The best way to improve your listening in English

A lot of intermediate and advanced-level English learners have difficulty understanding the native speakers when they talk at natural speed and with their usual pronunciation. In this article you’ll learn how to practice your listening in a way that will prepare you for a real life conversation, watching a movie without subtitles, etc. I developed this technique with my English students and I used it for myself while learning Portuguese.

A lot of English learners that speak well, and usually understand other English learners well, still struggle with understanding natives because they don’t recognize a lot of known words. In most cases the pronunciation issue is the biggest barrier. In addition to that the other person may use words or expressions that they don’t know yet.

A lot of schools give their students exercises in which they have to listen for the gist – the main idea – of a conversation. Trying to get the gist is fine, but it’s really just guessing. After the exercise the students still don’t recognize many important, common and already known words and the relevant new words that usually change the message and add important details to the conversation.

Listening Advices

Another way to practice your listening that I don’t recommend is watching a video with subtitles on. This may improve your English vocabulary but the chance that you’ll improve your listening is very small because of the fact that our brains tend to deceive us. When we listen and read at the same time our brain mixes the two and tells us that we understand all the sounds, but the truth is that human beings are much more visual than auditive.

 

Now, how to really improve your listening skills:

If you’re an intermediate or above level student you should choose a video with natural native English, not audio or video that is made for English classes. If you’re below that level, choose something that is made for English learners. There are many good websites with listening material for all levels. I will point out a few at the end of the article that I personally like to use. It is important that the video/audio has a transcript – the written version of the conversation – or subtitles so that you can check for understanding when necessary.

  1. If necessary cover the transcript or subtitles so you don’t read before you’re supposed to.
  2. Play the video or audio without stopping to see how much you understand. At the end, try to guess the percentage of the conversation that you understood.
  3. Go to the beginning and now play the first sentence or first sub-sentence and press stop. Evaluate for yourself what you understood and if there are any words that you didn’t get. Don’t worry if you didn’t understand anything.
  4. Play that (sub) sentence again and fill in the parts you didn’t get. Repeat this process four times. You’ll see that in many cases you’re able to understand much more of the sentence after playing it a few times. Frequently though you won’t be able to understand some words.
  5. If you’re not sure you understood it correctly or if you didn’t get some words check the transcript. Probably there will be some “Nooo, she didn’t say that!” moments. That is good sign. It means you’re learning valuable lessons about how words that you already know are pronounced by native speakers in a sentence at natural speed. In natural pronunciation letters disappear and several words can be pronounced all together.
  6. Look up any new words in a dictionary if necessary.
  7. Knowing the meaning of the sentence, go to the video/audio and play it at least one more time so your brain can connect the words with the difficult pronunciation.
  8. If a word (group) is pronounced in a way that is new to you write down the term and the way it’s pronounced.
    Go on to the next (sub) sentence and do the same thing.
  9. When you finished the whole thing go back and play it again without stopping and see how much you can understand now.

 

If you are understanding big parts of the conversation feel free to only stop the video/audio when there is a word that you don’t get. The rest of the instructions are the same.

In some cases using this method may involve that you take a long time to complete a video of only minutes. That’s okay; it’s part of the technique. It means you’re getting a reality check and that’s the whole point of it. Persist and in a matter of weeks, if done every day, you’ll notice that your listening will have really improved.

 

Some recommended resources:

  • You can use any appropriate video on YouTube with subtitles as long as you hide the subtitles while you are listening. Many popular series and parts of movies are available with subtitles on YouTube and they can be excellent learning material.
  • TED.com is an amazing site with lectures on new technology, ecology, business, social issues and others. The content itself is highly interesting and on the site you’ll see that most videos have a subtitle option below the video screen so you can turn on the subtitles to check the meaning. There’s only one downside to the TED platform; if you repeatedly turn the subtitles on and off the video with freeze and you’ll need to start from the beginning. Therefore I advise you to watch the TED video on YouTube and just use the TED platform to check for meaning when necessary.

 

Now you know how to prepare yourself and understand those native speakers. You can use this technique by yourself or with a teacher who can assist you and give explanations of new words and expressions.

Esse artigo foi escrito por Luca Merlini, criador do site MeuProfessorParticular, onde pessoas interessadas em fazer aulas particulares ou em grupo podem encontrar experientes professores de inglês, espanhol e outros idiomas organizados por cidade e idioma.

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