Five Essential Strategies for Understanding


There are many challenges that we face as foreigners listening to a language that we have not grown up with but perhaps just studied in school. In fact, understanding spoken language is much more important these days than it was just twenty years ago for a number of reasons. First, a lot of information on the Internet comes in the form of videos without subtitles, unlike the films and series we used to spend our evenings watching on TV. And then, for students at university, lectures are increasingly given in English, as mastery of the language is seen as essential for better paying jobs after graduation. We therefore now need strategies for coping with listening comprehension more than ever before.


For language learners, there are many obstacles to overcome when listening: the speed of the language coming at us; background noise (when, for instance, people are interviewed on a busy street); our own limited vocabulary; unfamiliar accents; and, importantly, our inability to accept that there are going to be words that we just cannot understand and will have to guess. All these are compounded if we cannot see the speaker and so can't pick up on visual cues. But perhaps the most worrying is our lack of confidence in our ability to understand before we even start listening.

So, here are a few tips that might help you get more meaning from spoken English:

First, it's always a good idea to try to predict what information is going to be included and what is going to be the next point a speaker will make. To do that, we need to think about content. Our understanding of particular content can help us predict meaning. We share many areas of knowledge with the speaker and we need to bring these into play. If she is talking about environmental protection on a ship, we will hear words like 'marine', 'biodiversity', 'chemicals' and so on. It's also likely that she is going to use the present and future more than the past tense. This will help us follow the speaker's argument.

Next, we should listen for gist. Being able to identify key words allows us to predict which other words might be coming. We can then watch out for them. This is like sitting in a plane on take-off and looking at the cityscape below us. We see the whole picture at a glance. The only difference is that when we are listening, we get information in sequence: one thing comes after another, allowing us to pause and consider what might be coming next.

And then there are signpost words (which are also called in TEFL, cohesive devices, connecting words and a lot more besides). An introduction to any lecture will include the speaker's aims: "I am going to talk about four elements of opportunity cost, namely ...." As he proceeds through the lecture, he will, most likely, use signpost words and phrases, like 'In the first place', 'Moving on' and 'Last but not least'. These help us to keep track of where he is in his planned talk. Others might show us a change in direction or argument, like 'On the other hand', 'Nevertheless', and so on. Or they might alert us to anecdotes or illustrations: 'For instance', 'such as' and the like.

Fourthly, we sometimes need to listen for specific information. we might not be interested in all that he has to say but are just waiting for his criticism of another writer. We should watch out then for the name of the article or the author, a date, a university. List these before you start listening.

Finally, every good listener needs to infer, to make logical connections based on her own understanding of the world around us. If we consider the example of a shop assistant refusing a large banknote to pay for a packet of biscuits, her tone of voice and the fact that she does not immediately put the money in the till will help us to grasp the situation at once, even if her language is completely unfamiliar to us. We do this all the time when we start watching a video or listening to a lecture half-way through: snow and bears mean that the programme is probably about wildlife in a cold climate. We can expect information about prey, offspring, environmental threats to the bears' habitat, like global warming and the melting of the ice caps.

None of what I have written here is rocket science. But, all too often we do not follow these steps consistently. We need to, as they will help us overcome our fear of not understanding what is going to be discussed. So, don't just turn on the video but prepare first. Write down content words you are expecting to hear. If possible, pay attention to visual cues (snow falling into water = melting of the icecap = loss of animals' habitat). Think about what you know of the situation before you ever start listening: what would you say, if you were giving the talk? And take note of those signpost words!

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