5 Things to Keep in Mind When Listening in a Second or Foreign Language

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Listening is harder than reading– a sentiment shared by language learners around the world. In fact, one of the greatest fears of the language student is using a phrase correctly and being unable to handle the onslaught of native speaker speech received as a response. So, why is it that spoken language seems so difficult to process in comparison to the written word and what can a learner do to improve comprehension? Read on to find out!

1. Listening happens in real-time 
Unlike with reading, listening forces you to process language as it is delivered. That means you don’t have an opportunity to pause the activity to look up a word in the dictionary. But it’s important not to panic, as this conscious monitoring of the listening process can cause you to miss the rest of what is being said as well. Learn to relax your brain and keep your mind open until the listening text comes to a natural pause.

2. Listening doesn’t mean you hear every word
Listening is something we do naturally and many people don’t realise that even in our native tongues we don’t necessarily register every word someone says. Instead we pick up on keywords which give us the information we need to make inferences about who, when, where and most importantly what we are listening to. So listen for the big picture words and let your brain fill in the rest.

3. Listening is not as linear of an activity as reading is
In reading, the order in which information is presented is linear: you begin at the top of the page and move down. But listening doesn’t work in exactly the same way because the structure of spoken text is more flexible. Lucky for us, the human brain activates recognised words long enough for natural connections about meaning to be made. So don’t be so concerned with the order in which you hear keywords and instead consider all of the ways in which they can come together.

4. Listening comprehension improves when we have contextual clues
Context is everything because it allows us to use what we already know about a topic to make good guesses and language agnostic assumptions about what we are listening to. For example, imagine a man comes up to you in the desert and makes a drinking gesture. It’s highly likely the word he is saying means water. If you aren’t listening in a real life context, make sure you familiarise yourself with the topic or title of the text beforehand so you have some prior knowledge to go on.

5. Listening is easier when you recognise most of the keywords being said
Just as with reading, learning new words from context in a listening text is pretty tricky if you don’t already know most of the keywords. This is because it’s hard to make good guesses when so much of the information you have collected is blank. Ensuring you are familiar with 90% of the words in a spoken text facilitates contextual guessing and prevents you from the cognitive overload of trying to makes sense of too many unknowns.

One of the best ways to practice and improve your listening comprehension skills is to engage in conversations with native speaker teachers. Sometimes in classroom settings we don’t get enough one on one time with our instructors, so it’s important to look into tutoring solutions like italki which allow you to work directly with a teacher who can make sure the listening conversation you engage in is tailor fit to your vocabulary. Since Lingua.ly helps you practice and store the words you know, send your teacher a list of target vocabulary words ahead of time to orient your listening and ensure your first lesson is a success!

2 comments

  1. Brad Stokes says:

    Spot on really. I’ve been learning for about 18 months and I’m only just getting to the point where I can listen to some shows and follow along. I find accent affects my ability to listen a lot.

  2. […] This is a guest blog post from our friends at Lingua.ly.  We love this app as it turns your mobile phone into a language learning experience. Download the Lingua.ly Android App.  Reposted with permission.  Here is the original blog link. […]

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