Picture the scene. You’ve just stepped off the plane at the airport in Rome after studying Italian for several months. You feel you’ve mastered the basics of the grammar and built up a decent bank of vocabulary, and you’re now itching to try out your new language skills for real.
Brimming with confidence, you head straight for the information desk to enquire about the best way to reach the city, and you experience a moment of mild euphoria when you see the man at the desk understands what you said.
But your moment of triumph is brief.
As a torrent of full-speed Italian is unleashed, your eyes widen, your jaw drops and your heart sinks. The euphoria is quickly replaced by something much closer to horror, accompanied by a terrible realization: you can’t understand a single word he’s saying.
For many language learners, situations like this are all too familiar, and the feeling of helplessness and embarrassment can destroy your confidence and even cause you to give up studying completely.
However, it doesn’t need to be this way because, like everything else, listening is a skill that can be worked on and improved – and in this post, I’m going to tell you how.
Let’s go back to the airport and think about what happened in more detail – after three or four months of diligent study, why couldn’t you understand the man at the information desk?
There are two main reasons why people don’t understand spoken language.
The first is that, although they know most of the words the person is saying, they are unable to connect those words with the sounds they are hearing.
This may be because the speech is too fast or it could be because the learner is not used to hearing the words as they are really used by native speakers. However, the result is that, instead of hearing language, all they hear is a jumble of noise.
The second reason, though, is that the learner simply doesn’t know the words, the grammar or the structures the speaker is using, and in this case, it isn’t a question of listening at all.
If you don’t know the words you hear, you have no better chance of understanding what is said than if it was a language you had never studied, and in this case, the reason you don’t understand is simply that your level in the language is not high enough.
In this case, you don’t need to focus on your listening at all but rather on your overall ability in the language.
Fortunately, it’s simple to test whether your difficulty comes from your listening or from a lack in your overall ability, and all you need is a recording of something in the target language and a transcript of the recording.
First, listen to the audio and see how much you understand – you can listen two or three times if you need to. Then, if you still find you understand very little, turn to the transcript to see if you understand that better.
If you are suddenly confronted by lots of familiar words and you understand the text almost perfectly, it shows that it is indeed your listening that needs work.
However, if the page is full of words you don’t know or constructions you’ve never seen before, this tells you that your general language ability is what needs improving.
If you don’t understand the text, it doesn’t mean you are a bad student – it just tells you that these listening materials are beyond your level and that you need to find something easier to work with.
So you understood most of the written text and you’ve established that your listening skills are lagging behind, so what can you do to give them a boost?
The first step is understanding why some people find listening so difficult, and to do this, we need to think about how languages are traditionally taught.
When we learn languages in school or take traditional language classes, the focus is usually on learning how to say things.
We are taught words and expressions, and we learn how to deal with situations like shopping or booking hotel rooms. Then, once we have learned how to say these things, we do roleplays to practice.
In a classroom setting, we sometimes listen to recordings too – but for two distinct purposes.
Either the audio is used as a way to present the new language we are going to study or it is used to check that we understand what we hear.
However, as you may notice, there is a step missing here. We are given a listening comprehension exercise to check we understand – but we are never taught how to understand.
Speaking is a distinct skill, and we are given ample chance to practice – but listening is also a distinct skill, yet it is one that is rarely taught.
In effect, it is assumed that through learning to say things, we will automatically understand them when we hear them too, but this is a fallacy.
While some people have a natural talent for listening and will be able to understand like this, most people don’t have this talent – they’re not bad at listening, they’re just “normal” – and will struggle to make progress this way.
In the scenario I’ve just described, the assumption is that listening happens naturally with time. All you need to improve your listening is exposure to the language, and if you aren’t improving, you just need more exposure. However, this approach is ineffective.
When we want to improve our speaking, we practice speaking. If we need to improve our grammar, we do grammar exercises. In these areas, there are concrete, tangible actions we can take to improve – but when it comes to listening, things always seem much more vague.
Due to the belief that listening improves simply through exposure, some teachers may suggest you listen to the radio while you’re doing your housework or put the tv on in the background during lunch. Some people will even leave an audiobook playing while they sleep in the belief that the language will somehow seep into their brain overnight.
Well, sorry to shatter your illusions, but none of these help. It would be great if you could learn a language like this without needing to make any effort or even consciously thinking about it – but no, you can’t.
I’m not saying there’s no place for this kind of passive listening – and I’ll come back to this later – but relying on these techniques is not what’s going to improve your listening. You need something else.
Earlier, I mentioned that if you know all the words but still don’t understand when they are spoken, one reason is that you aren’t connecting the sounds with the words you know. You aren’t able to distinguish the individual words in natural speech.
Think of the English phrase, “Yes, if I could.” If somebody says these words slowly and carefully, they are easy to make out and closely resemble what is written.
However, if you say them quickly and in an informal setting, they might sound more like this: “yairfuhcud” – the words become squashed together and the sound changes completely.
In English, this happens with just about anything we say – and the same is true in other languages too. The problem is, if you never learn how to listen properly and just expect your listening to develop as a natural consequence of your other learning, you will be totally unprepared when faced with real spoken language, as we saw in the airport.
This is where the gap is – it’s something we aren’t usually taught, but it’s something we can learn by doing the right kind of listening practice.
You need exercises that help you focus on the language, make you hear what is said and draw your attention to how native speakers pronounce words and sentences differently from the way they are written.
In other words, instead of passive listening, you need to use “active listening”.
Active listening is listening in a way that forces you to pay attention to what you are hearing and to notice how things are different from what you expect.
It helps you become accustomed to the way the language is really spoken, and you will also gain more experience of hearing – and understanding – the language at full speed.
Instead of vague notions about “more exposure”, spending time doing active listening gives you something concrete to work on – and will produce tangible results.
There are many variations, but the key is finding ways to focus your attention on what you hear. Here is an example that demonstrates the concept:
Choose an audio recording. It should be about three or four minutes long and the right difficulty level for you. You also need a transcript of the recording, but don’t read it before you listen.
First, listen to the recording. Relax and listen for the gist – just try to work out what the speakers are talking about.
After the first listen, you may have an idea of what it’s about, but you will have gaps and questions – so listen back once or twice more to try to fill in the missing information.
If there are parts where you can’t hear a word, you can listen to that part several times to see if you can make it out. Note down any questions you have about words you can’t make out or don’t know – you can check them in a moment.
After listening a few times, you should have a good idea of what it’s about, so now you can turn to the text to check. See how much you understood, note the parts you missed and look up any words you don’t know that seem important to your overall comprehension.
Next, listen back line by line while reading the text and try to match what you hear with the words on the page.
Pay special attention to the parts where you missed words or phrases during the initial listening phase and try to understand why you missed them. How were the words pronounced differently to the way you normally expect?
As you go through, repeat the sentences out loud and try to imitate the way the speakers pronounce each sentence.
By now, you should have a good grasp of the whole recording, so put the paper down and listen to the audio again. It may help to close your eyes and visualize what they are saying as you listen.
Then, listen again a week or a month later. Every time you listen will increase your familiarity with the words, the sentences and how the whole thing sounds together – and this will further improve your listening.
What I have described above is a basic active listening exercise, but there are many possibilities. What is important is that you find ways to engage with the content and notice how words change, are swallowed or disappear entirely.
Here are a few important points to remember:
Since listening is a specific skill that needs practice, you need to set aside specific study time for listening, just the same as you would for any other aspect like reading or grammar.
Listening to material that is too difficult won’t help your listening improve, but at the same time, if the material is too easy, you also won’t benefit.
You need to find material that is just the right level for you so that it pushes you without being too hard. This means you should understand about 75% of the words the speaker says – although the first time you listen, you might understand a lot less, especially before your listening starts to improve.
Try to use materials that are interesting to you and relevant to your life.
If you listen to something that interests you, it will be easier to follow, and if the topic is relevant to you, you are more likely to remember and reuse the vocabulary. This, in turn, will reinforce the vocabulary, and as a result, your listening will improve even more.
Similarly, try to listen to material on related topics. Since much of the vocabulary will be repeated, you will be able to focus less on the vocabulary and can concentrate more on the listening aspect.
Always try to get a general idea of what the speaker or speakers are talking about. There will be words you don’t understand, but don’t become fixated on them. Instead, try to learn to guess the meaning and fill in the blanks yourself.
The exercise above is just one possibility, but you should try to vary your study. Try to find a few techniques that work for you and try out different possibilities.
While active listening is an effective technique, it won’t work miracles after just one session. You need to build listening exercises into your study routine and make sure you do them often. Then, with regular study and a little patience, you will start to see the results.
With anything in language learning, it is important to employ a range of exercises and techniques. Here are a few other suggestions for useful activities to try for improving your listening.
A variation of the active listening exercise above is to listen to a recording and try to write down everything you hear.
When you have finished, go back and check what you have written against a transcript, and wherever you made a mistake, try to understand why. Was it a word you didn’t know or was it because the speaker pronounced it in a way that was unfamiliar?
This exercise draws your attention to how the spoken language differs from how it is written and will help your ear become accustomed to the sounds of the language.
Watching tv or movies with subtitles in the target language (not in English!) can be a good way to become used to the way a language is spoken. To make it an active exercise, focus on a short passage and repeat several times.
We also saw that the speed of delivery can be a problem, so you need to get used to hearing the language spoken at full speed.
Any active listening exercises will help with this, but you can also try slowing dialogs down and then gradually building them up to full speed. You can do this on YouTube or by using software like Audacity.
A word of warning, though – try not to become too dependent on slowed-down dialogs or you will find you struggle when you have to speak to people at normal speed.
Another technique is “extensive listening”. This is where you listen to a longer piece of audio rather than focusing on a short clip intensively.
However, you still need to make it as active as you can, so sit down, remove any distractions and focus entirely on what you are listening to. To make it more active, stop it every five minutes and write a summary of what you have heard.
Podcasts would be ideal for this, but resources are almost limitless. As with other exercises, make sure what you listen to is the right level and that it is interesting for you.
Speaking to native speakers is an excellent – if sometimes daunting – way to improve your listening.
If you’re not up to having a full-on conversation, sending voice messages on language exchange apps like Tandem and HelloTalk is a great stepping-stone.
This way, if you don’t understand something or you miss a word, you can ask your partner to type what they said for you – and just like with other active listening exercises, this will help you see the difference between the spoken and written language.
By having conversations, you’ll also develop strategies for checking information, asking people to speak more slowly and so on – all valuable techniques to learn.
After everything I’ve said, there is still a place for passive listening. Leaving the radio or tv on in the background will do you no harm, and you will gradually begin to pick up more and more.
However, active listening is what makes this happen, so don’t rely on passive listening alone. When you suddenly realize you understand 90% of what the radio host is saying, this will be your reward for all the time you’ve dedicated to active listening.
Let’s go back to Rome and finish where we began. We now know why you had trouble understanding the man at the information desk – either your language skills weren’t as advanced as you thought, or you hadn’t been practicing your listening in the right ways.
Don’t be put off by setbacks like this, and even as a beginner, you should still try your languages skills with native speakers at every opportunity. Just don’t expect to understand everything, and be ready to ask the person to repeat what they said or speak more slowly. There’s no shame in this.
However, knowing the right ways to work on your speaking skills rather than relying on vague ideas about absorbing language through passive listening will help you enormously.
Then, having listened to authentic recordings of native speakers and learned to hear the way the language is really spoken, you will be much better prepared when the person at the information desk launches into their answer in full-speed Italian.