If you're trying to improve your listening skills in English, you might think you're stuck in a game called "Telephone" (or something similar).
“Telephone” is a game where you whisper a message and the listener transfers it to a line of other people. It’s called “broken telephone” in Spanish, Russian, Hebrew, Malaysian, and Greek.
Part of the fun of playing as a kid was seeing how the message got confused as people misheard. That can be fun in a game, but not as fun when you're trying to understand others in the real world. In our own lives, we don't want to be the ones who make a mistake with our listening.
Here are a few tips to improve your listening skills, plus important things for English language learners to remember as you listen your way to better English.
When it comes to the best strategy to learn listening skills in English, here are a few things to keep in mind:
The United States, the United Kingdom, South Africa, India, and Australia are all examples of countries with English as a dominant language. Yet of the 1.35 billion people who speak English worldwide, over 1 billion are non-native speakers.
That should be a great encouragement! It also means you should choose your sources based on what your target dialect (ex. American English, British English) is. If your goal is to improve your general listening skills, choose speakers you find easiest to understand.
Naturally, native speakers have been speaking English for a long time. Sometimes, they talk too fast. They may link a lot of their words (“gonna,” “wanna” instead of “going to,” “want to”) or use a lot of slang and idioms.
Start out with a speaker you feel comfortable listening to. Maybe you like the tone of their voice. Maybe they are a native speaker of your language who is fluent in English. Eventually, you’ll want to listen to a native speaker’s pronunciation, but since many non-native speakers are easy to understand, this can be a good starting point.
If you live in an English-speaking country or work with a lot of English speakers, it can be a big change from practicing your listening skills in a safe environment with headphones. Take your time! Gradually, it will become easier.
Do you have Australian coworkers? Do you plan to spend a year in Ireland? English accents can sound very different from each other and have small but important differences in vocabulary and grammar.
Find content that matches your target dialect and accent. If your goal is to understand American or Canadian English, choose a source like Plain English, which features the American accent. If your destination is the U.K., you might want to look for content from the BBC, for example.
Whether you love listening to podcasts or you spend a lot of time on work calls, you’ll want to make sure your headphones are comfortable.
Also, consider what you’re using them for. If you’re taking an English language course, you might want to look for a headset with a microphone. If you spend a lot of time listening on public transportation, look for noise cancelling sets. It's hard enough to listen to spoken words without having to compete with other noise around you. Headphones help you isolate background noise so you can listen only to the words.
How much time do you want to commit daily to improving your listening in English? Sometimes, less is more. You want to remain attentive without getting tired, so aim for between five and 30 minutes a day. There are so many great listening exercises to try, but you have to be consistent.
Listening to music is a great way to learn new vocabulary and practice your English listening skills. It should also be an active activity for you to get the most out of it. Here’s our 5-step guide for developing your listening skills through music.
Nowadays, we have lots of options for listening at our pace (=at the speed that works for us). Listening apps and online video services like YouTube give you the opportunity to change the play speed so that you can catch more words; for example, you can change the speed from 1.0x to .75x so it will play at 75% the speed. (Be aware, though, that slowed-down sound can sometimes sound unnatural.)
Pro tip: Try listening to Plain English lessons at different speeds!
Whether you’re listening to a video, podcast, or song, the words are often available:
Make sure you adjust your method for your level. Start small, then increase the difficulty as you improve.
After listening, try reading back the text to compare your pronunciation with the speakers’. You can play back the audio as many times as you need to listen again. Focus on sentences that you struggle to understand, read them aloud, listen again, and repeat until you feel comfortable.
Eavesdropping, or listening in to other people’s public conversations, is a low-pressure way to improve your real-life listening skills in English. You can make it a treat by going out to your favorite cafe, restaurant, or park. Take a book and don’t look directly at the speakers as you tune in (=focus on) the conversations happening around you.
If you interact with English speakers on a daily basis, misunderstandings will happen and that’s okay. So what about when you don’t understand the store attendant, your boss during a video call, or your doctor on the telephone?
First, take a quick pause and breathe. Then, choose one of these phrases:
If it’s an informal setting, you can use a short phrase:
Our biggest tip of all? Be patient with yourself! Learning listening skills in English can be challenging and will take time.
Remember that you can always listen at home, then test out your knowledge in the real world. Choose sources in your target language at a speed you feel comfortable, then increase the pace until you can handle native speaker interactions with ease. And most importantly, work at it a little bit every day!