How to learn a language on your own – The Ultimate Guide (Part 5 – Effective Listening)

Share the knowledge!
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Share the knowledge!
2.7k

Here we are – the fifth part of the guide. Listening.

You wouldn’t believe how long I’ve ignored it!

I was actually convinced that mastering grammar and vocabulary is (more less) enough to have a decent conversation with foreigners. And that these competences will take care of the rest.

Boy oh boy, was I wrong!

Of course, like all the theories, it all seemed rosy until it got confronted with reality.

My “Brilliant” Theory

Just don’t laugh too hard!

Years ago I was obsessing about German. I rolled up my sleeves, got down to work, learned about 8000 words and got a pretty good grasp of grammar. Basically, I could say almost anything I wanted without being too vague. It felt great!

Not so long afterwards, I got a chance to visit France. I met an elderly German couple there. “That’s my chance to socialize! That’s my chance to SHINE!”, a naive thought crossed my mind.

I approached them and asked them some questions. You know, just an ordinary small-talk.
What happened just a moment later left nasty scars on my linguistic self-esteem.

What came out of their mouths was an absolute babble.
They could have, as well, farted with their armpits.

My face went red as I asked them, time and time again, to repeat what they had just said.
Just one more time. But slower. DAMN YOU! Slower and clearer I said!

And there I stood with glassy eyes, staring at the debris of what was once my theory…

Listening As A Key Skill

I guess, what I am trying to say is that listening is extremely important.
Since then, I’ve met many people who are fully functional in the language of their choice just because they understand what they hear.

It’s not that surprising when you think about it.
EVERY complex skill is comprised of a number of smaller elements.
These elements, in turn, are comprised of even smaller elements.

So you can say roughly that communication is nothing more than being able to understand what you hear and being able to express yourself.

But as I so painfully learned, listening is much more important.
That’s what makes any kind of social interaction possible.

Since then, I established listening and speaking as a core of my language skills.
These skills require an immediate response.

 

Litening As a Key Skill

 

Listening provides you with more sensory channels, such as: emotions, hearing visual stimuli (when you listen and watch something).

That’s why it’s much easier for you to remember real life conversations than excerpts from articles.

The final and essential reason to opt for listening is that nobody cares if you read or write slowly. While doing these things, you can typically take your time to double-check anything your heart desires.

“Smith is such a slow reader. I think I’ll fire him.”.
Yep, I also have never heard of such a situation.

However, it is important to note that writing and reading are interconnected with speaking and listening. And the progress in any of these areas influence one another.

 

Preparation

 

Do you have to go through the preparation before listening practice? Of course not.
But don’t be too surprised if you end up getting frustrated quickly or bitterly realize that your progress is excruciatingly slow.

So where should you start?

 

FIND RIGHT RESOURCES

 

You might wonder what “right resources” means.
The answer is – it depends.

  • Beginners / Intermediate Learners

If you fall into this category, you should find some simplified materials where the speech is slower, clearer and ideally – transcribed. You can find resources for over 100 languages on my other website: Language Links Database.

  • Advanced Learners

If you’re at least on B2 level, it means that the only right solution for you is to lay your hands on programs, talk shows, movies, etc. in original.

 

GET YOUR RESOURCES HANDY

 

Do you know this annoying feeling when you promise yourself something and then you can’t seem to force yourself to follow through?

Why is that?

Well, the research (and experience) has it that if you need to spend more than 20 seconds to start doing something, there is a big chance that you’ll fail. The “activation time” should be as short as possible.

Choose one or two programmes to listen to and make sure that they are just a click away.

 

Some Tips Before You Start Listening

 

MENTAL PREPARATION

 

  • Come to terms with the fact that you are not going to understand everything for a long time.
  • Listen as often as it’s only possible. Listen while doing household chores. Listen when you’re at the gym. Listen when you’re in a car. You get it. LISTEN!
  • Don’t get annoyed when you don’t understand something. Stress is your archenemy in learning. It’s like with Tibetan throat singing, you won’t be able to wrap your head around it at the beginning. Hmm, I need to work on my comparisons.
  • And no matter what, don’t give up you softie! Grin and bear it!

 

MATTER-OF-FACT PREPARATION

 

  • Do not translate into your native tongue. You should be fully focused on a speaker not the translation process.
  • Listen to something you enjoy.
  • Prepare before listening – quite often it’s possible to check what the news or some program are about. Thanks to this knowledge, you can prepare vocabulary beforehand. If you’re not sure about words which might be used, try to brainstorm them.
  • Remove distractions – you know why. Interestingly, they’re a welcome addition when you already understand much as they make your listening practice more natural.
  • Set a goal. You can listen for meaning, for sounds, for tones, for a melody or for stress.
  • If you find listening extremely boring, try to gamify your practice – e.g. give yourself 1 point each time when you hear a word starting with P. Or drink one shot of Tequilla. Whatever, just make sure it’s fun for you.
  • Build sound recognition. Do you know the most distinctive sounds of your target language? No? Then move to the Part 3 of this course. Such knowledge can considerably accelerate your understanding capabilities!
  • Be aware of how the language changes when it’s spoken. I can’t stress this one enough. If you know how the sounds connect, when they are deleted or inserted, you’ll need much less time to progress!

Look at this example:
What are you going to do – Whaddya gonna do?

Being aware of the fact that when a consonant of one word neighbors a vowel of another word, it makes you pronounce these two separate words as one, can help you tremendously with your listening practice.

That’s why you pronounce – “it is” as one word – “itis” 

Another example from English is transformation of [d] and [y].
When these sounds neighbor each other they are transformed into [dʒ]

[d] + [y] = [dʒ]

Strategies To Follow During Listening Practice

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Throughout the years I’ve managed to come up with quite many solutions to how I can improve my listening capabilities.

Digest them at your own pace, take what you need and ignore the rest.

  • Listen for the gist of the conversation. Once you understand it, move on to details.
  • When you watch materials in original, observe mouths of actors / hosts and read their lips.
  • Try to understand non-verbal communication of your speaking partner (actors, etc.)
  • Listen to the melody of the language.
  • Once you get accustomed to the melody of the language try to separate the ongoing flow of words by (e.g.) pressing your fingers against a table every time when you hear that some word is accented. It’s my favorite trick. Interestingly, sometimes when I listen to French and perform the said activity, I can understand almost every word. Once I stop, my understanding goes down significantly.
  • Listen to the first and last letter of a word. It’s especially helpful when you’re just starting your listening practice. In this case, this technique will help separate various words. S ..sm…(smile?), smi…(smirk? smite?), smit… (smite?!), smith (I knew it!)
  • Use logic to conclude what will follow (get in the habit of guessing).
  • Listen to a recording more than once. At first to understand the gist and then to get details.
  • Speed up the speed of recording to extend your comfort zone and then move back to an actual pace.
  • Remember that listening is an active process, note down any phrases or words which you find interesting or simply don’t understand.

That’s all folks!

Do you have other (weird?) listening strategies which you frequently use? I’d love to hear them!

30 comments

  • Dear sir,

    I have many problems in my English,
    Word meaning and writing. When ever I want to write something nothing comes in my mind and the word meaning also I don’t know which words to use. I can only speak the basic English. What soever I had learnt its all by looking others writing and listening their talking and reading magazine, newspapers but don’t know the deeper meaning but I enjoy reading it. I have hope to learn and improve my English but I don’t know how ??
    I humbly request you to suggest me something easy way to learn.

    Thanks
    Anand Basumatary

    • Hi Anand, check your e-mail, I’ve sent you a message with some tips 🙂

      • I am facing same problem as Anand, kindly give me any tips to learn the deep meaning of any communication and to speak effectively.

        • There is no tip to teach you the deep meaning of any conversation! Send me an e-mail with more details about your current level in a given language and I’ll try to give you some more specific advice. If you ask a bad question, you can’t expect a good answer! 🙂

  • Hello, your website is great.
    I’m starting listening skills tutoring for a beginner and I need tips on how to make it as effective and efficient as possible.
    Thanks in advance.

    • Hi Myriam! Thank you 🙂 It’s very hard to give any specific tips with such little info. Send me a message with some more detail and I’ll try to help you out!

  • Hi Bartosz,

    Just wanted to thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts and experience with everyone. Your blog is very interesting and I referred one of my students to it and she found it particularly helpful to improve her listening proficiency.

    You’d make a great instructor 🙂

  • This is a nice collection of tips. I’m interested in the bit about using physical action (tapping fingers) to help with separating the flow of sound into words. But I’m not sure what you mean by accented words. Could you elaborate?

    • Bartosz Czekala

      Thank you ! And I’m ashamed to admit but this piece of advice might be a little bit confusing. What I actually meant is that you should try to tap your fingers every time when you hear a stressed syllable in a word.
      Since every word has its accent, doing so helps to break down the constant stream of words into separate entities. This is something I’ve come up with on my own so I have no idea how effective it is for others!

  • Bayartsetseg Baasanja

    Hi this site has useful tips.

  • could you please help me …. my pronunciation is not good I suffer from language anxiety

  • Hi
    Fist of all great thanks to you
    I have had a hard problem with getting native speakers as my mother tongue is arabic.So I am of urgent need for your help..
    Awad

  • Hello sir,
    No doubt your article contains alot of good tricks,nd i appreciate it. i am a french student & i m learning this language through my university.it’s been 3 yr dt m learning it. The thing which i’ve noticed earlier is that my grammar is quite good but whenever i listen something it becomes strange, i mean i cudnt understand it,bcz as u know the pronunciation of French how it sounds & how we write, so cud u plz help me to get rid of this problem,I’ll b very thankful.

    • Knowing grammar is certainly important in listening. However, bear in mind that you also have to have at least a decent size of vocabulary, know how the specific clusters of sounds are pronounced and have to have general knowledge of prosody of the language. But you will get there, I have no doubts about that! 🙂

  • Julian Andres Vallejo Trujillo

    Hi Bartosz. I am learning English. I am good in reading but too bad in listening and speaking. What can I do to improve my skills? Thank’s a lot.

  • Hi,
    that’s funny because I am having quite the same experience. After learning Spanish and Portuguese spending too much time on vocabulary and grammar, I sadly realised that my listening skills were quite bad. 🙁
    I lived in Brazil and Argentina for more than a year and it’s just now that I can feel confident. It’s an area completely underestimated. I don’t want to learn any new language now but when I do, I will begin learning how to listen,
    Great Website by the way

    • I know the pain. Usually other language competences are a piece of cake for me compared to listening. Thank you for your comment and kind words! 🙂

  • Hi.I’m trying to learn English.I have some problems with speaking and listening.First speaking- when i speak don’t remember some words that i already know and I know grammar well but sometimes i confuse even word row of sentences
    Listening – when i listen someone face to face
    I can understand nearly everything but when i listen mp3, song, radio or news i can’t separate words.but for examples if i look at song’s lyrics once,i can separate.but if I don’t look at, i don’t understand.I need your help..

    • Bartosz Czekala

      No problem. Send me an email and I will send you some suggestions how you can fix these issues! 🙂

  • Hello Bartosz, thank you for sharing your listening tips. You make some good points there!

  • Hi! Thanks for the article. I’m learning 2 languages at the same time (English and Dutch) and I’m kinda frustrated because when I watch a movie or a series, there’s no problem (even if I don’t understand everything the first time). But when I talk to a native speaker, it’s really hard to understand what he/she says! I think my problem is that I’m not really focused on him/her because I’m afraid that I won’t understand what he/she says, so I’m stressed haha. That’s stupid but it’s really annoying! (and it’s even more frustrated because I can write and read in both languages :p)

    • You are welcome! Stress might be one of the factors. But it is also possible that you are not familiar enough with everyday speech! 🙂 I would suggest you look into it! Good luck!

  • I listen to recordings on Youtube at 1.5x speed for a couple of days, then I speed it up to 2x speed, then I put the speed back to normal and it sounds sooo slow, I can hear every syllable and have time to register the meaning. This is the technique I use to make normal conversation speed appear slow. It takes approx 2 weeks for your brain to adjust naturally to the fast speeds that from then on normal speech speed is easy to follow. I have done it with Mandarin and should have done it sooner!

    • Great technique! I take the alternate approach. I speed it up and then slow it down to about 0.5 speed.
      But I see that our results are similar 🙂

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