3 Common BIG Mistakes in English Listening

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Is listening your biggest challenge in the English language? Well, this article is for you. I totally get you! It’s difficult to understand native English speakers when they speak quickly.

So let’s take a look at the 3 most common big mistakes that you may make when listening to English.

1) Listening is the same as reading.

The opposite is true: it is quite obvious that listening is NOT the same as reading. But, the way that we often learn English in school is with the focus on reading and writing for academic purposes. In high school, many students are trained to read in English but not so much in listening. Or, maybe as an adult trying to learn English, you didn’t know how to approach listening.

The way our brain works is that when reading, we switch on the visual learning mode.  We’re looking at the words on a page in a book, and our mind associates meaning with the words, and the shapes that we see on the page–which are letters.

So when you listen to English, it’s a completely different process.  We hear sounds, phrases, and words. And we need to associate those sounds with meaning. This is especially difficult in English because the way the words are spelled and written is different from the way it’s pronounced. English has silent letters and diphthongs, as well as words that are borrowed from different languages. English had, over time, borrowed words from Latin, French, German, and Spanish languages. So pronunciation for many English words varies widely.

Tip for you: Do not listen the same way that you read.

2) Translating in your mind while listening.

It takes a lot of effort to translate. When you hear words in English, do you automatically try to translate them into your native language? As a beginner student, you might do this because you are comfortable with and familiar with your native language. Of course, you’d want to understand English and make sense of what you’re hearing. So you naturally try to translate it into your first language because you’d want to understand what’s going on. 

But, translating while listening is actually a waste of time. Here is why. You’re putting a lot of effort into converting the meaning of a word into your native language and then converting your mind back to English. In that time when you’re not hearing the words that are being spoken while you were translating, you are actually not able to focus on the person you’re speaking with. So your mind is wasting so much energy trying to translate the words and phrases that you heard in English into your native language—that you miss the opportunity to add to the conversation. The key here is listening for the meaning of what the other person is saying—in its entirety, and not only the meaning of each vocabulary. When you listen, you also need to listen for the tone, the emotion, the pauses, the facial expressions, and the gestures or body language.

Another reason why you should not translate is that when you’ve gone beyond basic words and get into phrases, expressions, metaphors, idioms and some cultural ideas that really exist only in English, these are difficult–if not impossible, to translate correctly in other languages. This is when the culture factor comes in, which is something you cannot translate correctly into other languages.

Tip for you: Listen and match what you hear with meaning, directly. Cut out the word-for-word translation. Listen to what’s being said as a whole.

3) Expecting to understand 100%

Don’t be too hard on yourself. Nobody gets it perfect. Even native English speakers with good hearing don’t catch 100% of what they hear. Even native speakers misinterpret the meaning of what’s being said in English. It’s normal.

So it helps to aim for 60% to 80% understanding of what you’re listening to. Stay calm and relaxed. Don’t force yourself to understand every single word or phrase immediately. When your mind is relaxed, your comprehension has no filters,  so then it will become easier to listen to English and understand what you’re hearing.

So now that we’ve uncovered these top 3 most common big mistakes, you can avoid them when you work on developing your listening skills. This issue is very important to you because once your listening skill has improved, you’ll be more confident when you’re engaging in English conversation. You’ll be more confident when you talk to people in your office or in your work at the restaurant, hotel, or resort. You’ll also be more confident in school or even in pursuing your hobbies and other personal activities.

Just very quickly, let’s take a look at these 6 most confusing words in English. Why are these words difficult? Because the words sound the same when native speakers say them, especially when they talk fast.

CAN                   CAN’T

WALK               WORK

THOUGHT      TAUGHT

Remember what I’ve mentioned earlier that even native speakers with good hearing get confused when they hear these words?

For example, the T at the end of CAN’T often becomes soft, or not so clearly pronounced, when followed by another word.

I can’t go.

I can’t see.

I can’t work.

So when the T blends together with G, or S, or W sound of the next word, you almost hear them as one sound. So all of a sudden, you’re not sure if the person is saying:

I can go. OR I can’t go.

I can see. OR I can’t see.

I can work. OR I can’t work.

There’s very slight difference between them (CAN and CAN’T) so it’s difficult to hear. But here’s a tip. There’s a distinct difference between CAN and CAN’T, and that’s the vowel sound. The spelling uses exactly the same letter, “A”, but it sounds different.

CAN /kan/ almost sounds like a short “E” (as in egg, elephant, enter).

CAN’T still sounds like short “E” but a little extended or stretched as in /kyant/. So if you can practice listening to this little difference, you will notice that it is there.

So two tips for you here: try to catch the soft T sound at the end of CAN’T and catch the difference between the two vowels “A”.

Another example is WALK and WORK.

I walk on the sand.

I work on the sand.

WALK is this typical strange English word where the spelling is different from how it’s spoken. With this word, you don’t say the L sound. It is silent, as in “WOK” /wôk/

With WORK, there is no silent sound and you read it like it’s spelled, as in /werk/, there’s an E-R sound there.

So the difference between these two words has nothing to do with the L and R. Don’t get stuck with the silent L either. The difference has more to do with the vowel sound “A” for walk and “O” for work. When you hear native speakers talking quickly, be careful to catch the difference.

The last two words that are difficult to hear are THOUGHT and TAUGHT. These are minimal pairs and the only difference is the unvoiced “TH” or the “T” sound. Voiceless or unvoiced TH is a difficult sound for some learners in English because it doesn’t exist in a lot of languages. To make this sound, you have to stick out your tongue between your front teeth. Try saying thought /thot/, thirst, Thursday, and thrive.

Another thing is the vowel. With THOUGHT, we have O U G H,  while with TAUGHT we have A U G H, and they are exactly the same sound. This is a classic illustration of why you can’t rely on spelling or reading to help you with listening.  So, there’s a slight difference in sound when you hear:

I thought about it yesterday.

I taught about it yesterday.

I thought about Greek culture.

I taught about Greek culture.

They have very different meanings, right? As you can see, it’s important to catch the difference.

Listening skill is a big need and I hope that moving forward, we all avoid making the 3 most common big mistakes we’ve discovered earlier.


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