Important Tips to Become an Effective English Listener

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Would you agree that one of the hardest parts of becoming fluent in English is being able to understand native speakers? But, you know, this doesn’t have to be so tough! In today’s topic, we will dig deeper into specific steps in improving your English listening skills. So, let’s begin!

How to listen to native English speakers?

1) POSITIVE MINDSET

You can approach a situation with a positive or a negative mindset: A CAN DO or a CANNOT DO attitude. If you approach an English conversation with a negative mindset, telling yourself things that are not true like, “I’ll never understand what they’re going to say” or “I’m so embarrassed I won’t understand anything. This is awful!” then I’m afraid to say, you won’t do very well.

However, if you turn that around, flip it 180 degrees, and you approach an English conversation with a positive mindset and think things like “I can do this”, “I’m patient, I’m relaxed, I can get this”, “I can understand native English speakers!” “I am a good English speaker”.  As a result, it will open up your mind to understand more, and you’ll do very well in that situation. To begin with a positive CAN DO attitude. Approach every opportunity to listen to English with a positive mindset. It helps to approach English listening with interest and a true desire to understand. You need to believe in you!

2) DIVERSITY

It’s so important to include a good mix of listening materials into your English practice. Now diversity can mean many things.

The first consideration is the length of the material you’re listening to. You can begin with shorter materials (audio-video files), like one-minute, two-minute, or three-minute audio stories. That way you don’t get too tired. Then you could try longer materials, like ten, fifteen, thirty minutes. Then TV shows that are 30 minutes, forty-five minutes or one hour long. And then use full movies that are one hour or two hours long, or even longer. That way you can mix in different lengths of materials so that you don’t get too tired. When you’re ready for a challenge, you can try longer materials like two or three hours’ long audio books.

Diversity also means a wide array of voices. Try listening to both men and women speak English, people of different ages, as well as people from different fields and backgrounds (like office, business, farming, school, supermarket, etc.). You can also listen also to people talking about different jobs and are talking about different topics. It’s very important to train your ear by listening to different topics and listening to different people talk about different subjects. That’s diversity.

So if you are already very well-versed in art, then it will be easier for you to listen in English about art. If you want a challenge, try listening to something in English about travel, restaurants, history, science, business, or something completely different than what you would usually listen to.

3) SHADOWING / PARROTING

Listen, speak, and read in order to improve your listening skills in English. Improving listening requires using other skills as well, like reading and speaking. You’ll learn a lot faster if you use more than one skill to HELP develop your listening. It’s similar to cross-training for a sport. If you enjoy playing volleyball, you are of course going to practice that sport so that you become better. But what if you want to improve different muscles in your body to become a much better volleyball player? So your coach might recommend that you try other exercises besides volleyball drills. Your coach might suggest you try some swimming, or weight lifting, or running to improve your endurance when you play on the field. So in the same manner, that’s what we’re doing with different skills in English to improve your listening. You need to consider using your reading skills to improve your listening.

With listening exercise, use materials like videos where you can listen and read to the same material, just like when you’re reading the subtitles. You could do this with the news, with movies, or with anything that has audio and text that’s the same. Here’s how to do this exercise:

a. Start by listening only to challenge yourself.

b. Listen and read the subtitles at the same time to confirm what you’re hearing and to train your ear while you’re seeing the words.

c. The third skill to use in this exercise is to speak. When you’re listening to a material, the next step is to actually repeat what you hear. When you repeat immediately after what you hear, this is a technique called shadowing or parroting. As soon as you hear a word, you say it out loud. It helps to say it loud with feeling so that you can feel some emotion and action in your words. This will help you to remember the sounds. So when you actually produce the sound, it’s more likely that you’d be able to hear it because you’ll be paying very close attention to that sound so that you can say it properly.

Again, in the shadowing exercise, use these skills: listen, read, and speak. Listen first, listen and read, then listen, read, and speak.

4) GUESS FIRST

Watch for patterns, context, and predict the future of the conversation. So when you’re listening in English, the best you can do is to try to anticipate what you’re going to hear based on the situation that you see. This is especially so for movies or TV shows where we know in certain context what people are likely to say. Let’s say the scenario is I’m waiting at a bus station. It’s likely that the man who just spoke to me is asking me for the time or wants to confirm if it’s the correct bus stop for his destination.

What about in another situation? If you’re at a cafe, maybe you’re ordering a coffee or cake. It’s likely that the person at the register will ask you if you want espresso or cappuccino or perhaps you want to order something else.

So don’t be caught off guard as if everything in English is an unexpected surprise that you’re not ready for. You are in fact ready for it. Just use your common sense and try to guess first. Spot similarities of the situation with your own culture or country. Then confirm with your ears whether you were correct.

5) UNDERSTAND THE BIG PICTURE

English—like other languages such as your own native language, has patterns. We have certain conversational patterns in small talk and in exchanging information and ideas. Now it’s important to understand how conversations usually go from the beginning of a conversation to the end. Pay attention to key vocabulary words and listen to the tone. Listen to stress patterns to figure out the most important information in a conversation and to understand the main idea—even if you didn’t catch all of the smaller vocabulary meanings that aren’t as important. This is the most important element when you listen in English. Try to catch the main idea. Listen to comprehend the whole picture instead of the small parts. And then ask questions to clarify, or repeat listening to the material and seek the meaning of particular words that were not so clear.

Well, I hope these five tips will help you. Many English learners improved their listening by doing them. Take action so that you would see good results.

After you’ve done your part in practicing your listening skills, let’s go now to the application of what you’ve learned. So in actual conversations with native speakers, you won’t really understand everything perfectly.  How to be a better listener in actual conversations with native speakers? Here are three easy steps to help you with listening.

So to start off, let us first identify which kind of listener you are as a learner of a second language.

What if you’re talking to a native English speaker and don’t understand what they’re saying? You have no idea what they are saying. How would you respond?

a) Look scared and not say a thing?

b) Nod and pretend you understand?

c) Say, “I don’t understand, please write that down”?

d) Simply say “I don’t understand”?

Which one is the best thing to do? If your answer is C or D, then you’re right. The only difference is that with letter C, you are using a strategy to become a better English listener.

Step 1.

Show you don’t understand. There’s nothing to be embarrassed about. You should really let the other person know that you don’t understand. Nobody’s perfect, right? So even native speakers don’t understand everything they hear in English because of many communication gaps. So if you want to understand what’s being said, here are things you can say:

“I didn’t catch that.” (This means the exact same thing as ‘I don’t understand’.)

OR

“I’m sorry I don’t understand.”

Many students commonly say, “I NO understand”, yet this is not correct. Saying this will leave the other person a bit confused, too.

Step 2.

Use a strategy. This means you’re asking the other person to help you out. You’re asking somebody to do something to help you understand. Here are excellent and polite expressions you can use:

“Could you please repeat that?”

This also means, ‘could you say it again?”. As you may have observed, many native speakers talk too fast. So you can politely ask them to repeat what they’ve said.

Could you speak more slowly?”

“Could you please write it down?”

“Could you please say it in a different way?”

This one is very useful because when you say to a native speaker “I don’t understand”, they keep saying the same thing the exact same way. And it’s not helpful. Sometimes it’s better if you hear it in different words. It’s a much better approach if you could ask the speaker to say it in a different way, maybe by using a simpler vocabulary or explaining what they mean by using an example.

Step 3.

Check the meaning. Double-check what the person is telling you. So this means that after the person has said something you don’t understand, and you used a strategy so they can repeat what they said, the next step is to make sure you really understood.  Here are things you can do:

Repeat back what the person said to you with, “So what you’re saying is…” Example the person is asking you about cherry blossoms or anything related to your place, you can say, “So what you’re saying is you want to know if there are cherry blossoms in the month of October?”

“So what you mean is…”

“I think I get what you’re saying”. ‘Get’ in English also means “understand”.

So those are the three simple steps to become a better listener. They will help you experience a better conversation because, instead of pretending you understand even if you don’t and you’re confused, these strategies will help you become more confident and you will understand more.

Naturally, you’re not going to understand everything—and that’s alright. But the steps I shared will help you understand a lot more and will help you contribute to the conversation.

Enjoy your English conversations!


author
I have a passion for the English language because it is such a powerful tool for creativity and personal development. I've been writing articles since I was in High School. I represented my school in English writing competitions in the city, regional, and national levels. When I was in college, I wrote a short story which was published in the University Literary Portfolio. In 2006, I worked as a call center agent in Cebu City. In 2007 up to 2008, I worked as an English accent trainer in a startup call center company. I have also been offering ESL lessons as a freelance tutor since February 2016.