Improving Listening Skills in Language Learning

As you go along with your language learning try to engage yourself and connect as much as possible, with as many of your senses as possible – much like we do when reading.

Reading (another receptive skill) is an excellent example of the way that imagination is used to conjure up scenes, emotions, sounds, taste and feeling that we, as humans, are naturally able to do, all of the time – so why not try this out when listening?

Imagine the feelings and emotions that are illustrated in a listening activity and try to avoid latching-on to key words.

This is a feature that is often promoted is – « listen for key words »

This was something that was a feature of a school that I worked in when I first came to France, and one that I, like the learners never questioned.

Another activity, which I felt was misplaced, but did not really know why at the time, was the compulsory use of the language lab, twice a day – rows of learners listening on headphones to a cassette, which they or the teacher could slow down to make it understandable for them – but a bizarre scenario that is never repeated in real life.

I mean, how often do we listen in a vacuum, in absolute silence with access to the speaker, with so much control that we can slow them right down and replay them as often as we like?

Alright, some will call this practice, but it is so surreal, as an exercise, that it is almost pointless.

It is not about understanding A particular cassette, CD, DvD etc. – it’s about being able to adapt to real people in the real world.

So lets get back to the original point of listening for key words in a listening activity.

I believe this is futile for several reasons :

1. If you have a limited vocabulary you cannot hope to know all the vocabulary in the target language, so listening for key words results in you listening for words that you already know, with no guarantee that they are operative words or indeed important at all. 

2. You may not be able to distinuish between changes of speakers in a listening activity so you don’t know who is speaking at any given time.

3. Different accents may have different word stress and inflection patterns, so some things that may sound like an affirmation may turn out to be a question and the reverse is also true.

4. If you listen out for detail you will completely lose the thread and the real meaning of the dialogue. Listen out for background sounds and changes of place, time, speakers etc. treating listening to a dialogue as you would watching a play where scenes change according to the actions that occur. Take it step by step – you are training your ear.

You will have a better chance of ultimately understanding if you are able to actually hear the sounds used in the language and it is in this order that we learn – HEAR > UNDERSTAND.

Spend some time tuning your ears to sounds and rhythms. You can do this by listening to the language as much as possible via the radio, TV, movies and native speakers if possible.

Recite aloud, imitate native speakers, observe and experiment as much as possible, here we can see that the adage « good speakers are poor listeners » is untrue in foreign languages , a good listener will inevitably become a good speaker.

Try to vary activities that you do as much as possible – the most effective learners use a variety of techniques and strategies in whatever they do.

Your memory works best by using a plethora of images, smells sights and sounds that trigger feelings from a distant past – do you remember the smell of your grandmother’s kitchen ? Imagine biting into a lemon ! You can almost taste it as your memory taps into different sensory zones.

You can often remember people and places and what you did when you heard a certain song or piece of music. 

These techniques work really well when  learning, by underpinning experience with trigger mechanisms.

You could also describe what you see in front of you (to yourself) in the language you are learning – learning by doing !

Going back to the idea of listening for key words, try instead, of listening out for key notions, these give us ideas of how the language is being used and more importantly, why it is being used.

Language is also about functions – we communicate to do something, or get something done, that is the function or the why of the communication.

We can all recognise that linear listening – that is listening to every word in a linear sequence doesn’t always work in our own native language – we often disconnect, think about other things or try to interpret meaning – the good question to ask here is, “Why, then, do we do this in a foreign language?”

I guess the obvious response is that we are trying to hold on to what we know (or think we know) but the result is that we are often listening from an illogical angle.

The problem comes to a head when fast speakers, or speakers with strong regional or national accents are encountered – but, as we have seen, we have choices.

People who find language learning easy often follow simple rules that they have acquired unconsciously and are almost natural language learners (in fact everybody is).

This is often called natural learning skills, or acquisition, and is very close to the way that the mother tongue is learnt.

Many adults however, feel that they need a clear structure and need to understand how a language is built before they are able to learn.

Many adults are not ready or willing to learn a language in a similar way that they learnt their mother tongue as this entails mimic, repetition and making more mistakes than they are ready to make, which children don’t always experience in language learning.

Many adults focus on the wrong things in language learning such as their accent before pronunciation, their correct grammar construction before being able to fully understand and react to spontaneous questions – the list is very long !

We could argue that we are all hard-wired to communicate and learn languages but this doesn’t really answer the question as to why some people find language learning difficult and laborious.

One of the many answers to this is the ineffective strategies used in language learning – but a lot of people use good strategies, and learners who use great strategies for learning are often unable to use these similar strategies in improving listening skills in language learning.

Any successful learner uses clear, pragmatic, logical, personalised and conscious strategies that facilitate learning – if you are learning something at the moment, take a moment to consider your strategies – both those that are effective and those that work – are you ready to change the ineffective strategies?

Are you ready to start Improving Listening Skills in Language Learning?

Why not start by listening to some podcasts?

English Podcasts

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