How to quickly improve your understanding of spoken English

Are you afraid of listening to natives too?

How well do you understand English from listening? I have never met an adult learner in 15 years who would say it’s a walk in the park for them. Really. Never.

‘Boy, this is the hardest part, because you not only need to understand what the other person is talking, which is hard due to all the different accents there is, but you also need to comprehend what they are talking!’

‘But listening, oh boy, that’s the tough one. You have to face native speed of speech, accents, intonation… I always thought English as a “hungry language”, its speakers “eat” a lot of letters we were taught they were pronounced. And you seem to say full sentences without moving your lips. We just hear a mumble.’

These are just some answers I received when I asked which skill is the hardest in learning English.

Listening is a difficult skill to master. We can’t deny that.

In a situation like that, we usually end up blaming ourselves (I am hopeless, I have no language talent, learning languages is not for me) or native speakers (they ‘eat’ words and they speak too fast – crazy language, crazy people).

The thing is English is no exception in that. It’s equally hard for any other foreign language to master. The French speak incredibly fast and so do Spanish speakers. Try to listen to a German native speaker when you are a complete beginner. I will not even mention Chinese with their tonic system.

What you need to know about listening and understanding

As I said, listening is hard to master. But not because there is something wrong with our ears. It happens because people try to learn listening using the same methods they learn reading. But how is it possible? They are so different, reading and listening.

When you read a text, you can see it in front of your eyes. It means two things:

  • you can see all the words separately in the page
  • you have time to stop, to return to some point and think about it.

What happens when you listen?

  • You need to decode a line of sounds, with no breaks, because they are all connected together.
  • It’s usually quick, especially in conversations.
  • And you have no control over what’s going on (I mean you have less opportunity to ‘rewind’ and to think about it). You rely on your memory.

In fact, a listener very often hear something like:

Extract from JJ Wilson's 'How to teach listening'
Extract from JJ Wilson’s ‘How to teach listening’

So, you just can’t learn to listen like you have learnt reading.

Another popular myth: you will learn to understand what people say if you listen a lot. But again, just listening to a lot of stuff in unadapted English is a long (and frustrating) way. It’s not focused learning. Without strategies, it will take you years.

It’s a bit funny how most listening tasks you will find on the Web or in the textbooks are tests.

So, somehow you learnt to listen already (when? where?) and now you check yourself. But when was the actual learning happening? If you just hear a lot of text in English, it doesn’t mean learning. If you don’t understand what’s going on, how would you learn?

Even if you come to a teacher for help, it is not always productive. First of all, teachers try to speak comfortably for you, even native speakers. That’s why many people say they understand their teachers well, but can’t understand people in the streets.

I remember one colleague of mine who just came back from her internship in the USA and started teaching English to adults. She used to be saying: ‘I spent so many years learning English. I don’t want to spoil it by speaking unnaturally. I will show my learners how real English sounds’. Well, intermediate and advanced students loved her. Elementary students hated her. At first. But somehow, after a month or so, each of her students developed a better listening understanding of English than mine, for example. Guilty on the spot. I DO speak too comfortably for my students. I can list you many explanations for this, but I won’t. This is just a reality.

So, the first takeaway from this article: Don’t be afraid of being exposed to original listening material. I also vote for variety. Listen to the texts of different difficulty and of different origin. The more accents (both native and non-native) you hear, the more prepared you will be for real life. Learn which TV series you can start with.

The key thing in this process: LEARN to listen, don’t just wait for a miracle to happen one day.

What kind of strategies could help you improve your listening skills?

I will switch now from general linguistics to English. What exactly do you need to know about English to hear it better?

First of all, ‘what you see is not what you hear’. Don’t expect the words will be separate like you see them in this written text.

Let’s take an example.

You see a phrase: ‘half an hour ago’. If you could hear it the same way it is written, the sound would be something like that:

In reality, even in slow pronunciation, the words won’t have pauses between them.

If this phrase is a part of a longer text, it will be pronounced even faster.

Ok, is it all non-stop stream of speech? No, it isn’t. When we speak, we divide our speech into units, not into words. The words serving one meaning will live together. We call them ‘tone units’. We use them in all languages to organise our speech and put accents on the parts which are most important for our message.

The phrase from the example: ‘half an hour ago’. It means 1 unit of information. All the words here constitute 1 meaning. The speaker will pronounce them together, in 1 unit, to serve the meaning. The non-stop speaking all the time is not possible: we need to breathe. These breathing pauses made between short ideas constituing a bigger one.

So, in the sentence: I came home half an hour ago (7 words) there are actually only 3 tone units: I came // home // half an hour ago. They will say it: /aikeim//heum//havenaueegeu/. Just 2 pauses.

Of course, it is not:

Nobody speaks like that. You don’t speak like that.

Here is your first step in improving listening: your brain should get used to the fact that it hears not words but tone units containing one idea. Train yourself for that.

Some practice.

How many tone units can you identify in these sentences:

When are you going on holiday this year?

When // are you going // on holiday // this year? (4 tone units)

– What kind of books do you prefer?

What kind of books // do you prefer? (2 tone units)

Practise with this ‘difficult’ piece. This one should be hard:

(video source – 00:27)

Even in this fast talking, we can hear some small pauses the speaker does between the tone units:

‘Thanks // for coming back on//. – How is it going? (one tone unit, that’s why so fast) – It’s going awesome! (again one tone unit – they all seem to be stuck together). We’re gonna // have // some fun today…’

I recommend you to practise this way: listen to some short extracts (up to 1 minute long) with the transcript to hear how sentences are divided into tone units in natural speaking. Let your brain learn to hear it differently from what he reads. Listen to the same extract several times until you can hear which small groups the words are organised into in every sentence.

You can use listening materials from the web or some podcasts.

Here are some example resources I always recommend my students:

English Numbers | Listening Test

Deep English

Listen a minute

6-minute English

It’s crucial that you practise listening to very very short extracts, as I said, not longer than a minute. Also, always practise with the text in front of your eyes. You will need some time to re-wire your brain from trying to listen for single words to listening to tone units. They are logical. After listening to 10 or 15 sentences (not at once, every day or every other day), the whole listening process will become different.

Inside the tone unit, words will be organised hierarchically (what a word, hah), so to say, by their importance. Your next step will be to learn the hierarchy of these words and ways how they are connected together. If it seems like a lot of work, no, it isn’t. It’s, again, quite logical. It’s focused work and it is some work, yes. But it is much better than just ‘listen to as much English as possible for a long time’ without any control of what’s happening with your English skills.

Divide this ‘stream’ you hear into into units and then learn how words work together inside each unit. This way, you will focus and start improving. And you will start understanding English, even the films, quite soon (of course, if your vocabulary is good enough 🙂

So, the key takeaways from the today’s post are:

– listening is a skill to train; you can’t learn to listen the right way just by random listening;

– don’t be afraid to vary the difficulty of your listening material;

– expose yourself to as many accents, both native and non-native, as possible;

– develop a simple short routine to learn listening using short (up to 1 minute long) extracts to train yourself for the right focus;

– learn not to expect to hear single words (like they are written in the page) but tone units where words are grouped around 1 small idea.

In the next post, we will continue re-focusing your brain from what it reads to what hears. Stay tuned!

Please share this article with your friends if you find it useful. 

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