How to improve your English listening comprehension


February 29, 2012

A few days ago, a reader asked "I was wondering if you could give some advice on the subject of listening skills." I've been thinking about the best way to answer that question, but I need your help! I'm sure that a lot of the PhraseMix readers have been really successful at learning to understand spoken English, so please share what worked for you in the comments below.

Why spoken English is difficult to understand

A lot of you first learned English in a classroom, from a textbook, or maybe from a CD series. If that's how you learned, then you're going to have trouble with spoken English because they're not the same thing! Here's what's different:

  • People use different words and phrases in spoken English than they do in writing. They use slang. They say "um", "hmm", "ah", "uh", etc. They skip the word "that" when using relative clauses. Most classes and books teach "proper" English, which is used in writing and in formal speech. Here at PhraseMix, I try to teach  casual English as well.
  • Words are pronounced differentlywhen you say them individually than when you say them together. This is called "connected speech". If you only learn English in a classroom, you probably only hear very careful pronunciation. You won't be prepared when someone asks you:
    W'joominehand'nmethabagovethare? ("Would you mind handing me that bag over there?")
  • People talk about a lot of different topics. Some topics are very specialized and uncommon. Sometimes they talk about people you don't know, or make a joke about a movie that you haven't seen. An English class, textbook, or even a website like PhraseMix can't prepare you for all of the possible topics in this world. So it's important to realize that you don't have to understand everything.

My #1 tip for improving your listening

The best way to improve your English listening is to listen. A lot. There's no way around it; you have to spend hours and hours listening to people speaking English. Listen to things that interest you. If you don't enjoy something, it's going to be hard for you to continue. You'll get bored and stop.

Other listening tips

  • Interacting is better than passive listening. In other words, it's better to talk with someone than just to listen to a TV show, radio program, or podcast. Being in a conversation forces you to listen more carefully
  • The next thing to watch out for is to make sure that you listen to a variety of different kinds of speech. I know some people who listen to radio news shows every day but don't feel like they're improving. That's because news English is one specialized form of speaking. Only news broadcasters speak that way. So you can't expect to understand everyday conversation if you only listen to the news.
  • Captions can help if they're in English. If you watch a movie, video, or TV show with English subtitles, it can help you match the written words to their spoken pronunciation. But subtitles in your native language are dangerous. They do help you to understand what's going on, but they also keep your brain locked into "native language mode". Try to use native-language subtitles as little as possible.

The 10 best ways to improve your English listening skill

So here's my list of the 10 best ways to improve your English listening skill. These are listed in order. The very best advice is #1, the second-best advice is #2, and so on. Take a look:

  1. Live and work in a completely English-speaking environment.
  2. Do some kind of sports, hobbies, or other activities with a group of English speakers.
  3. Talk one-on-one with an English-speaking tutor a few times a week.
  4. Do a language exchange with an English speaker, in person or over Skype.
  5. Watch lots of hours of movies, TV shows, and videos in English, with English captions.
  6. Watch movies, TV, and videos with no subtitles.
  7. Watch movies, TV, and videos with subtitles in your own language.
  8. Listen to English podcasts on a topic that's interesting to you (but not on the topic of learning English).
  9. Listen to English radio shows.
  10. Listen to audio English lessons.

What do you think of my list? Is there something on there that you don't agree with? Do you know of any other great ways to practice your listening skills? Write about them in the comments!


(Print this article)