Improving your listening skills

In this post, I thought we might take a break from grammar and talk about listening skills. There are some good hints, and examples of FCE listening scripts on the Ready for FCE Listening page, but this post is about improving listening in general.

Baby Metal \m/

First of all, as you learn a second language, you will find that your listening skills will improve more quickly than your speaking skills; it is natural to be able to understand more than you can say when you communicate in your second language. There are certain things that you can do, and avoid doing, in order to improve your listening skills even faster, however.

1. Immerse yourself in the language.

If you really want to improve your English, the best way to do it is to live, work and study in an English speaking country. If you are having English lessons, that is a great start, and listening classes will have an impact on your listening skills. They will not allow you to improve as much as socialising and working with English speaking friends and co-workers though.

This is good news! It means that you can go out and have a drink or a meal with English speaking friends and call it “studying”.

I’m “studying” at the bar tonight with my English speaking friends.

Of course, all that socialising costs money, so the best thing to do is get a job working alongside English speakers. I can honestly say that from my own experience, these two things – socialising and working with native speakers- helped me to improve my second language skills more than anything else. In fact, I learned more from living in Japan for 6 months than I did in 3 years of Japanese language study at university. English is no different.

2. Listen to music

We all love music of one genre or another. What better way to improve your listening skills than to discover new artists and bands who sing in English! One of the best things about listening to English through songs is that when people sing, they naturally do a lot of the things that native speakers do when they speak.

How many times have you told an English teacher,

I understand you when you speak, but outside the classroom, people speak too quickly!

When people speak (and when they sing) their words run together, the pace is faster sometimes, and slower others. Their tone and volume change. They use slang.

Listening to music helps you to get practice at hearing native English, delivered at an authentic speed, but from the comfort of your own home/ car/ bus ride.

If you love music as much as me, you will be happy to try the website below. (Just click on the image) Lyrics training lets you listen to your favourite songs, watch the film clip, and type the missing words from the lyrics displayed on your screen. For an FCE student, I recommend starting with the Intermediate level, and progressing from there.

Try lyrics training; you won’t be sorry

3. Don’t try to translate everything!

When you are trying your hardest to understand what someone is saying in English, it can be quite stressful at times. There are so many different words with similar meanings, not to mention all the words that are pronounced the same and have different meanings! Then there is all the slang. If you are living and learning English in Australia, this can cause some real problems, because we love to shorten everything! (Take a look at the video below if you want to know what I mean)


What does all this have to do with translating? Well, if you try to translate each and every word that you don’t understand, it slows you down, a lot. While you are busy trying to find the meaning of that word in your brain, you have missed the next few words, and now you are lost. On the other hand, if you try to listen for the general meaning of what the person is saying, without trying to understand every word perfectly, you will actually understand more. Listening for the words you know, looking at the person’s body language, and thinking about why they are communicating (the context) will help you to understand more of what you hear.

4.Watch movies in English

(and yes, subtitles are okay, if you use them properly)

The last tip I have for improving your English, is to watch movies in English. Movies are enjoyable, and help motivate us to learn. They are full of examples of authentic (“real”) English, and may even help us to understand more about the culture of the countries where it is spoken.

In the beginning, it’s always a good idea to try to find a movie that does not rely too much on dialogue (spoken English). For this reason, even as an adult, some children’s movies can be a good place to start. Of course, you can always watch any movie you like with the subtitles on. Even though they do tend to distract a little bit from what is happening on the screen, having the written words there as you listen will help you to better understand what you are watching. This will hopefully help you to enjoy the movie more.

Another great way to use subtitles in a movie, is to help with your pronunciation. A former student of mine told me about this, and I thought it was a great idea. He would watch a movie with the subtitles on, and occasionally, he would pause the movie, and read the subtitles aloud as he tried to copy the actor’s pronunciation, timing and tone of voice. Basically, he was mimicking (copying) the actor. This is a great way to improve your listening and pronunciation.

So that’s it for improving your listening. There are of course other ways to do it, such as taking English lessons, joining a English practice meet up, and many more. The suggestions above should help you to see the biggest improvements in the shortest time, however. Feel free to contact me if you have questions, or a suggestion for other ways that helped you to improve your listening.