how to become a better listener

(this was written as a response on HTLAL. here’s the original question)

Hey guys, I’m new to this language business. And I’m currently learning Spanish. When I’m reading, writing, learning, I find it very easy to pick things up like new words and sentences etc. However listening is just a nightmare, when someone starts rattling off verbally, I just crumble, how do you become a better listener when learning a language?

I’ve definitely felt this gap between written and audible communication. I had lots of trouble with this in Chinese, where I found that there was a lot of stuff that I could understand in written form, but not while listening.

One thing you need to adjust to is letting go of the words that you don’t understand. If you try super hard to understand every word that you hear, then you’ll get stuck in one place while the rest of the conversation continues without you. To solve this, you need to practice listening intensely to the sounds without getting “stuck”. You have to cultivate a mind-set where it’s ok for you to leave those words behind.

One way to practice is to find any sort of native-speaker audio (I particularly like news radio for this). Put it on, and just listen. I suggested news radio because it will have plenty of words that you don’t know, so you can get more comfortable with not knowing them (yet). Listen to the sounds, listen to how the language flows, and see if you can pick out a few words like the names of famous people and places.

Doing lots of listening of any sort will build your familiarity with the spoken language. I also like to have lots of audio on as “background noise” when I’m doing other things. Some people don’t like this as much, but I think that it really adds to the immersion environment. You don’t have to actively listen to it or understand it, just have it playing while you’re washing the dishes, walking to the bus stop, or even sitting at work (if it’s acceptable to have headphones on at work). This is just another way to get comfortable with the sounds and rhythms of the language.

The other benefit of using news radio for this, is that news radio is usually spoken very fast and very clearly. They almost never mumble the words. It’s very precise. Because it’s so fast, you can accustom yourself to the rhythm of an extremely fast speaker, and then when you go back to your regular slow-paced beginner material you’ll be amazed at how slow it sounds, and how easy it is to pick out lots of the words.

Another great way to practice listening is to watch lots of TV. As a beginner, I suggest watching something that you’re already familiar with (which may be an english show that’s dubbed in spanish). For example, I watched the entire series of “Star Trek: Deep Space 9” dubbed in german, and I learned a lot. The reason you want something familiar is because you will already know what the characters are like and what sorts of things happen in the plot. This will help you understand what’s going on even when there are many new words.

Also, just watching what the characters are doing in the scene will help you figure out what the words mean too. In Star Trek, I knew that usually when the captain gets to the bridge in an emergency scene, he shouts “Report!”. When I started watching it in German, a “red alert” scene came up, the captain came out, and he shouted “Bericht!” and I immediately understood it. 🙂

I’m sure that there are many other ways to improve your listening, but almost all of them involve spending hours and hours just listening to something. You get good at listening by listening. Yes, you will suck at the start, but that’s ok. Everyone sucks at the start. You just need to put lots and lots of time into it, and you will get good. Don’t worry about your current level, just try to get a little bit better each time. Step by step, you’ll improve, and after many hours you’ll realize that you understand quite a lot. 🙂


8 Responses to how to become a better listener

  1. Brian Barker says:

    As far as learning a new language is concerned, can I put in a word for the global language, Esperanto?

    I know that Esperanto is a living language, but it helps language learning as well.

    Your readers might also like to see

    A glimpse of Esperanto can be seen at

  2. WC says:

    I just wanted to say that this listening advice is spot-on.

    As for Esperanto, I was interested in learning it (and is a great resource) but where do you -use- it? With almost any language, I can find tv, movies, radio, etc on the net… Except Esperanto. Very few things have actually been made in the language. I’ll watch here for followup comments if anyone has resources for that, especially video or audio-blogs.

  3. I’d actually recommend avoiding dubbed video to trade up to actual native-speaker video if you can. Besides losing the native-speaker mouth movements and other body language in dubbed videos, I’ve also found that dubbed audio tends to be easier than the audio of a comparable native-language show would be, and that, when the target language doesn’t quite fit what was said in the native language, you sometimes get a target language translation that is being used somewhat awkwardly to accompany the video at a place where the native language fit perfectly.

  4. WC says:

    I definitely agree that native, natural content is preferable, but sometimes it needs to give way a little bit to fun. If -all- your input was dubbed, i’d say you have a problem… But if just some of it is, then I think you’ll be okay. At least, you won’t need any major re-learning.

    It’s not like everyone isn’t aware of how bad English-dubs are. 🙂

  5. troy says:

    I’ve definitely felt the gap! I didn’t want to pollute the comments too much so I posted my ideas on my blog:

  6. Brian Barker says:

    Just to add, there are native speakers of Esperanto. Those who have spoken this language from birth.

    A little bit of evidence here 🙂

  7. Rebecka says:

    I actually also tried using Star Trek, the Russian dubbed version. It didn’t work out all too well though, since I could hear almost as much of the original speech as of the dubbing, making both incomprehensible.

  8. Kyle says:

    There are lots of consumable media materials for Esperanto. – news website – ‘digg’ for the esperanto world – brand spankin’ new esperanto social network – the pasporta servo network, online – dubbing/subtitling project, over 50 films so far.

    you can find more than 60 books at project gutenberg (which is a drop in the bucket of around 25,000 works in the language that exist).

    This is all in a moment’s notice off the top of my head. I live in and consume Esperanto media constantly online.

    I should also mention that I learned in large part through IRC’s freenode #esperanto channel. There are also various blogs and forums, etc. More than I can ever get around completely to.

    Hope that helps. If you search for “esperanto” on my website, you’ll find a lot of hits for various resources.

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