Five strategies to aid understanding when listening


People listening to a language that they have not grown up with, face many challenges but understanding spoken language is arguably more much important than it used to be.


There are two main reasons for this. First, a lot of information online comes in the form of videos without subtitles, unlike the films and series people used to watch on TV. Second, for students, lectures are increasingly given in English, as mastery of the language is seen as essential for better paying jobs after graduation. This means that strategies for coping with listening comprehension are more important than ever before.

For language learners, there are many obstacles to overcome when listening, they include:

  1. The speed of the language coming at us
  2. Background noise (when, for instance, people are interviewed on a busy street)
  3. Our own limited vocabulary
  4. Unfamiliar accents
  5. Our inability to accept that there are going to be words that we just cannot understand and will have to guess

These problems are made more difficult if we cannot see the speaker and so can't pick up on visual cues. Added to all this is a lack of confidence in the listener's ability to understand before they even start listening.

With all this in mind, here are a few tips that might help get more meaning from spoken English:

Be prepared by thinking about content

It's a good idea to think about and try to predict what information is going to be included. An understanding of content can help to predict meaning. Try to bring any knowledge you have of the subject into play. This might include the vocabulary used about a specific subject, for instance. Or, if you’re listening to a story, perhaps you know something about it beforehand lime the characters or narrative.

Listen for gist

If you can identify key words you can often predict which other words might be coming and then watch out for them. This is like sitting in a plane on take-off and looking at the cityscape below us. You see the whole picture at a glance. The only difference is that when you are listening, you get information in sequence: one thing comes after another, which means you can pause and consider what might be coming next.

Listen for signpost words

In TEFL, these are sometimes called cohesive devices or connecting words and a lot more besides. Sometimes articles or stories start with an introduction and phrases, like 'In the first place', 'Moving on' and 'Last but not least’ can help you to keep track of where you are up to and might be going next or simply that the article or story is about to move to a different passage. Other signpost words or phrases show a change in direction or argument, like 'On the other hand', 'Nevertheless', and so on. Or they might indicate anecdotes or illustrations: 'For instance', 'such as' and the like.

List anything specific you need to listen for

Sometimes you might not be interested in everything you’re listening to but you need to listen for something specific. If that is the case, make a list of these things before you start listening.

Infer - make logical connections based on your own understanding.

This means using your own knowledge to pick up clues from what is being said that enable you to guess what it’s about. We all do this all the time in every day interactions with people, tone of voice, body language, watching a TV in a room with the sound turned off and so on. Often we do this without thinking about it, when you’re listening to a second language you just need to try to be more deliberate about it.

Much of what has been said here is obvious when you think about it. It’s really a matter of following these steps consistently and if you do so, they will help you overcome your fear of not understanding what is going to be discussed.

So, don't just start listening, prepare first. Write down content words you are expecting to hear. Think about what you know of the subject or story and take note of those signpost words!