Listening is the weakest skill for many language learners. To improve your listening, you first need to know what your listening problems are.
As an English teacher, I usually survey my students to find out what kind of listening problems they’re having. Sometimes the root of the problem is not their listening ability.
Is the problem really your listening skill?
This is usually my problem in a foreign language – my listening skills are ok, I understand coursebook audio and youtube videos that are at my level and I’m fine at understanding conversations in Saigon. What holds me back the most is unfamiliar vocabulary. So actually I need to improve my vocabulary, not my listening.
So first let’s check if your listening ability is your top problem.
4 common listening problems
The is the simplified checklist I’ve given to learners.
Problem 1 – There are too many new words
This is what I was referring to above. The real problem is not necessarily your listening ability. Either you need to increase your vocabulary or choose easier listening materials.
Problem 2 – People speak too fast
Here I’m getting at the changes that happen in fast, natural speech. In English we use a lot of connected speech and miss out a lot of sounds.
Problem 3 – I can’t hear what people say
This is one of two things – the extreme version is where it’s just a stream of sounds and you can barely pick anything out.
Another problem might be that you’re unable to hear familiar words. This could again be because of changes we make to words when we say them in fast, natural speech.
Problem 4 – I can hear but I don’t understand
This is where you can hear a lot of words but you’re not getting the overall message, or you’re missing key words and so not understanding.
It might also be because you’re focusing too much on trying to hear and understand every word, instead of using listening strategies to compensate when you don’t hear everything (just like we do in our native language!)
What’s going on? The answer is in listening processes
If you’re experiencing Problem 2 or 3, you’re struggling with what we call Bottom-Up listening processes. This relates to the very sounds of speech and this is where we need to focus to improve your listening.
If you’re experiencing Problem 4, you might benefit from working on what are called Top-Down listening strategies. This is where you draw on your existing knowledge, background and experiences (including borrowing from how you listen in your native language).
When we listen, we use both processes together (called interactive processing) in order to understand.
Over to you: Which of these listening problems is your number one issue?