How to Improve Listening Comprehension With One Technique

As someone who mostly studies written language, I find achieving or maintaining listening comprehension skills difficult. I don't engage in conversation much (if at all) so I just don't get much work at it.


The hard part about conversation is that it goes by so fast. How do you parse out what's most important? I'm still working out what was first said and they're already moving on to something else.

I know that practice makes perfect and all that, but is there a way to practice listening more effectively?

Actually, there is a trick to it. Well, there's one trick in particular that I think is most important. You have to learn which words and phrases the natives will gloss over and practice identifying and recognizing them. When you know that, you will know which parts you must focus on in order to understand what is being said.

I'll give you an example in English.

We don't often hear something like "Excuse me, do you want to go to the park?" We are much more likely to hear "Hey, wanna go duh duh park?" said in rapid-fire speech.

We slur and gloss over those small words. 'To the' becomes a mumble. It's just not carrying much information important to the meaning of the question. The words are so common that the listener can mentally replace the mumbled words with the correct ones intuitively.

But 'go' and 'park' are emphasized and clear, with a rising intonation at the end indicating a question. This tells us that the 'wanna' blur at the front of the sentence is 'do you want to.'

Much of the language we use on a daily basis is actually a big mess like this, but we instinctively know which parts to focus on. When we are learning another language we need to learn those things all over again in a new way. They don't teach these things in the textbooks and language courses, do they? So we have to work it out for ourselves.

It's just one of the many reasons people have a hard time adapting what they learn in a language course to real life use.

One technique I use to identify these things and help improve listening comprehension is by listening to and transcribing conversations and other spoken forms.

Find recordings of conversations with a transcription, so you can check your work. It's best at the beginning to look for audio at a level you should be able to understand. If the grammar is at your level but some of the vocabulary is unknown to you, this could still work, as well.

Youtube videos with subtitles, podcasts for language learners, news sites, audiobooks - depending on what language you're learning, there should be lots of options out there.

Focus on small segments, just a minute or two. You will be going through it quite slowly so it will be time consuming, but very instructional.

Listen through and begin to transcribe the entire conversation.

You will have to stop the audio, write down what you get, then continue the audio in fits and starts. At some points, you may miss what is being said. Don't puzzle on it too long, leave that spot in the transcription blank and move on for now.

While doing this, you will notice that some vocabulary, most likely very common words and phrases, are glossed over, said very quickly or slurred quite a bit. Just like in the English example above.

When you reach a good stopping point, go back and read through the transcription. Now, listen to the whole audio for that segment and read along. Probably do this a few times.

Listen for those glossing over and slurring parts. Notice which words and phrases are slurred and sped up. Practice recognizing those. Begin to assemble a mental list of them, or even a written list for reference if that's your style.

Remember, I recommended you use audio with a transcription or subtitles, right? Use that to check yourself. Make sure you got it right. There will always be spots that trip you up or you just can't figure out. Don't spend too much of your valuable time puzzling over a word or two. Move on to another conversation. You'll get it eventually.

This is like close reading but for audio. You're going over parts, scrutinizing every detail in order to identify what is most relevant to you - how things sound in real-life everyday spoken language.

Transcribing like this will help you identify what you must listen for in conversational language. But, you can do it without the pressure of doing it live and misunderstanding someone. It's a great intermediate step or preparation if you're not ready for live conversations yet.

It will help improve your listening comprehension when you find yourself facing real-life rapid-fire speech!

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