As a language learner, I found listening the hardest skill to improve – and that might be because I went about it the wrong way.
I sometimes hear other language learners say that even from the early stages they understood their target language perfectly fine.
I also hear language learners say that after practicing for a while “it just clicked one day”. After that they could listen to their target language and understand everything being said.
In the end, I discovered why I struggled so much with my listening skills: I’d been developing my listening skills in the wrong way.
When I first started learning a second language it didn’t take long to realize how difficult it was to improve my listening skills.
I tried watching movies without subtitles, I tried with subtitles in my own language and I tried with subtitles in the target language. I tried listening to podcasts and I watched the Spanish news every saturday morning.
Even when I knew what was being said, by following along with movie subtitles or an audio transcript, the sounds I was hearing weren’t connecting with the words I understood on paper.
I thought maybe the answer was more listening. So I did just that—I listened for hours.
The problem was, even after hours of listening, I still wasn’t improving.
I had fallen for the passive listening trap. It wasn’t until I had spent time using the language and interacting with native speakers that I realized that my passive listening was the reason I hadn’t made any significant progress.
With passive listening you simply listen to a recording of your target language or watch a movie. The idea is that even though you don’t understand it now, over time you will start to understand more and more through a natural process of absorption.
The problem is…it doesn’t really work.
Students often fall for the idea of passive listening because many language programs are based on the practice. These programs suggest that you can improve your listening skills while doing the dishes, driving to work or even while sleeping.
It is also such an alluring concept—learn a language while you sleep. It doesn’t get more enticing than that!
Sadly, like most ideas that promise maximum results with minimum effort, it rarely delivers.
If you are listening to a recording or watching a movie; it is simply way too easy to lose focus. When you are feeling relaxed and your stress levels are low your performance and your ability to improve will drop away.
When you are listening passively, there is nothing on the line. There is no consequence of not understanding what you have heard.
Passive listening doesn’t work because there isn’t anything to push you to improve. If you want to improve your listening skills you need to have something that forces you to concentrate and focus.
In order to develop a new skill that you have never had before you need to introduce some stakes into the game.
The most effective activity for improving your listening skills is something I call “high stakes active listening”.
Active listening, by definition, is an activity that requires you to listen to something and take action based on what you have heard.
Active listening is separated from passive listening by the simple requirement that you have do something in response to what is entering your ears. This change causes you to move up the Performance-Stress curve from your baseline. But, it isn’t enough to just actively engage.
There are two main reasons people struggle with listening:
You can’t connect the sounds of the language to words that you know on paper—this could be due to the speed of the speaker, their accent or simply a lack of high stakes active practice. Or,
You can make out the sounds of the language and you can connect those sounds with words, but you just don’t know what the words mean. This could be because you don’t know enough of the language yet.
If you have spent a lot of time buried in books with your target language then chances are you are struggling to understand because of reason number one. You need to put yourself in more high stakes active listening scenarios or, at least spend more time doing low stakes active listening activities.
Alternatively, sometimes the reason language learners struggle with listening comprehension is because they simply haven’t developed vocabulary or grammar in their target language.
If you really want to accelerate your listening comprehension skills:
Put yourself in high stakes active listening situations. See if you can use your most powerful weapon for performance—stress—to increase your rate of learning.
Spend more time actively engaged with software tools and apps, or podcasts and movies with pen and paper in hand.
Use non-listening activities like reading to boost your vocabulary.
No matter if you think you have a disadvantage with listening skills, you can improve as long as you are spending time doing the right kinds of effective practice.
I hope these tips help. Sign up for a trial lesson if you want to practice your active listening through conversation because conversation in a one-on-one situation is the best way to practice. Good luck!