7 Tips to Help Improve English Listening Skills

December 19, 2016
19 December 2016,

We write a lot in this space about how to improve your English speaking skills, but a major component of that process is to improve English listening skills. Listening in a focused and attentive way will help you speak more naturally and intuitively, rather than as though you were reading from a textbook.

Below you’ll find seven top tips to improve English listening skills.

Focus on parts rather than the whole

The words someone says are only one part of the entirety of spoken language. It’s also important to pay attention to intonation, where the stress is placed within a word or phrase, and where breaths and pauses are taken. Try listening to a conversation or recording and focusing your ear only on the intonations of words (how the voice rises and falls as a word or phrase is pronounced).

You’ll hear, for example, that the voice generally rises at the end of a question. It will also often fall lower on the second word or syllable of a sentence (as this is often where a breath is taken). When you listen for stresses, you’ll learn about which syllable is emphasized in a given word. This can be different depending on where the speaker comes from, but usually it’s fairly uniform. Which brings us to the next tip on how to improve English listening skills:

Listen to speakers with different accents and from different places 

In the real world, you’ll often encounter people with varied English accents. To an untrained ear, someone from Texas and someone from Canada might sound like they are not even both speaking English! So it’s important to try and train your ear to recognize the same word pronounced in multiple ways.

The classic example is the word “out.” A Texan will stick a w sound in there and almost elide the final t — “owwt”— whereas a Canadian will use a very short, round “ou” sound and sharpen the t. These days it’s easy to find podcasts and videos of English speakers from all over the world, so pick a variety and listen away.

Want to improve English listening skills with a help of a Native English teacher? We can help you find a teacher.

Improve English listening skills with repetition

As with so many things, repetition is helpful in order to improve English listening skills. If you’re having trouble getting the hang of how a particular word is pronounced, or how the intonation of a common sentence should sound, listen to it over and over. You can ask your English friends to let you record them speaking, perhaps, and then practice saying it aloud as you listen.

Make it background noise

We learn with both our conscious and subconscious brains, so you don’t have to be actively listening to something in order to pick up nuances and sounds from it. While you’re cooking or doing homework or other chores, “listen with one ear” to an English audiobook or TV show or just absorb the sounds while you’re paying attention to other things. Your brain will catch the intonations, pauses, and other rhythms of speech, thus helping you imitate it when you talk.

Provide competing sounds on purpose 

Sometimes we are lucky enough to be speaking to someone else in a quiet room with no interruptions or other noises, but most of the time there are other conversations going on right next to us, or cars and trucks going by, or music playing. That’s why it is essential to train your ears to be able to focus on and pull out the English words of the conversation we want to hear, while disregarding other noise.

It will feel like very hard work for the first little while, but it gets easier over time. While you’re conversing with a friend or teacher, open the window or put on some music, ask your children to play nearby, and then listen hard, pushing away all the other noise and finding the words your English conversation partner is saying. And speaking of which…

Quiet, please 

Listen to English at a low volume sometimes to offer your ears and brain an additional challenge. Many people do speak very softly so it’s good practice to make your ears work a little harder to determine what’s being said.

Practice with  native English Speaker

And finally… Live is better than recorded if you want to improve English listening skills. If you have the opportunity to practice with a native English speaker, do that instead of listening to recorded speech. Why? Because a lot of the time, people change how they speak if they know they’re being recorded, and you’ll hear a more natural way of speaking if you listen in real life. Treat every conversation as an opportunity to really listen not only to what the other person is saying, but how they say it, and ask questions if you’re curious about a particular intonation or stressed word. Clarifying what you hear helps you internalize how to say it yourself next time.

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