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 Improve Listening Skills In A Foreign Language – Learn a Language On Your Own (Part 5)

How To Improve Listening Skills In A Foreign Language

 

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 or 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.

How To Improve Listening Skills In A Foreign Language

 

It all started with my theory which I considered to be really brilliant at the time. Just don’t laugh too hard!

My “Brilliant” Theory

 

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 afterward, 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 elementsThese 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.

 

Improve Listening Skills In A Foreign Language

 

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 influences 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 THE 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 a B2 level, it means that the only right solution for you is to lay your hands on original programs, talk shows, movies, etc. in your target language.

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 is 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 the 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

 

How To Improve Listening Skills In A Foreign Language

 

Throughout the years I’ve managed to come up with quite many solutions on 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 the 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!