You sit at home and read your textbook, get all the questions right, and speed through your Duolingo and Memrise apps… but then once you have to talk to a native speaker, suddenly, you have no idea what they’re saying! Why is listening so hard?
Remember, listening is one of the most important aspects of communication. When you were a baby and you learnt your native language, did you start speaking immediately? I’m pretty sure your mom didn’t put a textbook in front of you when you were learning to say “mama”. You learnt by listening to her, right? That’s the process we need to adopt. In many languages, I prefer to listen to the language way before I dive into learning how to speak it. This way, I’ve come up with 6 techniques you can implement to improve your listening comprehension in any language.
01 | Draw it out
Listen to what someone is saying (on a podcast, on the radio, or on a TV show), and draw it out. This will help you identify intonation, so that you sound more natural when speaking, and so that you’re able to identify sound patterns in the language you’re learning. If you want to be very technical, you can draw a graph on paper with lines indicating high/low pitches, and then draw a certain word or sentence out. It’s important for languages such as Hungarian and Vietnamese, where questions don’t have a rising tone, unlike in English. Here’s an example:
02 | Siri and your GPS
If you use Siri, you can change the language she talks in. What’s great about Siri is that what she says also appears in text. Siri has also been programmed to sound like a natural in each language, so you might notice subtle differences in intonation, humour, and formalities in each language. Additionally, change your phone language to your target language, and your phone GPS should start up in that language. I learnt the words for “left” and “right” in Hungarian by listening to my GPS – I didn’t even have to look the words up once!
03 | Call some strangers (no need to show your face!)
For Chinese, I like to use the app called Goodnight. Many Taiwanese people use this app, and since there’s no video feature, it’s purely a voice chat app. It’s great to hear how people answer the phone, what things they normally say when starting a conversation, and of course, to get used to natural pronunciation and filler words.
For Japanese, there’s an app called Saito-san. It does have a video function though, so be careful for people who are there for PG-18 reasons. I don’t recommend it for younger learners. If you can filter through the weird people, it’s an excellent way to practice both your speaking and your listening. You also don’t have to have the camera on either and can choose to do just a voice chat. They also have a broadcasting feature where you can host your own little live audio show.
For Hindi, Arabic, English, French and more, you can use the app called Wakie. It’s a phone-call app like the ones above, but with a wider audience. Also no camera, so you don’t need to be afraid of making mistakes at all.
04 | Shadowing
Shadowing means repeating what someone is saying. You can do this through any audio material, like the radio, a TV show, a podcast, or even music (though often, for tonal languages, tones are ignored when singing). Listen to slow news as well, such as News in Slow Japanese. By shadowing, you’ll get used to how native speakers speak, which in turn will make listening to them easier since you’ll be used to intonation and word usage. If you constantly listen to Japanese music, TV or radio, for example, you might hear a specific grammar structure being used and then you’ll say “Oh! I remember that. Now I see how it’s being used in daily conversation”. You’ll feel good about yourself and it’ll be easier to listen to native speakers.
05 | Slow down video and audio speeds
If you’re watching a YouTube video in your target language, you can slow down the speaking speed. You can also slow own audio on VLC. Another thing you can do is use the listening sections from standardized exams to hear slow audio. On YouTube, you can find tons of videos for JLPT listening, and the same can be said for the Korean TOPIK and Chinese HSK. The beginner levels are usually spoken slower, making it easy to hear the words clearly.
06 | Learn filler words and interjections
Native speakers don’t sound like they do in textbooks! It’s important to learn filler words. In English, some filler words are “um”, “uh”, “well”, “hmm” and so forth. Similarly, other languages have their own unique ways of pausing during speech, and these often don’t appear in textbooks. You can look these words up, but the best way to learn them is by speaking or listening to natives. Watching TV shows in the language is also a wonderful way to pick up filler words. In Korean, Japanese and Chinese TV, you’ll often see filler words and sentences written on the screen like playful subtitles. These are good because you can hear the word and see it visually, helping solidify it into your memory.
It’s a workout!
In closing, remember to make listening a part of your language-learning routine. Think of it as a workout. You can’t go to the gym and just do leg day every day. Your arms won’t be toned and your legs will be insane. You might be excellent at grammar and vocabulary but you may not have confidence to speak because you’ve never practiced speaking and listening. Everything is connected, so by practicing listening daily, you’ll be ingraining native grammar into your memory too. Just remember, practice makes permanent, not perfect… so make sure you check things with native speakers if you’re unsure!