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Improve your English through Listening: What, When, Why & How?

As a language learner, studies show that you will spend more than half of your time listening when functioning in English. However, this is not reflected in the time that many teachers devote to helping their learners develop their listening skills in class. Listening is actually the most neglected and least understood skill in language teaching. 

In this article I will explain what both extensive and intensive listening involve, and why listening to the right material can really help you improve your English. I’ll also suggest a range of listening activities that have proven to be effective in helping learners become excellent listeners in their target language.

Extensive listening

This is closely linked to comprehensible input, which is language input that is understandable to the learner, even if they don’t understand every single word or grammatical structure used. It is language that is just beyond your current level of English, so engaging with it presents some challenge, but it’s not too big a challenge for you. 

Comprehensible input is an important concept in language learning. The idea is that you will acquire language in a natural way, without feeling overwhelmed or frustrated by the difficulty of the language you engage with. By listening to input that is just beyond your current level, you are challenged to use your existing language knowledge to make sense of the new language, and gradually build your comprehension and your ability to use the language in context.

The concept of comprehensible input is closely related to Steven Krashen’s Input Hypothesis. According to Krashen, comprehensible input is essential for language acquisition, as it allows learners to gradually build their understanding and ability to use the language in a natural way.

Extensive listening involves listening to comprehensible input in order to gradually acquire new vocabulary, grammatical structures, and pronunciation through exposure. The key is to find material that is comprehensible but still challenging enough to help you improve. This can include books, podcasts, TV shows, movies, and conversations with native speakers. The goal is to expose yourself to as much language as possible and to do so regularly, ideally on a daily basis. Of course, it’s important that the input you choose is not too difficult, and that it’s enjoyable and interesting to you. 

Consistency is also key. Try to listen in your target language every day, even if it’s just for a few minutes. Over time, this consistent exposure will help you develop your language skills and knowledge.  

Interestingly, many polyglots (people who are able to speak multiple languages) claim that extensive listening is essential to their success.

Steve Kaufmann, a very well-known polyglot, has spoken publicly about his language learning approach, which includes extensive listening to podcasts, news broadcasts, and other audio material in his target languages. He credits this listening practice with helping him develop his listening comprehension and speaking fluency.

Now, I should mention here that unlike Krashen and others, I believe that we still benefit from other language learning activities. I really like Paul Nation’s language learning model, which emphasises the importance of integrating four key strands of language learning in order to achieve balanced language proficiency. 

In addition to what I’m discussing now, which is meaning-focused input, Nation’s model also includes meaning-focused output, language-focused learning and fluency development. With this balance, learners are more likely to develop a well-rounded set of language skills that will support their ability to use the language in a range of contexts.

4 key tips for independent listening practice

Now I want to provide some general listening advice for you when you’re learning independently.

  1. Incorporate repetition: Repetition is key for building your listening skills. Give yourself plenty of opportunities to practise, whether it be through repeated listening of the same material or through different listening exercises with similar structures.
  2. Focus on comprehension over transcription: While it is important to develop your ability to transcribe what you hear, it is more important to develop your ability to comprehend what you hear. Focusing on the meaning of what you hear, rather than on the exact words, can help you to develop stronger listening skills.
  3. Use authentic listening material when you can. Now this can be a bit tricky because you don’t want to choose content that is too difficult. However, as your ability improves, you can experiment with real-world language in songs, podcasts and videos that interest you.
  4. If you’re watching a movie, TV show or video for listening practice, turn off the subtitles, even if they’re in English. The brain processes information in a variety of ways, and using multi-sensory activities can help to reinforce what you are hearing, so TV, movies and videos are great, but having subtitles up will risk turning the exercise into reading practice rather than listening practice. 

As I mentioned earlier, extensive listening is all about focusing on meaning and enjoying what you listen to, so make sure you give yourself plenty of opportunities to do just that.

Intensive listening

Intensive listening is a type of focused listening practice that involves listening to short pieces of audio multiple times in order to develop a deeper understanding of the language being used. This type of listening practice is designed to help you improve your ability to recognize and understand specific features of the language, such as vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation.

Intensive listening falls under Nation’s “language-focused learning” strand, which emphasises the importance of explicit language learning.

Intensive listening can be used in a variety of language learning contexts, and it is often used in combination with other language learning activities, including extensive listening and communicative activities, which is using the language to communicate with others.

So by building intensive listening into your language learning routine, you can develop your listening skills, increase your vocabulary knowledge, and improve your overall language proficiency.

Finally, here are a few ideas for listening exercises that will give you opportunities to develop a range of necessary listening skills:

  • Listening for specific information

This helps you to develop your ability to focus your attention and filter out irrelevant information, which is critical for language processing. Neuroscience research has shown that attention and focus play a critical role in language processing.

You could listen to a short audio or video clip and listen for specific information, such as numbers, dates, or key vocabulary words. For example, choose a short audio clip of a weather report and listen for the temperature and weather conditions for three different areas.

  • Listening for gist

This will assist you in developing your ability to process spoken language at a higher level and to extract meaning from context. 

You could find a longer audio or video clip and listen for the main idea or theme.

  • Note-taking activities

These allow you to develop your ability to filter and organise information. Retrieving information from your working memory can improve your listening skills.

You could listen to a short audio or video clip and take notes on the most important information.

The Front Foot English Listening Practice Podcast

I hope you found that introduction useful. If you’re interested in accessing listening material aimed specifically at intermediate- to upper-intermediate-level learners, you might want to check out my new podcast. Not only will you be able to improve your English through listening to the weekly episodes, but you’ll learn more about New Zealand in doing so as each episode will discuss a particular aspect of New Zealand life. You can access the podcast here.

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