Listening strategies in Language Learning

This is part of a series of posts on process skills in language learning, Listening strategies in Language Learning, where we will examine some ideas and perhaps challenge some received ideas – although you may not always agree with what I say, but I’d really welcome some comments and constructive ideas on this.

Listening is a highly complex process involving a variety of processes.
The first is cognitive in nature this is what is referred to as neurological processes involving hearing which is a physical activity where sound waves are permuted into speech sounds; selective attention that is to say lining up our consciousness and processing energy to something while discharging ourselves from others (Schmidt, 1995).
The second listening process is linguistic.
In linguistic processing, three stages can be discerned: Speech perception, semantic processes, syntactic processes, prosodic and non-verbal behaviour decoding(Rost, 2002)
The final listening process involves pragmatic processes which suggests that there is more to comprehension than the association of discreet language units with meaning.
So as you can see, teaching / training / facilitating (or whatever you call it) listening in language learning involves much deeper and pertinent processes than just listening to answer right / wrong answers or anything that is anchored to any form of content – Listening strategies in Language Learning should equipe learners to adapt to any type of content and later to a variety of speakers.
The primacy of process over content cannot be over emphasised here.

Listening to native speakers will help you to understand a lot, apart from words, and is probably one of the principal objectives of all language learners.

However, we must be clear that the first objective is NOT to understand, as this is a counter-productive aim and one which will often leave us feeling disappointed with our performance, as in real-world situations, we will not understand everything that is said, and sometimes very little.

Now, not understanding when listening, may seem a little strange and almost illogical; I will explain.

The idea is that we tune our ear into listening, by first being able to hear what is said – a lot harder than it would seem, but there is a lot more to listening than you may have heard.

If I ask you the question, “What is the opposite of listening?”

Most will reply, after a great deal of thought, as many feel that this is a trick question with a simple, and almost obvious answer – ‘Well, it’s speaking … isn’t it?’

Well, in fact no, the opposite to listening is what we call ‘turn-taking’ – in other words, formulating a response to a question etc., then awaiting your turn to speak, which means that most of us don’t fully listen to what is said in a conversation – think about it.

That said, for language learners, turn taking often takes second place to understanding what is said.

In foreign language learning, we have the problem not only of a foreign language, in terms of grammar, vocabulary etc., but also of foreign sounds; those sounds which don’t exist in our native language.

So there is a lot to cope with here, that is why it is primordial to be able to hear a language before we have the slightest chance to understand it.

This is why it is important to adopt and work on our Listening strategies in Language Learning.

For example the following diagrams show the rhythm and intonation pattern of a French person and an English person saying the same word / sentence :

FRENCH NATIVE                          

_French native


_English native

The French speaker is the first image which shows a much lower and monotone tonal range – the liaison between words is more broken and less fluid that the English speaker. This illustrates why listening is sometimes difficult – not being able to reproduce the range of tone means often that we don’t HEAR the tones etc., even before being able to understand the words.

The last word used in the sentence was « vegetables », as you can see on the image the French speaker considered that the word consisted of 4 distinct syllables and a flat regular tone–


The result being VEG-E-TA-BLES (as we hear it)

Whereas you can see that the English native used 2,5 syllables and stress on the the first and last syllable


The result being VEG te BULLS (as we hear it)

This is an easy word that everyone knows, but when it is in a sentence or spoken at natural speed with liaison between preceding and following words or sentences this could be totally misunderstood. The French speaker will be listening out for 4 syllables, whereas there are actually 2,5 which can be confusing.

There is also a change in the pronunciation, intonation and stress pattern which may lead to a native not understanding the word spoken by a second language speaker – so as you see, it can go both ways.

When listening, practice imitating native speakers – of what you hear and not what you think you hear. You need to make a clear imprint in your oral memory of words and sentences which will help your listening skills.

It has also been proved that improved listening skills also help speaking writing and reading – what a bonus!

If you must note down words – do so, but try to note the whole phrase or sentence, rather than isolated words, and try to write it as you hear it.

For example the French word ‘Souhaite’ sounds close enough to ‘Sweat’ for me and that’s how I learnt it (better).

For those that resort to translating back into their own language, or fishing around for other words to make a sentence, avoid making lists of unconnected words – go for phrases or sentences.

A written sentence would be written thus :

We are going to go to London.

By a French speaker :

_Gonna go F

By a native English speaker :

_Gonna go E

Spoken it would probably sound like :

We’re gonna go ‘t Lundun.

Here we have the effects of the liaison between words and also the sound ‘Schwa’ in English, which changes the vowel sounds and sometimes even changes the sounds of whole words such as ‘of’ etc.

I don’t suggest that two words and a short sentence hold the key for all Listening strategies in Language Learning, but this type of strategy may be a start, and maybe even better than what you are doing at the moment – only you can answer that one.

There are some really useful resources on Schwa here to help both pronunciation and hearing skills and especially Listening strategies in Language Learning.

Now, I don’t suggest that we take a spectral analysis of each speech pattern, but it is interesting to see the differences of intonation, stress and word length between native and non-native speakers, and learning these can really help.

You may or may not agree with what I have written here – that’s fine, as long as you can logically come up with other ideas or complimentary ideas for improving Listening strategies in Language Learning, but this is just the tip of the iceberg and will be a subject that we will go on to discuss in other blog posts on the subject.

Listening strategies in Language Learning will also be a feature of our monthly bite-size learning newsletter, which you can sign up to below.

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