Approach listening with a positive attitude


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“The harder the climb the sweeter the view.”

For some students, listening is unquestionably one of the hardest skills but let’s turn this around and go in a different direction. If you tend to be overwhelmed by the fact that your understanding is poor, that might take you down a road of negativity and make you shut down which will, in turn, prevent you from grasping at least general ideas. Instead of being put off by it, make it one of your main battles to fight.

Long gone are the days when learning a language had a prevalent grammar approach. While learning grammar rules is one of the pillars for becoming a confident communicator, this will not take you far if you have trouble understanding your interlocutor. Shift your focus of attention to what your real weaknesses are.

Hopefully, some of this advice might be of help.

Get used to accents

Contemporary textbooks expose you to a wider range of accents than ever before, a change to rejoice in. Submitting students to nothing but RP (Received Pronunciation) or standard British accent is a recipe for future disappointment and frustration when you are travelling. Contrary to what the media might lead you to believe, RP speakers are in the minority in the UK. In recent years we have witnessed the arrival of regional accents on typically RP-only channels like the BBC but RP is still prevailing in news broadcasts and the like. However, that is not the case among the population as you may have experienced when being out and about in English speaking countries. In light of that, be open and positive about accents when you come across them as a student because they will gear yourself up for future encounters.

Connected speech

This may well be the main culprit for your trouble with understanding. Face up to it by learning the connected speech patterns and putting them into practice. Once you understand the ins and outs of how it works, your comprehension will improve drastically. I will devote a post to this subject. In the meantime, you can check out these brilliant books that examine all aspects of pronunciation (including connected speech) and provide extensive models and practice.

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English Pronunciation in Use Intermediate

English Pronunciation in Use Advanced


Jotting down words while listening helps concentration

Free up some time to give your full attention to this task. Select a listening suitable for your level and, pen in hand, give it a listen while you write down useful words and phrases. This may take some practice, since you might find you lose track at first but if you do it often enough you will be able to understand much more than you would if you were simply just sitting and listening. Being fully engaged activates your listening skills and language acquisition.

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Pick two listenings of similar level of complexity and try retelling what you have heard in case 1 (just listen) and case 2 (listen and take notes).

Grab your headphones

Headphones can be a temporary course of action to gain confidence in your listening skills. The isolation it provides, creates this bubble in which you can discern words and voices much more clearly. On top of that, your power of concentration is more focused. When you are having a rough time with a listening, grab a pair of earphones or headphones and try to relax while you listen. There will be bits that are still incomprehensible, headphones or not, but all together, you will be able to pick up more.  Closing your eyes also helps understanding, you can resort to this when a chunk is particularly problematic.

Bear in mind that it would be helpful to round off this exercise by finally listening to it without  the use of headphones. By now, you probably know the ropes of that listening and it will be a much easier task.

A final note. These are, by all means, steps that may ease the process of feeling more positive about your listening capacities but over the long run, they should be combined with other forms of listening.

Don’t let perfection be the enemy of good

As language learners, we should be aware of the fact that striving for perfection can be a double-edge sword. A learner is by definition someone who doesn’t master the subject. Bearing that in mind when we are a bit lost, helps us to be more in tune with our lack of comprehension. Remember this, don’t aim for 100% of what is being said. Seek general understanding. You are entitled to get lost and be puzzled, it just happens. It is the process of learning. The more you listen, the more you will grasp but don’t beat yourself up in the process. Simply, go at it, as often as you possibly can, which leads us to the next point, frequency.

Practice makes perfect

Small steps in the right direction can take you long distances. Have a go at some listening everyday. Even 1 minute is better than nothing and the BBC has just that, a one-minute news bulletin.

For a 10-minute input in American English, you could watch the CNN regular videos with include a link to a transcript.

For levels A1-2 and B1-2, you could give this one a try:

Alternatively, for more extensive listening, you can resort to podcasts. In this day and age, the offer is plentiful and for the most part, free.

You can find listening exercises graded by level here.


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