How to Improve Listening Skills in a Foreign Language

improve listening

Being able to understand spoken language is probably the most important and challenging part of learning a new language. Trivial variations in word choice, and accents can bring difficulty for comprehension.

How to improve listening skills in a foreign language? While constant practice is the key, there are some tricks and tips to help you improve faster and more effectively.

In this post, we will include:

  • overall strategies
  • specific methods
  • frequently asked questions

By the end, you will be well on your way to better listening skills!

Overall Strategies to Improve Your Listening Skills

Before we go into the nitty gritties of how to improve your listening skills, here are some general strategies to bear in mind when it comes to improve listening in a foreign language.

Listen more is the key

To be honest, listening more is the key to improving your overall listening skills in a foreign language. Just find whatever way that keeps you interested and want to keep listening.

Sometimes interest is the best teacher as you just need to put in the time. Don’t worry too much, get started with whatever material available at hand!

Leverage comprehensible listening

You do not need to understand everything you listen to, but you need to make sure the content is comprehensible.

Comprehensible input refers to understandable language content, preferably something slightly above your current level. When choosing your listening materials, opt for ones where you understand about 70% to 80% of the content. Do not just use them as background noise that doesn’t mean anything to you.

Finding the sweet spot in comprehension varies from learner to learner, but a good rule of thumb is to understand around 70-80% of what’s being said. That way, you can follow the context while also picking up new vocabulary and phrases.

Studies have shown that among higher-level learners (B1), using authentic listening materials is more helpful than among lower-level learners (A1)

Listen actively rather than passively. Make a conscious effort to understand the context, decipher new words, and even note them down for review later.

Diversify your listening resources

Variety, variety, variety.

A common mistake language beginners often make is using a single type listening resource and ignoring the fact that spoken language is very much diversified. Getting used to one type of listening input (such as news) does not mean understanding another source of input (such as casual talk).

Diversify your listening materials – watch movies, listen to podcasts, tune into radio broadcasts, or even watch foreign language shows on YouTube. This not only keeps your learning journey exciting but also exposes you to different accents, speaking speeds, and contexts, thereby rounding up your listening skills.


3 Methods and Activities to Improve Listening Comprehension

Now that we have the general strategies covered, let’s dive into the specifics of how to tackle common listening challenges in a foreign language. Let’s get our feet wet!

Prepare 3 things

To start a planned listening acceleration, you need 3 things: a table for progress tracking, a variety of resources, and a notebook for jotting down good expressions you hear.

The table for progress tracking is to make sure you listen consistently. Set a goal for each day (like 60 minutes) and record what you’ve listened for the day and how you felt about it.

Then prepare a variety of listening resources. Don’t just listen to whatever YouTube feeds you. Actively plan out different types of material to hone your ears. Here are some choices:

  • podcast
  • tv shows
  • news
  • audiobooks
  • movies
  • music

Have a notebook at hand when you listen actively. Jot down whatever good expressions you hear and review them regularly. You can also keep your listening notes according to themes. For example, if you’ve been watching culinary shows, you can easily note down many words related to food and cooking.

Combine intensive listening with extensive listening

As we mentioned in the previous article about how to improve reading skills, listening practice can also be divided into intensive listening and extensive listening. But what does this mean?

Intensive listening is listening with great concentration and trying to understand as much as possible. You’ll want to dissect each sentence, look up new vocabulary, and often slow down or replay sections to grasp the meaning fully. Common resources for intensive listening include dialogues from your language textbook, a podcast episode aimed at learners, or a short news report in your target language.

Extensive listening, on the other hand, is about longer sessions and consuming content that’s more naturally paced. This might mean watching an entire movie in the target language or listening to a podcast of your interest. The key here is not to understand every single word, but to get the gist of the conversation or story.

Both types of listening practice have their place. Intensive listening is excellent for drilling down on the nuances of the language, while extensive listening provides a real-world context, helping you to understand how the language is used naturally.

Common listening activities you can practice

Instead of simply listening, you can also try these activities below to add some fun or challenge yourself:

Shadowing: Listen to a piece of content and repeat it out loud. This helps you get comfortable with the pace and intonation of the language.

Transcribing: Listen to a piece of audio and write down what you hear. This is a great way to check your understanding and comprehension.

Summarizing: After listening to a podcast episode or watching a video, try to summarize the main points. This practice ensures you’re not only understanding the words but also the ideas behind them.

Dealing with Common Problems in Foreign Language Listening

In this part, we’ll answer some commonly asked questions by language learners when it comes to improving listening skills.

Accents and dialects

Accents and dialects in foreign languages are like the nuances of music notes. To an untuned ear, it can be difficult to identify the basic note (language) being used.

This is why language in textbooks and formal television shows sounds very different from that in the real world. Dialects, accents, and idiomatic expressions are all challenging for language learners.

But don’t be too hard on yourself! It takes time to become comfortable with accents and dialects. Actually, being able to distinguish different dialects and accents is a sign of a high level of language mastery. Even native speakers sometimes can’t do it. So just be patient and don’t fret to ask others to repeat or slow down.

If it’s important for you to distinguish different dialects, expose yourself to different variations of the language, not just the standard version. This is also a way to enrich your listening materials.

talking and listening in a foreign language

Native speakers talk too fast

It’s perfectly normal if you feel native speakers talk too fast. When you first come to the country of your target language, it can be discouraging when you find it hard to understand what native speakers say.

But it’s also okay if you can’t comprehend every single word. In real-life situations, the goal is not to understand everything the other says, but to get the gist and respond to keep the conversation flowing. The more you are exposed to native speakers, the more you’ll understand what they say.

The subtitle debate: to use or not to use?

In language learning communities you can often see the debate about whether to use subtitles when watching videos in your target language. While subtitles can provide a safety net, they can also be a distraction if your goal is to improve listening.

The trick is to use subtitles until you are comfortable listening without them. Comprehension comes first. Don’t be eager to listen without subtitles if you don’t understand the majority of the content. Once you are comfortable listening without subtitles, gradually phase them out (or not).

In fact, listening with or without subtitles won’t affect much on your listening ability. The key is in the above strategies and methods we mentioned in this post.

Improving listening skills in a foreign language takes time and practice. Be patient with yourself and reward yourself for the small achievements along the journey. Every bit of effort counts!


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