, possibly not so interesting either!
But the bits that are really sort of interesting and important.
The moments where a protagonist, the lead character, is going to say something crucial, your ears really tune in for that, and you listen for every little sound that you can pick up.
That in itself is another skill. Identifying when is that coming?
Using the knowledge of the language you have, to know that something important is about to appear, that you need to focus a little bit more.
So when we do listening in a foreign language, we also need to be transferring and practising the sub-skills.
Which then leads to the question of…how do you go about doing that?
One of the simplest things to do would be to take something that you want to watch or listen to, a YouTube clip for example, about something that you find interesting.
I’m a big coffee enthusiast, so I often find just about any video about coffee interesting!
So if I’m learning French, I could go to YouTube, find some kind of clip or video about coffee.
And simply listen to it once through.
Not worrying. Not panicking if I don’t understand much of anything.
Just listen to it through and use the sounds and the images that you see to get a general idea of what it’s about.
And it doesn’t matter how general the idea is. You just need to practice that specific sub-skill. Then I can go back to the beginning and listen to it again, see if I can pick up more details.
A lot of people when listening tend to make notes.
Now note taking while listening or watching something is remarkably difficult!
We can just about do it in our native tongues. And we can only do it because we had a lot of practice in it.
So, doing it in a foreign language is incredibly difficult, it’s putting a lot of pressure on a number of sub-skills, and your brain is having to do a lot at the same time whilst processing a foreign language.
So what I would recommend is not to do that.
Now if you feel very comfortable with doing that then by all means do, I’d recommend not doing that, I think it would be a lot better if you listened to the video.
For example, when I listen to a video I then watch the video for a second time and see if I can pick up any extra details, any more details.
And when it’s finished, make notes on them, get them down!
It doesn’t matter too much if the notes are in your mother tongue or in the foreign language. The point is you’re getting the main ideas down.
Then I would go back to the beginning and watch it again. Check that I’ve got these ideas right, change them if I need to.
By this point I’ve listened to it three times, I probably have a good understanding of what it’s about.
Even if it contains a lot of vocabulary, a lot of expressions that I don’t know.
I’m still going to probably, by this stage, come away with quite a good understanding.
There might be details lacking, but I’ll have a good understanding about what the whole clip is about.
Which is good!
This is the kind of practice you need to be developing in the foreign language in terms of listening.
What you could then do after that, is maybe have a look at vocabulary and what we call in language learning “bottom-up processing”.
So that would be listening to a short section of the video, maybe 30 seconds long, and trying to write down what exactly they’re saying.
Obviously this presents two problems, or two areas for practice if you take the positive look on things!
The first one is transcripting what someone’s says.
It’s quite difficult, you’ve got to have a very good working knowledge of the language, for example, vocabulary.
If someone says a word that you don’t know it’s going to be quite hard to get it down!
If you can somehow get it down. Using your knowledge of context. Your knowledge of the sounds of the language, you might be able to more or less get it down, and then check in the dictionary what it means.
And you’re giving yourself a nice little opportunity to acquire some new words. So that’s one area.
The second area is, a lot of languages when spoken are quite different to how they’re written.
French for example, if a word ends in a consonant and the next word begins with a vowel, then they sort of get brought together. But if the word ends in a consonant and the next one begins in a consonant some sounds are lost compared to the written form.
This sort of bottom up processing of writing down what they’re saying, listening to a very short section, is a very good practice for that, and it promotes a lot of noticing in your brain.
Your brain, the sort of second language acquisition device.
Your brain, is thinking “a ha! I know these words I know these sounds this is how they come together okay right I see”.
What would be even better but it’s quite difficult to get hold of. Is a video or recording where there’s a transcript available.
Now, the only thing that comes to mind immediately is the news.
Very often you can find the news in both written form and spoken from. However the news tends to be very formal, very clear, very clearly enunciated in most languages.
Which means if you master understanding the news in a foreign language you’re learning, for example French. You might find it a lot more difficult when you actually go to France and speak to French people.
So, try to vary what you’re listening to.
Use the news, great that’s a great place to start, but then go on to something that you really find interesting and something that’s a bit more of a challenge.
Keep practising, keep varying it, keep practising it how it is.
That’s what’s the most important thing practice practice practice!
It will seem so incredibly difficult at first but it will get easier with time. Just like when you’re doing this, the first time that you listen to it you might not really get anything.
By the third or fourth time, you’ll probably have a very good understanding of what’s happening.
If you do this week in week out. Several weeks down the line, you’ll probably find it fairly easy to listen to videos and recordings and the radio in the foreign language that you’re learning.
Now, that’s a couple of tips for listening practise and developing your listening skills.
I reckon most of you out there will have plenty of your own tips, plenty of your own things that you do.
So we’d love to see some comments below this post, so feel free to just share your ideas and say what you think.
Thank you very much
A polyglot and international traveller. Anthony speaks 6 languages and loves sharing his passion of language learning through his writing.
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