Babies listen a lot – for several months, in fact – before they start speaking. Listening is arguably the most important input in improving speaking, especially for those at beginner and intermediate level. Yet, few listen regularly. Learn how and what to listen in this post and help your spoken English.
For those who’re not aware of how inputs (or passive skills) impact outputs (or active skills) in language learning, here is a schematic representation of impact of listening (note that impact of reading has not been shown) on the two outputs:
Whereas the solid line connecting listening and speaking denotes a strong impact, the dotted line connecting listening and writing denotes a relatively weaker impact. In other words, listening is more critical to your speaking than to your writing. Trying to improve speaking and writing without inputs is akin to trying to build a strong body only through weight-lifting and without appropriate food and supplements.
(Note that none of the two inputs is a replacement for practice in speaking and writing. That is, you can’t get good at speaking and writing just by listening and reading a lot. Inputs help, but practicing outputs is a must.)
This post is for poor to average speakers of English who need plenty of listening as an input and those who want to improve their listening comprehension (for movies etc. or exams such as IELTS, TOEFL, and PTE).
The post covers:
- How listening helps your English Language skills?
- What type of content to listen and where to find it?
- How to listen (focused and relaxed listening)?
How listening helps your English Language skills?
Listening helps your spoken English at several fronts:
1. Listening exposes you to conversational English
Listening exposes you to conversational English, which can be somewhat different from written English. In Word Power Made Easy, Norman Lewis quotes Louis Bromfield, a noted American author:
If I, as a novelist, wrote dialogue for my characters which was meticulously grammatical, the result would be the creation of a speech which rendered the characters pompous and unreal.
If you go strictly by rules when speaking, you may sound unreal to people. Conversations often break grammar and other rules of English. Fragments – as opposed to complete sentences – are common in spoken English. So are slangs, linking of words, and phrasal verbs. Few examples:
In the examples above, the second in the pair is how most speak. If you speak like the first in the pair (that’s how you write), you’ll sound stiff and unnatural.
Listening will expose you to plenty of conversational English, the kind mentioned in the examples above.
2. Listening forces you to process content fast
In reading, you’ve the luxury to process content at your pace, but not in listening. Audio is fast-paced and therefore you learn to process content fast, like you do in real conversations.
3. Listening improves pronunciation
Ask yourself: can I learn pronunciation through reading?
Because you don’t hear anything in reading. In listening, you do, and that’s how you learn pronunciation.
In fact, that’s the way many catch their mispronunciations, which otherwise can carry on forever. (People catch mispronunciation when they hear a word being pronounced differently from how they pronounce.) And if you get good at pronouncing, you can do just the opposite – catch mispronunciations of others, including prime-time news anchors.
Besides unearthing your mispronunciations, listening reinforces pronunciations you’ve recently learnt through repeated exposure. Specifically, hearing someone say the word the first time after you learnt its pronunciation can be very reassuring. I’ve experienced this reassurance multiple times.
4. Listening teaches you intonation, stress, and pauses
For the uninitiated, intonation is the rise and fall of voice when speaking. Whereas pronunciation focuses on the sound of words, intonation focuses on the entire sentence. With the right intonation, you bring clarity to your message and rhythm to your speech.
This video explains intonation beautifully (duration: 06:04 minutes):
You also learn where to put stress (means speaking louder and longer) in a sentence. Stress on different words in a sentence can convey different meanings. For example:
If you speak the second sentence above (stress on ‘just’) when you actually wanted to convey the meaning in the first, the listener will be confused.
Last, you also learn where to take pauses while speaking. Pauses provide emphasis and create a dramatic effect. They also give your listeners a chance to digest what you’ve just read and let your words sink in.
5. Listening improves your vocabulary
Listening, like reading, exposes you to new words in context, which you can explore later on through a dictionary. Also, repeated exposure to words strengthens your existing vocabulary.
What to listen?
You should pick audio or video based on twin criteria of interest and comprehension:
Pick topics that interest you. If the content interests you, you’ll be less likely to drop out after few days.
Many are tempted to go with content that entertains. Nothing wrong with it, but, to the extent possible, try to listen to content that helps you professionally or enhances your knowledge. Why not kill two birds with one stone?
Whereas blue bars show performance of people (on different language tests) who learnt by grammar and other formal methods, orange bars show performance of people who learnt by comprehensible inputs.
So, pick comprehensible content, the one you can largely understand (say, to the extent of 75-80 percent). If you’re a beginner, you can start with the content meant for children, and, as you improve, you can gradually raise the level. Most, however, don’t raise the difficulty level of the content after they get comfortable at a certain level and therefore don’t improve their listening skills.
If the English you’re listening to is too beyond your comprehension level, you’ll soon tune out and eventually quit. On the other extreme, if you understand 100 percent of the content, then it’s too easy to be the right content.
Based on the above twin criteria, you may explore content on:
You can pick a TV series in English which is typically aired for few seasons. Another good option is news, which also helps you stay updated with what’s happening in the world. I’ve found TV channels on nature and wildlife such as National Geographic to be really good because of high quality of vocabulary and easy pace.
There is no dearth of content on YouTube. Explore and pick what you like. On YouTube, you’ll also find recordings of most TV shows, often in multiple short clips, which make for ideal content for focused listening (later in the post).
Podcasts are audio content on internet. They’re usually long-form (30 minutes or more) and are available on every conceivable topic. Search ‘podcast + your area of interest’ on Google and you’ll come across many.
TED Talks are talks from experts in different fields. They’re a good source to expand your knowledge while improving your English Language skills.
BBC 4 is a good source of radio programs.
You can buy books as audio books as well from platforms such as audible.com and Amazon. To fast-track their progress, beginners (in English language) can also buy regular paperback copy of the same book to use as transcript to check what they don’t understand while listening (more on this later in the post).
You may also access free audio books on YouTube and elsewhere. Just Google.
Songs may not be the best choice for content
Listening to songs is not a good option because if you’re like most you won’t understand most of it (see comprehension criterion). Moreover, songs aren’t close to real conversations, because they typically exaggerate many words, which is markedly different from what happens in a regular conversation.
How to listen?
You can listen in two ways – focused and relaxed.
Focused practice is repetitive and demanding, and therefore difficult to pull off for long periods in a day. However, it’s also lot more rewarding. Relaxed practice, in contrast, is regular listening, which you can do for long durations in a day.
1. Focused listening
Pick a 5-10 minute clipping (if it is long-form content, you may finish in multiple sittings) based on the twin criteria of interest and comprehension (if you don’t comprehend most of it, you’ll misfire badly on the first three steps below and quit). If you find the audio to be too fast, slow down the playback speed. And follow this listening process:
Step 1: Listen to the audio without transcript. You’ll miss few words because they’re spoken quickly or merged with other words or pronounced in a way you’re not used to. You’ll also not understand gist of some parts of the audio. Don’t worry. This is fine.
Step 2: Re-run the parts you didn’t understand and focus harder to grasp them. You’ll understand some of the stuff you missed in step 1.
Step 3: Make a quick mental summary of what you listened. If you can summarize what you listened, you pass comprehension test, one of the two criteria.
Step 4: Read the transcript while listening the audio and see what you missed in steps 1 and 2.
(Many watch videos and read subtitles simultaneously to improve their listening skill, but that’s not an effective way. Contrary to what many believe, human brain can’t multi-task. That is, we can’t read and listen simultaneously. What happens when people read and listen simultaneously is they go back and forth between the two activities, which mean loss of listening while they’re reading. In step 4, you read transcript while listening only to identify what you couldn’t understand in steps 1 and 2.)
Most video and audio content these days come with transcript, often referring to time in the audio/ video to make it easy for you to search. On YouTube, specifically, you can switch on the transcript-scroll on the right hand side by clicking on the three dots and then picking ‘Open transcript’.
If the transcript isn’t arranged time-wise on a content, just do a ‘control + F’ (keyboard shortcut for search function) on the transcript and type in a word you heard just before or after the stuff you struggled to comprehend.
Step 5: Listen to the audio again. If you’re short on time or patience, you may limit yourself to parts you failed to understand in step 2.
Step 6: (speaking exercise for average speakers) If you’re average in speaking, you can get more (and hence move faster through your beginner level) by occasionally pausing the audio/ video after 1-2 sentences and repeating what you heard verbatim, imitating pauses, stress, and speed of the speaker. After your take, replay the sentence and see how you fared. This exercise will provide you active practice – and not passive as in pure listening – of different elements of spoken English.
Be an active listener through steps 1 to 6 of the above exercise. Observe if any word is pronounced different from what you’re used to, observe how some words are stressed more than others, observe the pauses, and note down any word whose meaning and usage you aren’t sure of (and refer a dictionary later). Such attention can fast-track your English Language skills. Accomplishing so many things simultaneously may seem daunting, but it’s not that hard. It’ll come with practice.
More the better, but watch at least one such short clipping every day.
However, this isn’t enough. Add some regular, relaxed listening to your focused listening.
2. Relaxed listening
Here, you listen to topics of your interest in a relaxed way. You listen for a longer duration. You don’t re-run the audio. You don’t read the transcript. You just immerse, which is important for improving your English Language skills fast.
Although the listening is relaxed, you should try to incorporate some of the elements of active listening mentioned above immediately after step 6. Don’t bother about some of the content you don’t comprehend.
Try to squeeze in 30-45 minutes of such listening every day during the time you waste (commuting, waiting, and so on) or underutilize (doing chores such as cleaning and cooking).
Don’t fret over accent
Unless you want to work with American people in future or want to enjoy American movies, don’t feel compelled to watch American programs or movies. Same applies to other accents.