When I was in school, I loved languages. One of my favourite subjects was English. I was lucky as my teacher was a highly professional specialist who happened to work at my school by some miracle instead of teaching at a university where she belonged. At that time, foreign English textbooks were scarce, CDs were unheard of, and even a simple tape was a treasure. Not to mention that we didn’t know anything about the Internet!
Nevertheless, our teacher was performing miracles and we were actually learning to speak and communicate in English without just studying a lot of grammar. As time flew by, the situation got better and we had more occasions to listen to tapes or watch films.
I was one of the best students in my class and never had any major problems with English, but while doing listening exercises I noticed that I simply didn’t understand! Why were others understanding more and doing better than I was? I always knew I was a visual learner with a good visual memory, but I never realized that my auditory perception was so poor.
Therefore, I decided to fix this weakness and develop my listening skills. Later in life when learning other languages and also teaching languages, this allowed me to create a certain algorithm of working with audio/video to train my ear and achieve better results. So, here are my three steps to better listening comprehension.
Step 1: Active Listening
First, watching/listening is very important as it gives you the general impression of the topic and the background. I usually take a relatively big piece of paper and a pen and start to note down the most important words and ideas I’ve understood. At this stage it’s crucial to use short form and abbreviations (just as if you were taking notes at a lecture at university). Don’t write sentences or long words in full. Don’t use punctuation either and leave a lot of space between the words and lines.
It’s not a disaster if you miss some parts, just leave space between them for the next listening. If you’re watching a video, pay special attention to images and any visual information appearing on the screen. In most cases, it helps a lot to understand the context.
As soon as you finish your first listening/watching, look through your notes once again and try to finish the words or ideas that were difficult to understand and also add any information you can remember. At this point, you should be well aware of what to expect during your next listening. Also, be ready to focus on the unclear and difficult parts.
Now you’re ready for the second listening/watching. If it’s a video, this time you can treat it as if it were an audio clip: i.e. just listen without looking at the screen (unless the video contains a lot of important graphic information). As a matter of fact, two to three listenings are enough. Usually, it becomes obvious that you won’t understand anything more when you have nothing more to add on your piece of paper.
Step 2: Organizing and Retelling
After two to three listenings, your piece of paper should be full of words and ideas, but they often look quite chaotic and lack organization. Your task at this stage is to organize the ideas and to create a plan or structure so that you’re able to present the topic yourself. Most people are satisfied with the previous step: they just listen and answer questions or simply tick the answers in their listening exercise. That means they just train their ear and nothing more. That’s not bad, but it’s a passive activity and not enough!
To reinforce your listening skills, it’s essential that you use the new words and structures actively. That’s why I recommend preparing a plan of what you’ve heard and retelling the story. It’s not a problem if you’re working alone. Most of us are! Who says you should retell the story to somebody else? I usually imagine another person to whom I’m explaining the topic. I can add my own ideas and give my opinion. In this way, I’m boosting my speaking.
Why is it so important? A normal conversation is a dialogue, isn’t it? And in every dialogue, it’s as important to listen as to understand and then respond. That’s why working with audios and videos in this way is equally helpful in developing your listening and speaking skills.
By the way, it’s also beneficial to record yourself using any kind of equipment and then listen to yourself and analyze your mistakes. If you have foreign friends who are speakers of your target language, why not record your speech using vocaroo and then send them a link asking for their feedback?
Step 3: Working with Transcription
So, you’ve listened to your material two to three times, you’ve made many notes, you’ve elaborated a plan, and you’ve presented the topic to your imaginary listener. What else can be done to improve your listening comprehension? Working with the script, of course! There are two possibilities here. One is very time consuming but effective, especially in terms of training your ear for details and improving your writing and spelling.
I’m talking about transcribing the material by yourself. Sometimes, especially at low levels of language learning, it’s a very beneficial task in itself: listening phrase by phrase, writing everything down and then comparing it with the actual transcript (if there is one). If you’re using formal materials (i.e. a textbook) for your studies, in most of them you’ll find all the listening exercises transcribed. However, if you’re using a random youtube video or a fragment of radio news, it’ll be a bit more difficult to get the script. Difficult, but not impossible. For getting transcriptions, my experience with rhinospike has been great so far.
On the other hand, there is another possibility of working with the transcription, which is preferable in case of longer materials and higher levels of language acquisition. What I mean is relistening to the same audio while following the text and checking for all unclear parts and new words. You’ll often be surprised to find many things you didn’t catch previously and even some absolutely new words or constructions! Actually, that proves the fact that you don’t need to understand 100% of speech to get the message.
At this stage, it’s also very useful to pay close attention to collocations and specific expressions that you’re likely to use in the future. Because while listening, we don’t really care about the language and its structure. In other words, we tend to forget the instrument in order to catch the content. Furthermore, practicing listening and reading simultaneously makes you connect the auditory and visual images which is very important for languages like French because of the big difference between spelling and pronunciation and also due to the necessity of linking words (liaison). It’s also crucial to compare the text and the audio when dealing with an unfamiliar accent or a material full of unknown vocabulary or slang.
To sum up, if listening comprehension isn’t your strong point, make sure you process all your learning materials through listening first and that you listen to everything several times. There is no limit for relistening. At earlier stages of learning a language, I personally find it extremely beneficial to listen to the same documents four to six times until the voices start to play in my head and I can easily imitate the intonation. The higher your level is and the longer the materials are, the less exposure you’ll need.
Furthermore, try to include passive listening into your daily schedule: while you’re driving or commuting, cooking or doing dishes, and jogging or exercising. The key thing is to find an interesting topic, something you’re passionate about. If the flow of your thoughts blocks the audio you’re listening to, change the material, because it won’t work in the end.
Finally, I’d like to show you how I worked with the following short audio fragment about coffee. I listened to the audio twice and took all the notes in blue. You can see there are no full sentences, and it all looks quite disorganized and a bit messy. That’s why I wrote a kind of plan in green to present the information I’ve heard in the program in a more structured way. Unfortunately, there is no full transcript of this audio, but the page with the presentation can help you with keywords and the general idea.
My plan and notes allow me to present this topic to anyone without forgetting the key ideas or words. Remember, I’m a visual learner! And I also find it much much easier to use this approach in stressful situations like public presentations and exams.
I hope this article will help you improve your listening comprehension too. Bon courage!