It can be very difficult to improve your listening skills in another language. Here are my top tips for learning to listen in English:
1. Practise, Practise, Practise!
There is no doubt that the more you listen to English being spoken, the more you can improve. There are a wealth of resources not just on the Internet, but all around you. Get a DVD of your favourite film and listen to it in English. If you can, put on the subtitles. It’s often easier to read English than to listen to it, but if you are listening and reading then you can gain understanding from the reading and notice how sentences are said. With the visual clues of the pictures, you’ll understand more and more. On the internet, you can find a lot of news programmes and podcasts which can help you practise. Again, if there are subtitles, use them!
2. Try to understand the importance of connected speech
Connected speech is one of the most important things to understand when learning English. Words. Aren’t. Often. Separate. Sounds. – In the same way that we don’t have a full stop separating words, we don’t have breaks separating words. Let’s write that sentence normally: Words aren’t often separate sounds. Now, this is how many native English speakers would say this sentence: Word sarn toften separate sounds. The joined words all start with a vowel (aren’t / often). Usually, when we have a word that starts with a vowel, it will blend into the word before. Also, if words end and begin in the same letter (e.g. bus stop) the words sound like one word (bustop). Knowing these features of speech will help you to understand more examples of spoken English.
3. Be aware of different accents and dialects
It can be difficult to get used to a new accent. Perhaps your English teacher was American and now you have moved to Wales. The accent may be very difficult to understand. Realising that people speak differently (and often not grammatically correctly) is an important skill. Don’t worry about this! Native English speakers have difficulty understanding people with different English accents too, so you are in no way unusual. Just being exposed to a dialect and accent and listening to it often should help you improve. There are a massive variety even in the UK though, so don’t try to understand them all! Have a listen to the different voices of the UK here on the BBC.
4. English can be ‘weak’
In English, we don’t place the same importance on all words. Smaller words are often said very weakly. Look for example at the following sentence; I went to the shops and I bought an apple. In English, often all the small words (conjunctions, prepositions, articles) are more difficult to hear, and all the larger content words (nouns, verbs) are said more strongly and clearly. In the following sentence the strong words are in bold and the weak words are not: I went to the shops and I bought an apple. Try to practise this yourself and it should help your understanding.
5. Understand the musicality
English has a music to it like many other language (for example strength or weakness in the sentences, intonation, word stress). Understanding the variations in this can help you know the attitude or the meaning of the speaker. For example, ‘Where have you been?’ can be said in many different tones. The intonation can help you understand if the person is angry or surprised or curious. Similarly, the word stress can change the implied meaning of a sentence; look at these examples;
“I hate red pens.” – Not you but ME!
“I hate red pens.“ – I don’t like them. The stress here is on the HATE.
“I hate red pens.” – Any other colour is fine, but not red particularly.
“I hate red pens.” – I like other things red, but not pens.
6. Be a parrot
No, don’t go to the jungle and throw yourself off a tree! ‘Be a parrot’ just means ‘copy’. When you hear something in English, try and say it yourself, in exactly the same way. Think of how well you can do it, or what is different from the original version to your version. Have you connected the speech? Are you putting the correct stress on words? Are you using weak forms?
7. Live or holiday in an English speaking country
Lastly, nothing can beat going to an English speaking country and getting real life practice. So, if you can, take yourself away to be immersed in the language. You will have no choice but to practise then. However, if you spend most of your time speaking to people from your own country (and not in English), your listening skills won’t improve much. Many students do this!
This is not a definitive list. You may have other suggestions for improving your English. If so, please add them to the list!