6 unique ways to improve listening in any language

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!


5 Rules for Choosing a Language Textbook


Buying language textbooks can be intimidating. How do you know you’re getting one with an equal balance of grammar and vocabulary? What if it is too businessy and outdated? What if it’s too difficult? What if you can just find resources online instead?

Here are five simple guidelines you can apply when you’re looking for your next textbook.

1. Establish why you need a textbook

If you’re a complete beginner in the language, getting a textbook is a good start. It helps to have a curriculum to follow, because beginners often feel intimidated and don’t quite know where to begin. If you’re intermediate or advanced in a language, a textbook will only be beneficial to you if it is specialized. Rather than chapters that teach you vocabulary and grammar structures you’re likely to know already, invest in something like a book that improves your writing through essay prompts, or a textbook specifically targeted to advanced or business language usage, if that’s your goal. Perhaps you’d be better suited to something like a bilingual novel instead of a textbook. Write down your language goals and decide what type of textbook will suit your needs best, rather than just blindly purchasing one.

2. Check for audio

You can probably (illegally) get away with downloading a PDF version of a textbook online, but it is unlikely that you’ll find the audio files that go with it. Most well-made textbooks come with a CD in the back. These CDs usually have audio files of the example sentences or vocabulary words. This is extremely important for perfecting your pronunciation. What I like to do with CDs is pop them in my car on the way to work. Even though I don’t have the textbook by my side, I can listen to the example sentences on repeat and really nail the pronunciation, as well as get used to natural grammar.

It’s up to you to decide whether or not you really need audio input. If you’re an intermediate and above learner, you probably have a good idea of how to pronounce new words. I’m still a beginner in Hungarian, and the textbook I use doesn’t have audio input. Luckily, you can work around it by using a website like forvo to look up a word, but having a CD on hand is much easier.

3. Stay away from the following:

Be careful of mass-produced “copy-paste” textbooks (i.e. a language company producing books in multiple languages in the same format. Be wary for books that claim to make you fluent in a certain number of days and weeks as well. I’d also advise against the “for Dummies” series of books – they generally make heavy use of romanization for languages like Japanese and Korean, which isn’t a good start if your aim is fluency.

Finally, don’t fall prey to the “1000 most common phrases” books – these are usually overpriced and you can definitely find common phrases online! Don’t waste your money on something you could just Google. My preference for textbooks is textbooks made by companies from the target language’s country. For example, Korean books made by Korean authors, not Korean books manufactured by large international companies.

4. Think about longevity

If you’re at a beginner stage, you tend to progress really quickly in a language. Once you’re intermediate, you might not notice your progress as quickly. Beginner textbooks are the ones that get resold and given away the most, since people work through them so quickly. If you’re able to get a base in the language by using resources online, do so until you feel you need a textbook for more structured lessons. That way, you won’t buy a book, use it for a month and need to throw it away.

Longevity also refers to textbooks that you can go back to and reference. I particularly like the Korean Grammar in Use textbooks because they have grammar structures that I can go back to and refer to if I forget the rules behind using them.

5. But don’t think too much

Use your gut to decide what book is best for you. If you think too much and look up too many options, you’ll be paralyzed and left unable to make a decision. It’s like standing in a shop and seeing 10 kinds of chocolate cereals. It would be much easier to make a choice if there were 3 cereals only, right? In the same way, don’t think too hard. If you see something that just “looks right”, go ahead and buy it! Your heart is telling you so.

All the best with your textbook hunting!