Things to Keep in Mind When Listening in a Second or Foreign Language

Listening is harder than reading– a sentiment shared by language learners around the world. In fact, one of the greatest fears of the language student is using a phrase correctly and being unable to handle the onslaught of native speaker speech received as a response. So, why is it that spoken language seems so difficult to process in comparison to the written word and what can a learner do to improve comprehension? Read on to find out!

1. Listening happens in real-time 
Unlike with reading, listening forces you to process language as it is delivered. That means you don’t have an opportunity to pause the activity to look up a word in the dictionary. But it’s important not to panic, as this conscious monitoring of the listening process can cause you to miss the rest of what is being said as well. Learn to relax your brain and keep your mind open until the listening text comes to a natural pause.

2. Listening doesn’t mean you hear every word
Listening is something we do naturally and many people don’t realise that even in our native tongues we don’t necessarily register every word someone says. Instead we pick up on keywords which give us the information we need to make inferences about who, when, where and most importantly what we are listening to. So listen for the big picture words and let your brain fill in the rest.

3. Listening is not as linear of an activity as reading is
In reading, the order in which information is presented is linear: you begin at the top of the page and move down. But listening doesn’t work in exactly the same way because the structure of spoken text is more flexible. Lucky for us, the human brain activates recognised words long enough for natural connections about meaning to be made. So don’t be so concerned with the order in which you hear keywords and instead consider all of the ways in which they can come together.

4. Listening comprehension improves when we have contextual clues
Context is everything because it allows us to use what we already know about a topic to make good guesses and language agnostic assumptions about what we are listening to. For example, imagine a man comes up to you in the desert and makes a drinking gesture. It’s highly likely the word he is saying means water. If you aren’t listening in a real life context, make sure you familiarise yourself with the topic or title of the text beforehand so you have some prior knowledge to go on.

5. Listening is easier when you recognise most of the keywords being said
Just as with reading, learning new words from context in a listening text is pretty tricky if you don’t already know most of the keywords. This is because it’s hard to make good guesses when so much of the information you have collected is blank. Ensuring you are familiar with 90% of the words in a spoken text facilitates contextual guessing and prevents you from the cognitive overload of trying to makes sense of too many unknowns.

Listening skills are crucial in language learning, especially when acquiring a second or foreign language. Here’s a detailed exploration of key considerations to keep in mind when listening in a second or foreign language:

  1. Active Listening:
    • Detailed Focus: Actively concentrate on the speaker’s words, intonation, and pronunciation. Pay attention to nuances and subtleties to enhance your comprehension.
    • Avoid Distractions: Minimize external distractions to maintain focus. Choose quiet environments when possible, and turn off unrelated electronic devices.
  2. Vocabulary Recognition:
    • Context Clues: Use context to decipher the meaning of unfamiliar words. Pay attention to the overall message, and use context clues to infer the meanings of unknown terms.
    • Cognates: Recognize cognates (words with similar roots in both languages) to aid in understanding. This can provide instant familiarity with certain terms.
  3. Varied Listening Resources:
    • Diverse Content: Listen to a variety of materials, including podcasts, movies, news, and songs. Exposure to different accents, speeds, and contexts will improve overall listening comprehension.
    • Authentic Materials: Include authentic materials that native speakers use daily. This exposes you to colloquial expressions and cultural references.
  4. Note-Taking Skills:
    • Key Points: Develop effective note-taking skills to capture key information. Focus on main ideas, supporting details, and any specific vocabulary that stands out.
    • Abbreviations: Create a system of abbreviations and symbols that work for you. This can help you take notes more efficiently without missing important details.
  5. Understanding Different Accents:
    • Exposure: Expose yourself to diverse accents early in the learning process. This helps your ear become accustomed to variations in pronunciation.
    • Practice with Native Speakers: Engage in conversations with native speakers to familiarize yourself with different accents. This can be done through language exchange programs or language learning apps.
  6. Predictive Listening:
    • Anticipate Content: Predict the topic or context based on the situation or introductory information. This proactive approach helps prepare your mind for the upcoming content.
    • Recognize Patterns: Identify common phrases or structures used in specific contexts. This recognition aids in predicting upcoming information.
  7. Repetition and Review:
    • Replay: If possible, replay audio materials to reinforce your understanding. Repetition helps solidify new vocabulary and improves overall comprehension.
    • Review Transcripts: Utilize transcripts or subtitles when available. After listening, review the written text to clarify any uncertainties and reinforce what you’ve heard.
  8. Patience and Perseverance:
    • Incremental Improvement: Understand that improvement in listening skills is often gradual. Celebrate small victories and acknowledge progress over time.
    • Persevere Through Challenges: Embrace the challenges of language learning, especially in the early stages. Persistence is key to overcoming difficulties and becoming a more proficient listener.
  9. Cultural Awareness:
    • Cultural Context: Consider cultural nuances and context when listening. Understanding cultural references and idioms enhances your comprehension and appreciation of the language.
    • Non-Verbal Cues: Be attuned to non-verbal cues, such as body language and tone, which can provide additional context to the spoken words.
  10. Interactive Listening Activities:
    • Engage in Conversations: Actively participate in conversations with native speakers. This interactive practice sharpens your listening skills and improves your ability to respond appropriately.
    • Language Learning Apps: Use language learning apps that offer interactive listening exercises. These often simulate real-life scenarios, providing practical experience.
  11. Seek Feedback:
    • Language Partners: Seek feedback from language exchange partners or teachers. Constructive criticism helps you identify areas for improvement and refines your listening skills.
    • Self-Assessment: Reflect on your own listening performance. Regularly assess your strengths and weaknesses, and adjust your learning strategies accordingly.
  12. Utilize Technology:
    • Slow Down or Repeat: Many language learning platforms allow you to slow down or repeat audio. Use these features to your advantage, especially when encountering challenging content.
    • Podcasts and Audiobooks: Explore language learning podcasts and audiobooks tailored to your proficiency level. These resources often provide transcripts and offer varied content.
  13. Embrace Mistakes:
    • Learn from Errors: View mistakes as opportunities to learn. Analyze misunderstandings and errors to identify patterns and areas that need improvement.
    • Positive Mindset: Cultivate a positive mindset. Embracing mistakes as a natural part of the learning process reduces anxiety and encourages continued efforts.
  14. Real-Life Application:
    • Immersive Experiences: Immerse yourself in the language as much as possible. Attend events, join language meet-ups, or travel to regions where the language is spoken to gain real-life exposure.
    • Daily Practice: Make listening practice a daily habit. Consistent exposure contributes significantly to improved listening skills over time.
  15. Adaptability:
    • Flexibility in Various Contexts: Train your ear to adapt to different language contexts, from formal settings to casual conversations. The ability to understand language in diverse situations enhances overall comprehension.

Incorporating these considerations into your language learning journey will contribute to the development of effective listening skills. Remember that consistent and deliberate practice, coupled with a positive mindset, is key to becoming a proficient listener in a second or foreign language.

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