3 Simple Ways To Improve Your English Listening Comprehension

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Have you ever struggled with a particular audio material and later realised how simple it was? You read the transcript of the audio. Other than a few phrases, you have understood most of what you have read. But why did the same text sound so alien when it was in an audio format? 

For many learners, listening is indeed such a challenging skill, and there are some good reasons for this. Firstly, you don’t have any control over the speed of the speaking. You can’t always stop people and get them repeat what they have said. Similarly, it is not possible to pause and re-listen to every audio material. Unfamiliar accents also add to the challenges. There are many different English accents in the world, and the likelihood is, you are not familiar with at least half of them. Your own pronunciation is also something to watch out for. If you mispronounce words, then you don’t necessarily recognise these words in an audio, because they sound like completely different words to your ears.

While these challenges exist, it is possible to tackle them and listen to English audios more effectively. Here, I would like to suggest three simple ways to improve your listening comprehension, two of which don’t even require you to study anything. You can apply them immediately, just by changing the way you listen to English. Let’s look into these ways in detail.

1- Focus on what you can understand, instead of what you can’t understand
This is a simple switch in focus, but it creates, (dare I say,) miracles! One of the common problems in listening is that when you don’t understand a word or phrase, you get distracted. In fact, sometimes you completely stop hearing the audio because you become too concerned about the words you didn’t understand or couldn’t catch. Sometimes your mind runs riot. In a split second you make at least two the following statements in your head:

          “What was that word? No, no, I knew this word. What was it?”
          “Oh my God! That sounded like nothing that I know!”
          “It is official! My listening skills are crap!”
          “When will I understand everything I hear?”
          “Why is it taking so long to improve my listening?”

Of course I have exaggerated this a little to make a point, but I know these kinds of thoughts go through all learners' mind at some point.

If you want to understand spoken English better, you must focus on what you can understand instead of what you can’t understand, especially in situations where you have no chance to re-listen or ask the person to repeat what they have said. Focusing on what you don’t understand is unproductive. On the other hand, when you focus on what you can understand, you begin to notice clues, and put the pieces together. As a result, you have a much better understanding of what you hear. It makes it easier to comprehend the gist of the audio and also anticipate what might be coming next.

2- Feel comfortable with not knowing
Focusing on what you can understand is a great strategy, but without the second strategy, "Feel comfortable with not knowing," the first strategy doesn’t work. This is because even if you manage to focus on what you can understand, what you can’t understand continues to bother you at the back of your mind, and you still get distracted. Therefore, it is crucial that you learn to relax about what you don’t understand.

Don’t expect to understand everything you hear in English. You don’t have to and you don’t need to. Even if you are taking a listening exam, you only need to understand the parts which answer the questions on the questions paper. You can indeed get away with not understanding everything.

Also, you must accept that ‘not knowing’ is part of your journey. If you knew all the words and if you could understand everything you hear in English, then you wouldn’t be a learner. If you say to yourself things like, “I want to understand everything I hear,” or “I must know all the words,” then you get disappointed when this doesn’t happen. The problem is not “not knowing everything”, but more the “expectation of knowing everything,” because it is not realistic. It denies the nature of learning. Such an expectation also creates a lot of negative emotions, frustration, and even stress. Your concentration suffers as a result, and being mentally present becomes more difficult.

3- Practise listening extensively
As the favourite saying goes, “Practice Makes Prefect!” If you want to improve your listening, then you have to practise listening. This is obviously common sense, but common sense is not always common practice.

Self-discipline is at the heart of practising listening, and consistency is a must. You must continuously listen to English audios over a long period of time and get plenty of exposure to the language. You must also make sure you practise listening to a variety of materials on different topics.

Also, don’t shy away from unfamiliar and difficult accents. Explore all the accents that you can find. The more you listen, the less intimidating these accents will become. Let English audios play at the background while you get on with other things. Even if your mind and hands are busy, this kind of listening will help you distinguish accents better, consolidate what you already know, and also help you become familiar with many new words even if you don’t know what they mean yet.

Have a wonderful journey with your learning!

Yesim Begen

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4 Comments

  1. What an impressive writing !
    Those are exactly what I want to and what I have been doing ! Since I had lessons with you, I became much more passionate about studying English, and got eager to understand the different accents of English people. However, as you know, the circumstance in Korea is different from being in English-speaking countries. So I sometimes lose my interests towards speaking English.

    From this time, I’m certain that your writing will always help me to motivate to study English. I’ll read and keep in my mind with reading this, whenever I feel less confident !

    Thank you so much & give a bigbig cuddle to you and your lovely son >_<

    • Hi Heewon,
      Thank you very much for your comments. I agree with you that sometimes one might lose interest in speaking a foreign language. But this is normal, and generally temporary.

      You are a great learner Heewon, one of the brightest I have ever worked with.
      Lots of love 🙂

  2. This is so true. I used to be an interpreter and understanding what the speaker said was crucial, sometimes in a matter of seconds. Of course, there were times when I didn’t understand everything they said, but I instinctively did what you preach: focus on what I did understand, find clues and anticipate what they were going to say.
    Great article, Yesim, clear, well-structured and to the point. Keep up the good work! 🙂

    • Hi Alina,
      Thank you for your comment.
      I loved what you said about how this strategy is useful in interpreting as well.

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