How to improve your English listening comprehension


Why spoken English is difficult to understand

A lot of English learners have trouble understanding what native English speakers say.

One reason that real English is difficult to understand is that the English in classrooms and textbooks is very different from how people really speak. Some of the differences include:

  • 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.
  • ...and so on.
  • Native English speakers pronounce words differently when they say them together than when you say them one-by-one. 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 something that sounds like:

    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. An English class, textbook, or even a website like PhraseMix can't prepare you for all of the possible topics in the world.


The #1 tip for improving your listening

So how can you get better at understanding spoken English?

The best way to improve is to listen to English. 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

The amount of listening that you do is the most important thing. But you can also improve the quality of your listening practice. Here are some things to think about:

  • Interactive listening is best. In other words, it's better to talk with someone than just to listen to a recorded TV show, radio program, or podcast. When you talk to people live, you listen more carefully, and you also think about how you're going to respond.
  • Don't just listen to the same kind of English all the time. Don't just listen to the news, or only watch TV comedies. Expose yourself to a variety of different kinds of situations and topics.
  • Prefer English captions to subtitles in your native language. When you read subtitles in your language, it keeps your brain locked into "native language mode". English subtitles are good, though. They help you to match words that you know with their natural pronunciations.
  • Try listening to English in different ways. Check out our big list of different ways to practice listening to English.


The 5 best ways to improve your English listening skill (in order!)

So here are the 5 best ways to improve your English listening skill. These are listed in order. The very best method is #1, the second-best advice is #2, and so on.

  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. Watch movies, TV shows, and videos in English (with English captions or without subtitles).
  5. Listen to English podcasts on a topic that's interesting to you.

If you'd like more ideas, check out this huge list of 41 unique ways to practice listening to English


What do you think? 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!

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