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My Honest Opinion on Developing English Listening Skills

Developing English listening skills

Improve Spoken English

I hate when I’m told what I didn’t ask for, and so do most people for that matter.

Let’s say for instance, I walk into a drug-store and ask for slimming pills because I’m fed up with my extra weight and I want to look more masculine. The pharmacist starts telling me that I should start engaging in some physical activities, eat a balanced diet and use the pills only as a supplement.

Would I listen to him?

Nope! All that rant about a balanced diet and a workout regime simply wouldn’t register with me because I want the damn slimming pills which will give me the kind of a body I’m dreaming of, right?

Same goes with most advice we get in life – it’s very hard to change our beliefs and opinions just because someone tries to convince us of something. Basically it boils down to this – we often hear what we want to hear, and we just screen off everything else – unless we’re really trying to analyse the matter at hand and we have an open mind while doing so ❗

For example, I’ve been blogging about English fluency development for years on end, and I always point out the following things:

  • To speak fluent English we need to engage in HEAVY SPEAKING PRACTICE, there are no magic shortcuts!
  • Passive English immersion will mostly develop our understanding – NOT OUT ABILITY TO SPEAK!
  • You can’t listen your way to fluency, you need to speak in order to train your mouth and mind to work together!

Still there are many English teachers out there preaching the importance of English listening practice. Some even claim that first we have to spend all our time listening just like babies do, and then we’ll be able to start speaking…

Now I’ll adopt the role of the pharmacist trying to tell you something you probably don’t want to hear – but I’ll give it a shot nonetheless!

Don’t Separate Listening from Reading, Writing and Speaking!

Whoever told you to focus ONLY on listening in order to improve your English did you a big disservice.

Here’s why.

Say for instance, you spend most of your time listening to special English audios designed to improve your comprehension skills. Yes, your comprehension will improve. But it will happen at the cost of your spoken fluency because you just can’t speak the same way you hear!

If that were the case, we’d all be speaking like native English speakers because we understand what we’re told, right? But why can’t we speak with the same ease and fluency, why can’t we replicate the same exact speech patterns just at our will? Well, my friends foreign English speakers, it’s obviously got to do with the way our cognitive processes work.

We are not built like machines where input equals output. You can put in a new knitting pattern into a knitting machine and it will replicate it with a microscopic precision on a new set of sweaters.

We humans are different.

You can’t just listen to an English story and then recite it word-by-word. The hell, it’s even worse – after a few hours most of what you hear is forgotten completely, and all those new English phrases and expressions you may have heard are just dust in the wind ❗

It took me years to realize that the only way I could remember new English content is by REPETITION and MEMORIZATION. In other words, you have to combine listening with speaking, reading and writing – listen to the story, take notes of certain word combinations and phrases you feel would come in handy for you, then memorize them and in the end discuss the story with yourself or someone else.

You don’t have to repeat my mistake and spend years to eventually draw a conclusion that the best way to develop one’s English fluency is by working on all aspects of the language instead of singling out just one of them!

Listen to Something That You’re Truly Interested in!

You don’t have to approach English learning and improving as an academic discipline – if you do so, IT’S GOING TO BE BORING!

When you’re bored, you find it difficult to motivate yourself and you literally have to force yourself into the chosen activity.

If it’s English listening we’re talking about, my advice is to go for something you’d listen to in your native language. What’s the point in listening to audios covering topics you’re not interested in at all? It’s the same as if you were forcing yourself to listen to a radio show in you native language but you wouldn’t have the slightest interest in the topics being discussed.

Or even a better example – imagine yourself back in the high-school years sitting in a boring lesson (well, maybe you ARE a student right now – then you’ll know EXACTLY what I mean!) You’re not interested at all what you’re being told by the teacher, you start daydreaming, and everything is just washing over you as a jumble of unintelligible sounds.

You risk running into the same problems if you force yourself to listen to something that’s designed with a specific purpose of developing non-native English speakers’ listening skills.

Well, I understand purpose of such activities while you’re in the beginner’s stage of English learning. But once you’re past it, I don’t see any reason why you couldn’t start ENJOYING LIFE THROUGH ENGLISH instead of this academic approach of improving your comprehension and listening skills.

Here are just a few ideas of what you can listen that won’t bore you:

  • News podcasts
  • Radio show podcasts
  • Audio books

And if you combine audio with the visual content, your opportunities of finding something interesting to watch multiply hundredfold. Just take YouTube, for example. There’s everything on YouTube, my friends, literally EVERYTHING! You can watch older movies, with or without subtitles (depending on your comprehension level, actors’ accent etc.), how-to videos, interviews, stand-up comedy and what-not. Don’t like a particular video? Just don’t watch it! Find something more to your liking!

Surely you have some sort of interests of hobbies you’re so interested in that you would find it much easier to listen, watch and read about in English. And that, my fellow foreigners, is the driving force behind your English fluency improvement! You’ll acquire new English vocabulary and your comprehension will grow exponentially if you listen to audio content you’re truly interested in, and the concept of boredom won’t even exist for you then.

Dismiss Anything That’s Too Difficult For You!

I question may arise – “What to do if I find a certain radio show, podcast or video interview difficult to understand? Do I have to push myself hard to take notes of new words, specific terms and so on?”

If you’re an intermediate English learner, it depends. If your vocabulary needs an awful lot of improvement, you may find that nearly anything requires you to strain your perception. If that’s the case, you have to take action:

Just don’t force yourself too much. Listen to easy-to-understand stuff like interviews with celebrities on YouTube, for example, or something similar, and let your comprehension skills grow until you can start listening to something a bit more demanding.

However, if you find that you simply can’t understand half of what’s being said in the podcast or whatever else it may be, please do yourself a favor and just don’t listen to it ❗

Let me tell you how I listened to an audio eBook about the history and current state of the English language.

I got it in my local library, and judging by the cover it looked like an interesting piece. It consisted of 6 or 7 audio CDs, so I thought “Cool, that’s my week’s commute to work filled with useful listening!”

Long story short, I stuck in the first CD, listened halfway through it and brought the whole pack back to the library the very same week. I simply couldn’t listen to that rubbish! It wasn’t the level of difficulty – I could understand everything – it was the fact that it was so BOOORING that I had to force myself to listen to it and during the 30 minutes my mind wandered off something like 50 times…

When I changed it to my favourite radio station, everything was back to normal. I listened to the show, I HEARD IT, and I was 100% present in terms of my listening activity simply because I liked that radio show.

So I warmly suggest you go down the same road if you’re determined to improve your English comprehension by plenty of listening:

  1. Choose audio or video content that is of real interest and value to you;
  2. Discuss it with yourself or others and make sure to use the same sentences because they’re naturally occurring speech patterns and if you’re anything serious about your fluency improvement, you may want to add them to your active vocabulary;
  3. If it’s too difficult, don’t force yourself to listen to it, find something easier and more enjoyable.

Remember – let your passion and enjoyment determine what you want and what you don’t want to listen in order to improve your English listening skills!

Robby

P.S. Would you like to find out why I’m highlighting some of the text in red? Read this article and you’ll learn why it’s so important to learn idiomatic expressions and how it will help you to improve your spoken English!

P.S.S. Are you serious about your spoken English improvement? Check out my English Harmony System HERE!

English Harmony System

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Exactly! The most efficient way of improving English fluency is enjoying life through it!

  • Rayana

    very agree with you Robby i experienced to improve my language only by listening in the past but it didn’t work out..
    same goes with when you read something you don’t find it interesting it’s become hard to understand the vocabulary but when you read something you like and interested in you understand it with ease, right ?

  • Exactly! It’s like claiming that an adult brain functions the same way as the one of a newborn child – there’s clearly something wrong with this approach… 😉

  • This is an EXCELLENT post, and I completely agree with you! 

    Also, there’s a logical fallacy in the argument that only listening is the “natural” way to learn. When babies learn English, they DO in fact start “practicing speaking” as soon as they are able – from making nonsense sounds (this helps start to train the muscles of their mouth, lips, and tongue to form words)… to saying “ma ma ma”… to saying “mommy” and “daddy” and a few other words… and so on. If a baby just listened for 5 years without trying to say anything, of course he/she wouldn’t be able to suddenly speak perfectly!

  • Artmots

    Hi, Robby,
    This is Arti. I read your article about comprehension improvement activities. There is one thing more to it. Let’s imagine we take an american movie already translated into my native language and voiced. If I try to undertake a reverse translation I will practically never precisely fit the original English movie script. There will certainly be some successful hits but judging by my personal experience it’s just about 10 to 20 % of similiarity. I understand that this negative result happens due to the fact that there was a human translator initially inbetween. This is also clear that while making a reverse translation I was utilizing my active vocabulary and while listening my passive one was activated. That means that in my case there is a very slight connection between the two. What I have in the passive vocabulary translates into the active one stock very inefficiently.   

  • Well… Just do it! 😉

    I know it’s easier said than done, but it really is the key to everything we aspire in life…

  • Hi Serpiro!

    Yes, I wrote this article as a response to your comment on one of my recent blog posts and I’m glad you’ve enjoyed reading it.

    Please let me know if you’ve any more questions or things to add to the opinion I’ve expressed in my article!

  • Serpiro

    I understand that your article is in response to a comment I have made recently. If so, thanks a lot and congratulations because, so far, I hand’t read anything focused so deeply on this subjet.

  • Noor

    I want to do every thing you say it ….