Rliberni's Blog – Radical language

August 10, 2009

Some tips for improving listening skills

Some years ago a linguistics professor commented that linguists never listen to what people say because they are too interested in how they are saying things. This can be very true. I always find myself trying to pinpoint an accent when I hear someone speaking and as a result I miss what they’re saying. Luckily I have learnt to do this when they are speaking to someone else and not me – or it could be very embarrassing!!

As a language teacher and previously a language examiner my training does cause me to ‘drill down’ into the minutiae of sentence structure, grammar, pronunciation, language competence etc.. and there is a danger with this that the message gets lost. It does however illustrate the fact that there are many different levels of listening and as an advanced learner of a language it is important to be able to operate on these different levels and acquire the skills to enable you to do this.

Listening (and reading too which is the other receptive language skill) operates on two planes content and structure. An expert listener will be able to operate at both levels comfortably. As a learner it is helpful to practise both types of listening separately on occasion to refine the skills needed for each.

Listening for information and meaning

This is essentially listening comprehension. The information may be superficial or detailed but it is the content of  what we hear that is required.

Here are some ideas for improving these skills:

  1. If you want to listen to a long piece like a magazine programme or news digest make sure you are familiar with the basic stories (in your own language perhaps) so that you can concentrate on the detail.
  2. With very long pieces break them up, if you can, and listen to sections.
  3. If the listening is a live broadcast then simplify the task to take account of the fact that you can’t re-play. e.g. decide to recall 3 main points from the piece.
  4. Expose yourself to different types of listening, news programmes, plays/drama, stories etc don’t forget phone in programmes and music programmes they often have a great variety of different voices, idiomatic language and accents. Quite often music DJs speak very quickly and this will train your ear to catch key words which will help in understanding.
  5. Going for short pieces requires less listening stamina and you will be less likely to ‘switch off’ and miss things.
  6. Try to expose your self to a variety of different accents and voices, this will keep you on your listening toes, provide a challenge and give you a realistic taste of what you are likely to encounter in the real world of English language.

Listening for grammar, lexis and other linguistic conventions

Here we are trying to find out how people say things. What words and phrases do they use. How do they communicate certain types of information (linkers in story telling, introducing jokes, moving from one story to another, engaging their listeners etc..)

The main thing to be aware of with this kind of listening is that it is very intensive and most effective in short bursts. You are basically analysing blocks of language for their linguistic content which requires quite a lot of concentration. Also, this kind of listening works best when you are detached from the speakers and the content.

  1. Eavesdropping is one of the best ways of practising. Listening to other people’s conversations in a neutral way when you don’t know them and are not particularly interested in what they have to say can give you an excellent way of analysing the words, phrases, pronunciationetc.. Make sure you do it sensitively. Try and memorise or if possible write down useful words and turns of phrase you hear.
  2. Choose a short listening piece on a tape or radio (1 minute or less) and pick out 2 or 3 phrases or words that you haven’t heard before. Find out what they mean.
  3. Choose one element to listen for – vocabulary, grammar, or be more detailed – preposition use, conjunctions etc.. listen and write down all the ones you hear.
  4. Be completely free and simply listen and let one or two phrases or sentences strike you – make a note of these and then try and use them as soon as you can.
  5. Try and find opportunities to listen to different accents and voices. Compare British with American with Australian English what are the differences here?
  6. Songs can be a good source. Listen and then check the lyrics were you right in your understanding? How many contractions were used? Did you figure them out?

From personal experience advanced level language learning is not only an on-going enterprise, it also mainly takes place ‘in the field’ which means exposing yourself to the language around you and using it to improve you own skills and performance.

Use the listening opportunities available on the internet and radio. For listening with robust exercises try out Gapfillers where you will find many different types of listening material.



  1. […] and furious with lots of different voices and accents and can be fun too! Look at my posting on improving listening skills (August 10th 09) for more […]

    Pingback by An A to Z of effective language practice « Rliberni’s Blog — September 19, 2009 @ 7:35 am | Reply

  2. […] familiarity, far from ‘breeding contempt’ fixes words and phrases in your mind. (see my post on improving listening skills). Reading is a very accessible and relaxing way to boost your language skills and learn about other […]

    Pingback by Do I have to read? « Rliberni’s Blog — November 17, 2009 @ 1:45 pm | Reply

  3. […] See my post on improving listening skills […]

    Pingback by Improving IELTS Scores – part 3 « Rliberni's Blog – Radical language — January 25, 2010 @ 6:52 pm | Reply

  4. […] Some tips for improving listening skills Leave a Comment […]

    Pingback by 10 goofy ways to practise speaking skills. « Rliberni's Blog – Radical language — February 13, 2010 @ 10:19 pm | Reply

  5. Art of listening

    While student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I became friends with Carl Rogers, who was respected as one of the leading psychotherapists of his time. He taught me much about the art of listening.

    Dr. Rogers said that when we listen, and people know we are listening, it shows we truly care about them. In turn, they will respond by caring about you. It opens communication and also opens hearts. When we accept them as a person, unconditionally, they will be more kind to you.

    We should listen without preconceptions, without anticipation and without judgement if we want others to portray what they truly feel. We listen with all our senses, not just to the words which are said. Some people cannot fully express themselves while speaking, so we must try to see them as they see themselves. We should watch for non-verbal clues as to what they really mean: facial expressions, body movements, etc.

    While we should show positive regard for the other person, we should also demonstrate our own positive self-regard. We do not react to their negative comments, verbally or physically, even when we disagree with them. When they do ask for our opinion, however, we should respond with our true thoughts and in specifics rather than generalities. We offer our own perspective as other options rather than as contradictions.

    Listening might seem quite passive as opposed to speaking. It is actually very active. To paraphrase Bobby Kennedy, “I learn while listening. When I talk I don’t learn too much.” If you think talking helps to spread your own wisdom, you are not really wise.

    Comment by Ron Krumpos — March 9, 2010 @ 10:58 pm | Reply

    • Thank you Ron for sharing this on listening. I agree it is a much maligned skill. My children go to a benedictine school and The Rule of St Benedict which is a template for monastic (and indeed all) life, set down in the middle ages starts with ‘Listen’ this is still the first precept taught today. I think in general we are not good at listening as we are always thinking about our input.
      The skills I am discussing in this post are, however, ‘mechanical’ and aimed to train the ear to familiarise itself with words and phrases that are unfamiliar and to identify and understand levels of meaning and nuance in another language.

      Comment by rliberni — March 10, 2010 @ 8:57 am | Reply

  6. You are right, rliberni, I did not respond directly to your post. That is because I did not read it carefully enough. In reading, as in listening, we sometimes anticipate what others mean rather than concentrate on what is actually written or spoken.

    A Persian friend of mine, now in the U.S. but born and raised in Iran, learned English and Hindi by watching movies from Hollywood and Bollywood. An American friend learned to read French from erotic comic books. Now, in most parts of the U.S., we have television broadcasts in various languages (some with English subtitles) on UHF and cable networks. I can read newspapers in six languages, but when people speak too fast or use too much idiom, I’m lost.

    As you mentioned, English speakers sometimes have difficulty with each other. Some years ago, there was an international Buddhist conference held in Bangkok. People came from all over Asia and elsewhere, so their only common language was English. While they could read the programs and notes, they had trouble understanding speakers’ accent during sessions. Too many people are careless talkers; you might understand their words but don’t have a clue what they are talking about. Husbands and wives, parents and children may speak the same language, but not on the same wavelength.

    Comment by Ron Krumpos — March 10, 2010 @ 2:58 pm | Reply

  7. […] paar hilfreiche Artikel aus Rliberni’s Blog:Some tips for improving listening skills /10 goofy ways to practise speaking skills /10 ways to increase your vocabulary /7 great virtues to […]

    Pingback by EastZoneSoupCube - Englisch lernen leicht gemacht — March 11, 2010 @ 7:15 am | Reply

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