Many people learn to communicate in another language by focusing on speaking. And this makes sense. If you want to be understood, you have to know how to say certain things. However, if you want to understand, speaking practice isn’t enough.
This often goes like this. Say, you’re travelling abroad and you want to order a coffee at a local coffee bar. You’re focusing on how to make an order and how to say it correctly (because making a mistake would feel horrible). Finally, you muster up your strength and spill it out. You feel great because it comes out pretty decent and the waiter understands you perfectly.
This only lasts for a moment, though. Next thing you know, they’re asking you something. Something that you don’t quite understand. And that’s not fair – you’re thinking – because you were expecting an approval, not a question. When the waiter repeats his question the third time, you finally understand that he’s asking what size of a cup you want, because you forgot to mention. It’s not the end of the world, but this conversation could have gone smoother.
Know what’s wrong? It’s the fact that you forgot how important it is to listen. Improving your listening skills is just as crucial as speaking. That’s what we’re going to look at right now. Here are 5 ways to become a better listener and avoid such situations.
1. Listen to the real content
One of the worst choices a language learner can make is to learn from a textbook. They do a horrible job at improving your listening skills. Just take any listening exercise for example. Hear it out and compare it to the way the language actually sounds when two natives are speaking with each other in natural circumstances.
Recordings dedicated to language practice are usually unnatural and do you more harm than justice. The people speaking in these are doing it very slowly, just so you could understand what’s being said. You can’t expect to catch a real native speaker after listening to these fake adapted versions of speech for years. They’ll just distort your expectations of how your target language will sound like.
Some people will believe that it’s impossible to understand the natives before getting used to these fake dialogues. It’s true that natural speech is very hard to get in the beginning. You may not understand a single word at first. However, if you stick to it, you’ll notice how much more you’re able to make out of it every single day. If you want to progress fast, this is the way to go.
2. Quality over quantity
So, now that you know better, you can start listening to the content from real life. Be it TV shows, radio, interviews or something from our own collection of content. However, it doesn’t mean that you’ll become a perfect listener just in a few weeks. You have to listen actively and stick to one piece of content rather than consuming them non-stop.
Listening to many different interviews, dialogues, news reports and TV shows won’t help one bit if you don’t work through them. Sticking to a single 3-minute dialogue will do you more good than all the content in the world if you take it in by heart. Are you fully able to understand what’s being said throughout the recording? If no, listen again. If yes, you can now move on. Listen 20 times if that helps. Just don’t waver when you can’t understand anything the first time you hear it. It’s only natural, but every new word you start hearing after a couple of repeats will improve your listening skills enormously.
3. Imitate a native speaker
You have to be familiar with the way native speakers talk if you want to understand them. One guaranteed way to do it is to imitate their speech and try talking like you’re one of them. This may sound like an obvious one, but it’s absolutely crucial that you do it. It’s likely that you won’t be able to pronounce everything perfectly, but at least you will be close to it. And when you’re speaking like a native yourself, catching what a real native is saying won’t be that difficult.
On the other hand, if you don’t care about pronunciation that much, you’re basically widening the gap between your own experience of your target language and how a native speaker experiences the same language. It’s impossible to close this gap, but it’s possible to keep it as narrow as possible by pretending that you’re a native yourself. Fake it till you (almost) make it.
4. No subtitles
Avoid subtitles when you’re trying to improve your listening skills by watching TV shows, movies or radio programs. When it comes to listening, subtitles divert your attention from what matters the most – pronunciation and the flow of the language. It might be easier to understand something with the help of some text, however, you’ll progress faster without it. Just like with the previous tips, this isn’t the easiest path, yet it totally pays to take it.
5. Listening skills require real practice
There’s no better way to work on your listening skills than by actually listening to the real people. This might be impossible to do without no native speakers around, but if they’re around – you must take the opportunity. In other words, just go out there and talk. Make mistakes, get into awkward situations, but do it. You’ll notice that your listening skills are getting better and better by day.
And if you’re afraid to do it because you don’t feel skilful enough, don’t worry. Some people start talking to natives on the very first day of language learning. Which means it’s never too early to do it. Nobody told that language learning was easy. Or that the easy methods are actually easy to apply. You’ll have to get over your own shyness. But it’s a whole new world of opportunities and extremely fast progress if you can do it.