The Ultimate Way to Improve Your English Listening Skills
(Updated February 2017)
Abby Weng, English Coach & Consultant
You are probably familiar with the the troubles your body puts you through whenever someone’s speaking to you in English: the short breaths, racing heartbeats and sweaty palms, the spells of dizziness, even nausea…
In your head, you say things like these to yourself constantly:
“Should I ask them to repeat again? When does it become too annoying?”
“Do I seem stupid? But I’m not! I hope they don’t think so…”
“Oops, I think I just said something wrong. They seem confused. I must have misheard what they said.”
Somehow, time and time again, you survive the silent awkwardness of not knowing what to say because you have no idea what the other person just said.
It’s especially upsetting because your English really isn’t that bad
You’ve been learning the language for a while now — for years even! You know you could do better than that, but for some reason, your mind just goes blank as soon as the other person opens his or her mouth.
Here we go again; the panic sets in again. When will this end?
The pain of not understanding is unbearable!
Well, first of all — DON’T DESPAIR. This is really common; you are not suffering alone. I have helped countless others with the same problem, and what’s more: I too, have been through exactly what you are going through right now.
I started studying at an English-speaking school when I was 10, but it took me years to reach the point where I felt completely comfortable and confident in my English listening skills.
The secret was not actually the passage of time, but a powerful yet simple method which I will share with you today.
If you have trouble understanding another English speaker, don’t worry! By practicing the method covered in this article diligently, you’ll be able to gradually leave those scary days behind and truly begin to enjoy the English-speaking world!
In this article, we’ll cover:
– A bit about my struggles
– The solution I eventually stumbled upon
– Steps you can implement & frequently asked questions
Let me begin by telling you my story…
I truly started to learn English when I moved to Thailand in fourth grade
In those earlier years, English was very difficult for me as a non-native speaker, but soon, I could handle most daily conversations and even my academic work just fine. In fact, I became the top student of my grade just two years after transferring from a local Taiwanese school to the International School in Bangkok.
Still, in spite of that achievement, I continued to feel nervous whenever people talked to me — especially when they are in power (like the “cool” kids, the principal etc.) or when they’re strangers to me.
I was constantly worried that I had a hearing problem
I often misunderstood people or could not understand them at all. Some of my family members do suffer from poor hearing, so I thought that was a real possibility; however, I could hear just fine in Mandarin and the test results proved I had nothing to worry about.
Clearly, the issue had something to do with my poor English listening skills. Throughout my middle school and high school years, I struggled socially in part because of this.
Not being able to fully understand what others are saying definitely spoils the fun; in our anxiety, we tend to distance ourselves from others and miss opportunities because of our lack of confidence. We would rather be lonely than embarrassed.
Over the years, I could feel that I was improving naturally
However, I still felt the same old anxiety whenever I met new people. For a long time, I blamed the lack of total immersion. While I went to a school where everything was taught in English and everybody spoke English, I was convinced it was simply not enough. I thought if I could move to the States, where everyone outside of school also speaks English, things would be different.
You will notice a lot of English learners cling to this same misconception:
“One day, when I can have that full immersion experience, all my problems with English will be solved.”
It is definitely helpful to be immersed in an environment when learning a language, but immersion is not necessary for full fluency nor is it a guarantee for it.
The good news is that once the myth is busted, we don’t have to be limited by it. We no longer have to use it as an excuse to persuade ourselves that we must be stuck in our current state because we don’t have access to the right environment yet.
I eventually stumbled across the method I’m about to share with you in the United States
Don’t worry, the location has nothing to do with its effectiveness!
After graduating from high school, I moved to Philadelphia to study Linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania. Since I was taking out student loans at that time, I eagerly hunted for part-time opportunities to improve my financial situation. In addition to working as an IT staff in my dorm, I also found a gig at the Linguistics lab on campus.
One of the graduate students was conducting research in sociolinguistics, which is a branch of linguistics that studies how languages interact with different aspects of society (ethnicity, gender, age, level of education etc.). She conducted a lot of interviews with Irish-American as well as Italian-American teenagers and was looking for someone to transcribe all the recordings for her. Basically, she wanted the audio to be transformed to readable text.
I thought that was perfect for me
One of my responsibilities as the IT staff was to supervise the computer lab, so I had to spend long hours there without necessarily having to do anything if no problems occur. I figured I could make better use of that time by popping the CDs into the computer and listen, then type out exactly what I heard. This arrangement effectively gave me a raise without increasing the hours I worked. Sweet!
It wasn’t all sunshine, lollipops and rainbows though.
At least not right away.
For one, the teens in the interviews had rather strong accents that I was unfamiliar with; after all, the whole point of the research was to study the differences between the type of English spoken by those of Irish descent versus those of Italian descent. Moreover, they spoke quite fast and informally as they were excited teenagers. I had never heard some of the expressions they used before and still haven’t heard them since. In short, they spoke in a way that no one else around me spoke, so I was quite taken aback and found it difficult to complete that first assignment.
Don’t get discouraged if you can’t understand someone you’re unfamiliar with. It’s natural to take some time to adjust to different accents and styles.
Even topics you are unfamiliar with can affect how well you can understand. Not understanding right away doesn’t determine how good or bad your English is.
After struggling for a few hours, I decided that rather than listening to the interview on repeat, the smarter thing to do was to ask for help. I emailed the graduate student I was working for and told her about my problem. I asked if she could give me some tips to move forward.
She promptly replied with some suggestions:
1) Break down the task to smaller units that I can handle better e.g. 10-second or 20-second intervals.
2) Use earphones to hear the details more clearly.
3) Be patient and take breaks. It will get easier as I become more familiar with this type of speakers. This takes time.
These recommendations sent me on the way to become a productive transcriber. The work in turn improved my listening skills like nothing else has. When I look back and try to find that turning point in my listening skills and to locate the reason why I no longer feel anxious about interacting with others in English, this is it.
Happily, my part-time job also inspired me to help English learners improve their listening skills and gain confidence through the practice of transcribing.
Here’s how you can get started with your own listening practice!
1) Figure out which area of listening you would like to work on.
Some examples include: daily conversations, lectures, speeches etc. Try to be specific.
2) Find an audio or video file that relates to the category of listening you are trying to improve. Ideally, it should come with its own transcript or subtitles unless you have someone who can help you with this.
For example, if you’re an English Ever After member, you can ask me about any video/audio you decide to work on — this can really expand the range of your practice!
We also have plenty of transcription exercises in our library, and we work on new ones regularly in the listening portion of our Weekly Member Challenge.
3) Transcribe the audio/video.
In other words, write down what you hear — write down every single sound you hear by spelling out everything, even if you don’t know what the resulting word is or what it means.
I personally prefer typing because I can do it a lot faster.
4) Compare your work with the transcripts/subtitles of the audio/video. Analyze the differences between what you heard and what was actually said. Take notes, then listen to the parts you get wrong again until you can hear the right words.
5) Take a break. Come back to the track at a later date and listen to it again without referring to the transcript. Can you understand it much more easily now?
6) Either way, go back to step 2 and pick a different piece.
If your answer to step 5 is no, be sure to set a time to practice that piece again in the future. Schedule it in your calendar so you know for sure that you will come back to it.
Why does this method work?
1) You are actively listening.
The average person tries to enhance English listening skills by playing the practice material in the background as he goes about his day. He thinks it’s convenient and assumes that he is killing two birds with one stone.
Most likely, the sounds just become noise, and the improvement is minimal. The tiny progress is simply not worth the distraction (you must have heard by now; multi-tasking hurts you!) Transcribing forces you to pay complete attention to the material and work with it.
2) You are listening to the details.
Since you have to write down everything you hear and actually create a complete transcript, you must notice the details in order to accomplish the task.
This includes the word endings (e.g. plural -s, the past tense -ed etc.) and points of grammar (articles like a/an/the and prepositions) as well as pronunciation that people so often miss.
These details convey important information; being able to hear them also improves the way we speak as we become highly aware of the differences. Granted, people often blend sounds together or even eliminate them, but that’s what you will learn too, when you are listening so carefully. You will become both more sensitive and flexible as you begin to get a better sense of how people truly talk.
3) You have to think about the whole context and try to understand.
In order to complete the transcript, you must consider how the whole piece holds together and make sure that it makes sense. Transcribing everything puts you in a position where you must make the sounds and the meaning fit.
You will learn to make decisions based on both the sounds you hear and the context around what you hear. This is where many English learners falter. They often become too fixated on one aspect and struggle to figure out what is going on.
Transcribing gives English learners the time and space to practice this skill, which is crucial to improving English listening.
4) You have the opportunity to evaluate and learn from your mistakes.
Step 4 (comparing your work with the transcript/subtitles) is incredibly important.
Evaluation is the key to improvement. If you look back and examine the parts where you did well as well as the parts where you stumbled, you will know precisely what you need to work on and direct your effort there. For instance, in comparing the actual transcript and your own record, you can see your tendency to mishear or miss certain sounds.
Going forward, you will be more aware of them, and so you will be able to hear them finally. One of the main reasons why people sometimes can’t improve is that they simply cannot hear what they do not hear. The process of transcribing and evaluating your work shows you what you haven’t been able to hear so you can learn to become aware of the missing pieces.
How is this different from the listening exercises I normally do?
It is true that many English learning exercises already touch on aspects of transcription. You may be asked to listen to a track, then do some multiple choices or fill-in-the-blanks. Occasionally, though rarely, you may even be asked to transcribe an entire paragraph.
However, that’s where the similarity ends.
The reason why this method of transcribing can effectively improve your listening skills, whereas the others pale in comparison, is that it requires you to find samples from real life and asks you to take total control of your listening. English learning material invariably uses recordings that are specifically made for the purpose of your learning. It’s simply not that natural, and wherever there’s a gap between your practice and real life, you will suffer from disappointment when you step out into the real world.
Why not practice with the real-life material that is readily available thanks to the internet?
Isn’t this very time-consuming?
Yes and no.
The truth is, practicing in this way can indeed take up some time. It is certainly more demanding and intensive than listening passively or doing ready-made exercises in workbooks. However, the rigorous nature of the method is also the reason why it will help you improve exponentially.
Trust me as someone who has been through what you’ve been through. This is totally worth it. If you consider the years most people have to invest to achieve a higher level in their listening skills, the extra 30 minutes or hour that you spend today is a steal!
I had spent years excelling in International and American schools, but in the end, it was this approach that truly brought me to mastery. I am also incredibly grateful for the training because in my work now as an English language coach, I benefit every day from the sensitivity and flexibility I had cultivated as a transcriber. I am able to work with people even if their pronunciation and grammatical structure make their speech difficult to understand by most others.
Besides, if you are short on time, remember the advice my boss gave me: break the work down into smaller chunks. Just work on what you have the time for each day, but do it consistently. You will be able to build up your speed and work more efficiently if you stick to the practice.
The improvement in your English listening skill is worth the investment of time.
What are you waiting for?
You now have the exact steps you need to start taking your English to the next level! I can’t wait for you to see the amazing improvement you’ll be making once you get started with transcribing.
If you are interested in learning more about the why & how of transcription, there’s an exclusive video in my Facebook Group: A Taste of English Ever After.
Of course, you can always work transcribing and other aspects of your English on your own, but joining English Ever After can really make a huge difference as you’ll be enjoying professional guidance from me while benefiting from the support as well as inspiration you’ll get from other English learners just like you!