Important Factors That Affect Your Listening Comprehension – The only two that matter if you want to understand asap

Listening comprehension is quite universally known to be one of the most, if not the most, demanding language skill.

A lot of learners struggle for many years to be able to understand even 90% of a conversation. And it gets worse. The number of language learners who are capable of understanding almost every word they hear amounts to a few percents.

And thus the question arises: is listening really that difficult or maybe there is something else at play here?

To answer this question we first have to take a look at all the most important factors affecting your listening comprehension.

 

All The Factors That Affect Your Listening Comprehension

 

Listening comprehension is a quite complex beast as it consists of lots of smaller sub-beasts, or sub-skills if you will.

As you will see in a moment, almost everything can affect your level of listening comprehension.

 

1. Your pronunciation

 

For every word you encounter, you create your internal phonetic representations (i.e. how you think that a word should be pronounced). Next, you confront them with the external representations (i.e. how the words are really pronounced).

If they overlap considerably or are identical, and you can fish them out from the recording, you should be able to understand a given word.

This is the exact reason why you might understand a typical accent from a given country but you will struggle with a dialect. Simply, at this point, your internal representations are not broad enough to encompass new external representations.

Read more: How to improve your pronunciation.

 

Your grammar

 

It’s much more difficult to understand the deeper meaning of an utterance if you don’t know how different words come together. Don’t worry. You don’t have to concentrate on learning every single grammar construction in your target language. Simply start with functional grammar.

 

Lack of understanding how sounds merge or get reduced

 

Unfortunately, not everything is what it seems. It certainly seems to be the case with sounds. In almost any language there is a tendency of different sounds to be reduced (e.g. vowel reduction) or to be merged (read more about phonological changes).

If you don’t grasp how these changes happen, it will take you much longer to decipher the ongoing stream of speech.

 

Your overall listening time

 

IMPORTANT FACTORS THAT AFFECT YOUR LISTENING COMPREHENSION

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

 

It happens way too often that I get an e-mail for one of my readers who complains about their listening skills. Asked how much time they devote to their listening practice, I get a shy “10 minutes per day”.

What an amazing pace and dedication!  Call me in 2045 to tell me whether you can finally understand your first movie dialogue.

Listening takes a lot of time. That’s just the way it is.

 

Lack of visual support

 

Listening becomes much easier once you can see somebody’s body language. A lot of things which would simply get lost in the tangle of speech seem more understandable on the screen once you catch a glimpse of an ironic smirk.

Plus, nobody can take away from you the pleasure of fantasizing about starting a new life with a main actor/actress. And calling your first child “Chad”. What? No, obviously it has never happened to me. Mind your own business.

 

Your vocabulary

 

It’s as clear as day. The more words you know, the easier it is to fish them out of a recording. If your current vocabulary is, say, 1000 words and you can’t figure out why you don’t understand much, this might be the reason.

Read more: The Word Substitution Technique – How To Increase Your Vocabulary Size Considerably.

 

Problems with concentration

 

As much as I like the idea of listening to recordings in the background, you won’t get far if you can’t focus on the activity at hand. You have to strap your butt to a chair and listen.

Just for the record, I want you to know that in the literature you can find a couple of other factors which affect your listening comprehension. For example, problems with interpretation, inability to identify signals and such. I decided to skip them as they have so little bearing your ability to understand. I don’t want to artificially expand this article.

Let’s now take a look at what are the two most important factor that affects your listening comprehension.

 

The Two Most Important Factors That Affect Your Listening Comprehension

 

It’s always crucial to know what constituent of some skill is the most important. Skills are difficult enough as they are. However, without any semblance of prioritization, you might spend too much time floundering about desperately.

You might think about what I am about to propose you as yet another application of the Pareto principle.

As a reminder:

The Pareto principle (also known as the 80/20 rule, the law of the vital few, or the principle of factor sparsity) states that, for many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes.

Wiki

And, as you will shortly see, even among these two, there is one which is clearly more important.

 

1. The total amount of listening practice

 

 

In order to increase your comprehension, you have to spend a lot of time listening to people or recordings. The more often you do it, the faster you can expect to progress.

However, is the total amount of listening practice really the ultimate answer? I doubt it. If that was the case, there wouldn’t be that many people who live abroad surrounded by a language who still struggle with comprehension.

Actually, I have a good friend of mine who watches everything in English passionately. TV series, movies, news, you name it. Yet, after all these years, his comprehension hasn’t changed that drastically. And it would be surprising if it wasn’t for the fact that he doesn’t have any kind of vocabulary acquisition system in place.

And that leads me to the factor no 2.

 

2. The size of your vocabulary

 

There is a very good reason why the name of my language learning course is Vocabulary Labs and not something else.

The size of your vocabulary is the most reliable predictor of language progress there is. Without knowing a lot of words, improving your listening comprehension will prove very difficult.

Let me demonstrate it.

First of all, improving your listening comprehension can be understood as:

  1. getting used to the prosody of your target language
  2. picking up words you know from the ongoing stream of speech

 

What’s more, we know from the literature that for the most languages, 3000 words allow you to understand about 95% of most ordinary texts (Hazenberg and Hulstijn, 1996). 5000 words, in its turn, allow you to understand about 98% of most ordinary texts (Nation (1990) and Laufer (1997))(read more about levels of comprehension and your vocabulary size).

It’s rather agreed upon that getting accustomed to the prosody doesn’t take that much time.That leaves us with the second task you have to face: fishing out words from the stream of speech.

If your vocabulary size is 200, how many percents of words are you able to pick up?

 

Calculate Your Listening Effectiveness

 

Let’s calculate this and let’s treat 5000 words as our perfect reference point as this number of words would allow you to understand most of the things you would hear.

200/5000 = 0.040 = 4%

We have arrived at the number 4% but what does it really tell us?

It means that your listening effectiveness per 1 minute or hour of listening practice is 4%.

So yeah, you can spend hundreds of hours trying to improve your comprehension but it may turnout that it won’t change too much.

What if you started listening to recordings with the vocabulary of 1000 words?

1000/5000 = 0.20.= 20%

At this point, your listening effectiveness would increase fivefold! Let me formulate it slightly differently – learning just 800 words can greatly increase your listening comprehension.

And this is the exact reason why I advocate listening practice only once you master at least 2000 words (or even more). Having such a vocabulary optimizes your learning time and allows you to progress much faster than others without having to waste more hours.

One exception to this rule

 

THE TWO MOST IMPORTANT FACTORS THAT AFFECT YOUR LISTENING COMPREHENSION

Photo by Noah Näf on Unsplash

 

Of course, keep in mind that my listening effectiveness model is simplistic in one aspect.

If you learn a language which is already similar to the ones you already know, your passive vocabulary knowledge will allow you to pick up words which are similar to the ones you are familiar with. 

For example, if I decide to learn Russian, which shares about 40% of words with Polish, my starting listening comprehension will be about 40%!

However, that still means that if you increase your vocabulary size with the words you don’t, your listening effectiveness will go up even higher!

Summary

I first published my article “How to learn German from scratch to a B2 level in 5 months” a couple of years ago. Back then, one statement of mine seemed to spark a lot of controversy.

I forbade Mathew to read and listen to anything for first three months. Actually, if you know how to acquire vocabulary, you do not context to do it. You can learn first 3-5 thousand words simply from frequency lists. It allows you to save a lot of time simply by not being forced to go through all those crappy dialogs in textbooks.

And I get it. This piece of advice went against everything most people have been taught in schools. It also contradicted almost every strategy proposed by my fellow polyglots. However, as the time goes by, there seems to be more and more studies which confirm this theory.

 

[[ … ]] it was revealed that the ability of learners to make connections between highly common English words appears to be dependent on the number of words they know. The more words they know, the more connections they are able to identify. At present, it is not known whether this ability to make connections is a cause or a result of knowing the meanings of more words, or if it is a combination of both.

[[ … ]] it is also hoped that new avenues shall be explored that focus more deeply on what it means to know a word and the role of lexical retrieval and memory in L2 lexical processing. At present, to its detriment, the field of L2 vocabulary studies remains remarkably insular.

 

The conclusion is as follows – if you want to improve your listening comprehension asap you have to, first of all, increase your vocabulary size. Only then does it make sense to devote a lot of time to listening practice.

My advice to you is this – if you want to improve your listening comprehension, you should concentrate on expanding your vocabulary size first (don’t forget about mastering functional grammar). Only then should you gradually increase your overall listening time while still increasing the numbers of words you know.

 

Do you agree with my theory that the vocabulary size is the most important factor that affects your listening comprehension? Let me know in the comments!

 

A Weird Fact About Effective Listening Skills

How often have you wondered how the brain processes sound? After all, that is what contributes to effective listening skills. Not that often. I guess. Why would you?

I know I didn’t.

At least, until I have stumbled across the research of Dr. Emili Balaguer-Ballester and her colleague Andrew Rupp of Heidelberg from Bournemouth University’s (BU). Their goal was to answer the following question…

What Affects How We Hear?

 

Do we hear sounds as they are, or do our expectations about what we are going to hear instantaneously shape the way sound is processed?

Through the use of computational neuroscience models, Dr. Balaguer-Ballester and his team intend to map the way that the brain processes sound. Here is the most interesting conclusion they have come to:

“Almost 80% of connections between central and pre-cortical areas during sound processing seem to be top-down i.e. from the brain to the auditory peripheral system and not bottom-up, which is perhaps unexpected,” he explains. “As sound comes from an external stimulus, it would be fair to assume that most of our processing occurs from what we hear, but that is apparently not the case. What your brain expects to hear can be as important as the sound itself.” – Dr Balaguer-Ballester

This is backed up by the fact that it takes hundreds of milliseconds for sound to be processed along the neurons from the ear to the brain, which does not explain how we can immediately recognize the sex of a speaker or identifying a melody after just a few milliseconds

More information: “Understanding Pitch Perception as a Hierarchical Process with Top-Down Modulation.” PLoS Comput Biol 5(3): e1000301 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pcbi.1000301

Does Your Mind Play Tricks On You?

 

 

Actually, it’s quite likely that you have already fallen victim to this phenomenon! It has happened to me dozens of time. Especially after a longer session of speaking some foreign language. I’m sure you KNOW the feeling!

Your brain switches into the “X language” mode. Suddenly, you hear some voices outside the window. Why the hell are they speaking Swedish?!!! Especially in Poland?! And why can’t I understand what they are talking about? What kind of dialect is it?!

Oh, wait. It’s not Swedish. It’s Polish. Damn you brain! Fool me once, shame on me. Fool me 60 times, I’m an idiot!

Possible Explanation Of This Phenomenon

 

It seems that the most plausible explanation is as follows – the brain is all about expectations and context. Have you ever noticed that when you learn something in one context, like the school, it becomes difficult to recall when that context shifts?

This is because learning depends heavily on how and where you do it: it depends on who is there, what is around you and how you learn.

It turns out that in the long-term people learn information best when they are exposed to it in different ways or different contexts. When learning is highly context-dependent, it doesn’t transfer well or stick as well over the years.

How Does It Affect Your Learning?

Effective Listening Skills

Picture by: Sanja Gjenero

Here are some methods I have come up with which might aid your listening: (and here are over 20 more)

1) Browse dictionary before listening

Just browse. You don’t have to learn any words nor do you have to memorize them.

If you know in the advance what the programme/audition/episode is about, pay special attention to the vocabulary which might appear there. That is pure logic – it’s unlikely that you’ll need to know the names of herbs if you intend to watch an action movie.

Of course, the best possible dictionary which you might use for this purpose is a pocket dictionary. It’s very handy and it contains the most frequently used words and sentences.

So far this technique has been working really great for me! If you test it, make sure to let me know about the results!

2) Read the transcription before listening

It’s not always possible to do so. But there are some listening materials which facilitate this approach. For example podcasts or language programmes for beginners.

You can also read lyrics of the song before listening to it. This method is much more effective than just trying to figure out what your favorite artist is singing about. It’s also so much better than the awkward muttering “mmmnaaaahh” when you forget the lyrics.

That’s also a guarantee that you won’t butcher the song with the stuff you THINK you hear (read more about effective listening here)

3) Read the general outline of the thing you’re going to listen to

Watching TV series in original? Read an episode description beforehand! This way, you will know (more or less) what to expect. And as you have learned so far – it’s all about what your brain expects to hear!

You can find them on IMDB.

Just a word of warning! I’m sure you have heard many times the following piece of advice – watch movies / TV series with subtitles. This is the utter BS.

The ROTI (return on time investment) from this method is incredibly low. You’ll better off just listening to a random radio audition.

Whether you like it or not, our brains are NOT able to simultaneously follow the images, subtitles, sounds and a plot.

What’s more, following this piece of advice gives you the illusory feeling of understanding.

You usually concentrate on reading subtitles and start feeling that you understand most of the things happening on the screen. The bitter disappointment comes later when you try to re-watch the same thing without subtitles.

You have no damn idea what these funny figures on the screen babble about!

Why do I sound so sure? Because I’ve been there! Luckily, I came to my senses pretty quickly and realized that this method is, let’s not be afraid to use this word, absolutely useless.

Summary

 

One thing you should remember after reading this article is this:

What your brain expects to hear can be as important as the sound itself

If you want to acquire listening skills and get the most out of every minute of listening, you should always try to get familiar with the material you are going to listen to.

Do you have any other ideas how this fact might help others to improve their listening skills? Let us all know!