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!

 

How to master many fields of knowledge – your action plan and recommended strategies

How to master many fields of knowledge

Growing-up has to be one of the saddest things ever from the outside perspective. It’s like a backward evolution. You see how amazingly curious creatures turn into mindless corporate drones.

You see how the pursuit of knowledge turns into the pursuit for money.

I believe that curiosity and the power to create are the very things that can ward off all the negative in the world. However, in order for those qualities to survive, you have to feed them constantly. The problem is that the modern times actively discourage people from pursuing a polymath.

What’s more, we live in the conviction that there is not enough lifetime to master many areas of expertise.

I would like to show you that it’s definitely possible if you play your cards right. Within your lifetime you can become great at many things. But before we get to the specifics let’s start with a basic question:

Mastering many fields of knowledge – is it worth it?

 

 

I like to think of knowing many things as of the magical glasses – the more you know, the more you are able to see.

Being stuck in one field of specialty is nothing short of being blindfolded. You can go throughout the life without being able to spot all those enchanting intricacies coming from the expanded perspective.

Everything starts making sense. You know why leaves are green. You know why bread turns brown.

Unfortunately, being good at many things is not encouraged these days. We want everyone to be ultra-specialized which breeds ignorance in almost all other areas.

Kant elegantly touched upon it years ago:

It is so convenient to be immature! If I have a book to have understanding in place of me, a spiritual adviser to have a conscience for me, a doctor to judge my diet for me, and so on, I need not make any efforts at all.

I need not think, so long as I can pay; others will soon enough take the tiresome job over for me.

The guardians who have kindly taken upon themselves the work of supervision will soon see to it that by far the largest part of mankind (including the entire fair sex) should consider the step forward to maturity not only as difficult but also as highly dangerous.

Having first infatuated their domesticated animals, and carefully prevented the docile creatures from daring to take a single step without the leading-strings to which they are tied, they next show them the danger which threatens them if they try to walk unaided.

Now this danger is not in fact so very great, for they would certainly learn to walk eventually after a few falls.

But an example of this kind is intimidating, and usually frightens them off from further attempts.”

It couldn’t be any truer. Of course, we don’t have to know everything. But will it hurt to learn just a little bit from many areas of knowledge?

Were we really created to be stuck in one groove all of our lives?

“A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”

~ Robert Anson Heinlein

Even though it’s advisable to master at least one field of knowledge intimately. It’s usually not necessary to do it for more than one.

Mastering many fields of knowledge the smart way  – The Pareto Principle

 

 

One of the first logical foundations which will allow you to build a wide array of skills is the Pareto Principle.

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

In other words, find out what’s essential in a given field of knowledge and learn it. This way you will be able to double-down on what’s important and save a lot of time in the process.

How much time is needed to be good?

Of course, just telling you to apply the Pareto Principle would be lazy. We need more specifics.

From the work of K. Anders Ericsson we know that in order to be world-class at something, you need about 10k hours of deliberate practice.

Of course, throughout the years, many other researchers have proven that this number might vary depending on, among others, the complexity of a given skill.

However, for simplicity’s sake, I will stick to this number.

Even though the number looks scary, you should not forget that you definitely don’t to become world-class in every field of knowledge. With just about 1-2k hours you might become an ordinary expert.

If you apply the Pareto Principle to this number, you will see that with just 200-400 hours of your time you will be able to understand most of the things in this field.

Yikes. Maybe that still looks way to scary. But there is one more thing you can do to learn even smarter.

Working smarter – The Pareto Principle of the Pareto Principle

 

 

Once again – the Pareto principle states that, for many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. However, if you apply the Pareto principle to the Pareto principle you might see that roughly 64% of the effects come from 4% of the causes.

It means that if you are able to determine the absolute essentials, you will be able to become good at something while spending only 4% of your time / effort.

In other words, with just between 40-80 hours you will know your way around a given discipline.

Example 1

For example, what if you don’t trust your endocrinologist and would like to, sort of, become one.

Easy, it’s enough that you learn:

  • what hormones are
  • how they function
  • what are the main hormones in our body
  • how they are produced
  • sprinkle on top some knowledge about Type 1 and 2 Diabetes, thyroid disorders and osteoporosis and you’re good to know.

As difficult as it’s to believe, most specialists deal with the same old cases day in, day out.

Remember – you don’t need to know every possible exception to every possible rule to be good.

 

Example 2

What if you want to be a semi-professional gourmet? No problem. Memorize the scale for describing foods and start tasting!

Mayonnaise, for example, is supposed to be evaluated along:

  • 1) six dimensions of appearance

(color, color intensity, chroma, shine, lumpiness, and bubbles)

  • 2) ten dimensions of texture:

(adhesiveness to lips, firmness, denseness, and so on)

  • 3) and fourteen dimensions of flavor split among three

subgroups:

a) aromatics (eggy, mustardy, and so forth);

b) basic tastes (salty, sour, and sweet);

c)  chemical-feeling factors (burn, pungent, astringent).

 

Example 3

What if you want to get good at persuading people (because manipulation is such a dirty word)? I would dare to say that reading Cialdini’s classic book should be enough to be at least decent at this craft. The rest is practice and the automation of those rules.

A famous quote by Bruce Lee echoes that thought:

I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.

Oftentimes, you might discover that a slightly smaller knowledge which is automated is much better than knowing a lot of theory.

How to master many areas of expertise – your action plan

 

Even though we are talking about mastering potentially a lot of fields of knowledge we all have to start somewhere. Here is a simple list which might help you with the preparation process.

 

1. Make a list of all the things you want to learn and choose no more than 3

Once you master those fields of expertise, you will be able to move on to the next ones.

 

2. Make sure that they are potentially applicable to your life

I want to emphasize that you can learn whatever you want. However, if you choose useful skills at the beginning, you will find it much easier to find time to practice them.

Learning practical things is also extremely rewarding and can help you keep your motivation high.

 

3. Choose how much time you want to devote to them daily

I don’t want to be too lax in my calculations that’s why I am going to assume that being good enough at something requires 100 hours.

That tells us that with about 1 hour per day for each field of knowledge, you should be able to know them relatively well in a little bit over 3 months.

It’s also worth keeping in mind that the more you know, the easier it will be for you to acquire even more skills and knowledge (so-called the Snowball Effect).

Remember that you don’t have to religiously cling to these numbers – they are here to impose some general guidelines.

 

4. Determine what you should learn

You can try to google what are the essentials of the given area of specialty or simply contact somebody who does it for a living. That should do the trick.

 

5. Get your learning materials

Once you know what to learn this step shouldn’t be too difficult. The only thing I can add here is this – make sure that your source of knowledge is reliable. You don’t want to waste your time remembering things that have no reflection in reality.

How to master many fields of science – recommended strategies

 

Your action plan and basic strategies

 

Congratulations! Now you know roughly how to organize your learning. It’s time you familiarized yourself with the strategies which might help you achieve your goals faster and with less effort.

 

1. Use deliberate practice

Deliberate practice is a highly structured activity engaged in with the specific goal of improving performance. – source.

Some common characteristics of deep learning include:

  • it gives you a specific goal
  • it requires your full attention
  • it’s energy-devouring and exhausting but not time-consuming
  • it gives you feedback
In other words, deliberate practice gives you a goal and tells you to mercilessly concentrate on a given concept until you’re ready to move on to the next one.
I will be the first to admit that it’s not the most pleasant learning strategy. However, if you power through it, you will find out that it’s definitely the quickest one out there. For me, a little pain for a lot of gains is certainly a trade-off I am willing to make (read more about deliberate practice here).

2. Combine skills (aka laddering, skill transfer)

It’s important to realize that a lot of different skills might be combined with each other in order to save you time and make your practise sessions more productive.

For example:

  • you can exercise and listen to a lecture at the same time
  • you can learn a language and use it to master a certain area of specialty
  • you can learn how to negotiate to get a job in the different department where you will be able to use your newly acquired programming skills

The number of combinations is literally endless. Give it some thought and contemplate what kind of combinations might work for you.

Personally, I like to watch pointless YT videos from time to time but I never do it without a work-out session.

 

3. Use and automate your knowledge 

Not every skill has to be useful but it’s certainly much easier to maintain it if you automate its use and you are able to use it. At least on a semi-regular basis (read more about automating your skills here).

 

4. Do interesting things / choose difficult projects

Simple tasks don’t require much brainpower – probably that’s why soon 50% of our planet will be replaced by multifunctional AI blenders.

If you really want to let your talents shine, always strive to take up difficult projects which involve the use of many different skills. It doesn’t matter whether they are a part of your job description or just a personal project. Try to make them relatively challenging relative to your current skill set (read more about doing the hard work here).

 

5. Help others

There are literally thousands of people in the world who might benefit from your knowledge. Find them and do your best to help them alleviate at least part of their problems.

Not only will you feel slightly better and decrease your chances of becoming a skull ashtray for all the hellish abominations below us but you will also consolidate your skills significantly better.

 

Why?

Because the more you’re able to embed your knowledge in the reality, the easier it is to remember it.

Share your thoughts with me – do you want to master many fields of knowledge – if yes, what are they?