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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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:
- getting used to the prosody of your target language
- 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
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!
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!