Listening to English is difficult.
There might be noise, you might be tired, the other person might not be speaking clearly… there are a thousand things that could influence the way you listen. It isn’t a precise science, and it never will be. But the good news is that you don’t need to understand every word in order to follow things. Experts have shown that we only actually hear/understand about 40% of the words during a conversation – our brain fills in the rest for us. Take this as an example. Imagine you’re in the street. All of a sudden, someone stops you and starts to say something to you. At the same time they pull back their sleeve and point to their wrist. Without even listening to the words, your brain tells you that they’re asking you for the time.
Before listening, you need to activate your existing knowledge of the topic. You can do this by thinking about the context and the general theme. Once your existing knowledge has been activated, you can predict what people are going to say. For example, if you know that everyone is talking about global warming, you can be more or less sure that they are going to mention things such as “CO2, carbon, Kyoto, Copenhagen” and “scientists”. And if they’re talking about tax, then you can be fairly sure that they’ll talk about “money, payments, the government, increases” and “decreases”. The fact is that 90% of the people in the world say the same things as you and I – they just do it in different languages. Remember that! This means that 90% of the time you can probably guess what someone is going to say – you just have to trust your intuition.
In order to listen effectively, you need to learn about English pronunciation. As we explained last month, English is a stress- timed language. As such, English pronunciation focuses on specific stressed words and glides over other non-stressed words such as prepositions, articles and auxiliaries. The key is to listen out for these stressed words. And if you can capture these, you’ll understand what the other person is trying to say. Just read this: “Pub. Last night. Great time. Afterwards. Cinema. Saw. Film.” Did you understand the story? Even though lots of words are missing, you can still capture the general meaning. So, when you listen, use your intuition and let your instincts guide you. And never try to understand everything – it isn’t natural. You don’t even do that in your own language.
You get the general gist and your brain fills in the details. That’s why there are often misunderstandings (even in our own languages) – it’s all part of being a human.
You also need to learn about connected speech. Many sounds in English combine. For example, we don’t say, “Look / out” with two separate sounds. We say, “Lookout” with the final consonant “k” combining with the vowel sound “ow” of the second word, “Lookout”. This happens all the time in English and you need to be aware of it.
So, what can you do to improve your listening skills?
It’s simple: Listen, listen and listen again. You need to do two types of listening:
(1) listening to recordings that are specifically targeted at your level;
(2) listening holistically to native speaker conversations and recordings (this is essential for developing an ear for the language).
It can take a while to become accustomed to a native speaker’s speech patterns, but keep at it! Start listening in small amounts and build up more time as you go. After a while, you will start to understand the sounds and to distinguish words. Then, once you’ve mastered that, your learning will start to increase rapidly. Listening is extremely important and is THE KEY to language learning.
Good luck, and remember, listening is not a science – it’s a vague form of capturing information. And if you can do it in one language, you can do it in another!