Listening comprehension is tough.
Many intermediate learners find themselves in an uncomfortable (and disappointing) situation: they've got their language's grammar down, they can read books for fun, and having conversations is no longer scary. Nevertheless, while they can now discuss just about anything with their conversation partners, movies and television shows remain stubbornly out of reach.
This article is going to tackle listening comprehension from a few different angles:
- Why it's so difficult
- Various problems that create "static" and hinder comprehension
- The challenges associated with different types of listening activities
By the end of the article, you'll be able to develop a plan of action that will address the specific hurdles you personally need to overcome in order to understand a specific piece of audio.
Why listening comprehension is so hard
Very simply put, listening is a quite complex activity. You must simultaneously do several things:
- Convert sounds into words
- Understand those words
- Remember those words
At each of these stages there are multiple potential points of failure, which we'll cover below, and each failure will negatively affect your overall comprehension. These failures can even compound: if you fail to pick out a key word you'll miss the meaning of a given sentence, and now you have less context going into the next sentence, meaning that you actually end up missing much more than that initial unclear/muttered word alone.
In comparison, reading demands much less of you. All of the words are clearly written down on the page, meaning that (a) you can completely skip the task of converting sounds into meaning, and (b) you don't need to hold as much information in your head. These are significant advantages in that they allow you to completely focus on making sense of the sentence at hand. You've got more mental bandwidth free, so to speak, so the task feels easier.
Put differently: listening requires you to do everything you do when reading, but it also places additional demands on your ears and on your short-term memory. Rather than being held up by one big problem, it's likely that there are multiple little struggles working together to add "static" to your "radio signal."
Why it took me so long to improve, in hindsight
In the book Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, authors Ericsson and Pool turn a critical eye to the behaviors of experts and amateurs: why do some people become incredible at what they do, while the rest of us don't? Is there anything us aspiring amateurs can do about this unfortunate reality?
More importantly, how does this relate to listening comprehension?
Research has shown that, generally speaking, once a person realizes that level of "acceptable" performance and automaticity, the additional years of "practice" don't lead to any improvement. (P13)
They go on to distinguish four different types of practice:
- Naive practice: Mindless repetition — what most people do. Spend enough time doing something and you'll get comfortable doing it. You'll eventually plateau. Instead of continuosuly improving, you basically end up making the same mistakes more quickly.
- Purposeful practice: Establish a specific goal, take intentional steps that bring you closer to that goal, obtain and reflect on feedback to optimize your approach, frequently try new things just to see what happens.
- Proto-Deliberate practice:Find an expert, observe what they are doing, figure out how it differs from what you're doing, develop training routines that allow you to close the gap between the expert's performance and yours.
- Deliberate practice: A combination of purposeful and proto-deliberate practice that is furthermore guided by an expert teacher (someone capable of devising effective training routines that are tailored to your specific ability and temperment.)
In hindsight, it took me a long time to move past the "naive" practice stage. I never spent much time thinking about why I was struggling to understand a given piece of content. This caused me to waste a lot of time practicing skills that were already good enough and ignoring my real weaknesses.
Sources of listening problems — plus solutions
Listening problems are not made equally. Two people can misunderstand a given piece of audio for different reasons. I'm going to introduce several reasons that people misunderstand what they hear. Your job is to figure out which of the problems apply to you.
Very loosely speaking, I think these problems fall into three categories:
|You don't sufficiently understand how the pronunciation of your language works, so your ears (listening) provide much less reliable information than your eyes (reading) do.||Even if you had perfect ears, you still wouldn't understand everything you heard. You've also got to know what a word means and recognize the grammatical relationship between the words in a sentence.||Listening is a sort of performance—a number of things can throw you off, including some things that aren't necessarily related to your target language itself.|
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1. "Hearing" Problems: From sounds to words
Note: This section is quite long. I've gone out of my way to be clear and provide sources because I think that it's commonly misunderstood; something that many learners feel lost with.
A lot of what I'm going to talk about in this section relates to what is more formally known as bottom-up processing: the rudimentary process of taking arbitrary sounds and deriving meaning from them. This adds an additional layer of difficulty to listening tasks. Before you can worry about understanding what you hear, you first must figure out what is you're actually hearing.
Further complicating matters, this is a sort of chicken-and-egg situation. Advanced learners put more effort towards what are known as top-down processing strategies—making inferences based on context, the goal of an activity, knowledge of the speaker, and so forth (Conrad, 1985; Tsui & Fullilove, 1998, Zheng 2018). Having the spare mental bandwidth to make those sort of inferences means that you're not really concerned with converting sounds to meaning anymore—that whole process has become automatic. (Hulstijn, 2003).
Takeaway for learners: Ridgway (2000) argues that "learners learn the skills of listening comprehension from what is comprehensible to them. They need to practice listening comprehension, not listening incomprehension." (For more on what extensive/comprehensible listening is and isn't, see Renandya & Farrel (2010) p56. For more on why it helps, see this article on "over"learning.)
Glossika carries you through this stage by having you listen to thousands of snippets of native audio that gradually get more difficult. This ear-first approach forces you to connect sounds to words: the first benefit our users notice (often within just a month/a few thousand repetitions) is that their target language suddenly sounds clearer.
1a. Phonetic matching
At the most basic level, you need to be able to connect sounds to letters/symbols and tell similar sounds apart. This is harder than it sounds. When you're just starting out, you'll often find that there are significant gaps between what you think you heard and what you actually heard. Typical problems you'll run into include:
- New sounds: Compare the IPA of English to that of your target language. You'll likely find new sounds, and potentially contrasts that do not exist in your native language. Korean speakers must differentite between the T sound in top and the T sound in stop.
- Soft/unclear sounds: Many learners of English struggle to hear the difference between fifty and fifteen.
- Allophones: Certain sounds are considered to be interchangable: bottle, boddle, bo'ull. If you aren't aware that a given word might be pronounced in multiple ways, you'll be thrown off.
- Assimilation: We have lazy tongues and often smoosh sounds together. Say would you very fast—it becomes wuh joo. Now say hot potato–it becomes hop potato. (More examples here).
Before you start panicking, know that you'll figure a lot of this stuff out naturally. Allophones and assimilations look scary, but they're very natural: it's easier to pronounce words like that. New sounds are tricky, but they won't be new forever.
Solution: If it's been awhile and this stuff just isn't clicking, I recommend you spend a bit of time learning the international phonetic alphabet (IPA). It's essentially a set of blueprints that teaches you how to make any sound—in other words, it will tell you exactly what you need to listen for in order to differentiate troublesome sounds.
- Learn about the IPA's three core components: place of articulation, manner of articulation, and voicing
- To establish a frame of reference, learn the IPA of your native language (here's English)
- Look into the IPA of your target language (here's Korean) and figure out the new sounds
- If you want even more detail, look for contrastive analyses of your native and target language (here's EN<>KR) and/or Wikipedia's phonology page for your language (here's Korean)
Most importantly—know that this isn't just you. Picking out sounds is an incredibly common source of trouble. Consider this student's complaint in Wang (2010):
Sometimes I hear a word that sounds very familiar in a sentence, but I cannot realize its meaning. I am very annoyed by this…when I check against the transcript, I often wonder how come I cannot recognize such a simple word.
1b. Suprasegmental features
Have trouble hearing where one word begins and another word ends? You're probably struggling with suprasegmental features, which include things like:
- Juncture: How one word connects to another word. The good news of juncture is that it makes it possible to differentiate words like an aim and a name. The bad news is that it often blurs the lines between how things look and sound: my name is Sami is pronounced more like m' nay mihh Zami.
- Length: In some languages, the "length" of a vowel separates one word from another. Say easy—now stretch out the vowel and say eeeeasy. Imagine that ea and eeeea were considered to be separate sounds.
- Pitch: We communicate a lot of emotional information via pitch. Say dude! angrily — and now say dude? in a confused fashion. The pitch of dude! falls, but the pitch of dude? rises.
- Stress: Certain syllables get a little more "oomph" than other syllables, a la Hermione Granger in it's leviOHsa, not levioSAH.
For a "hands-on" experiment, say a random phrase. Now imagine that you were saying that same phrase to a baby or your pet. Your voice probably took on a "sing-song" or "cooing" quality, and the difference between your normal voice and this "pet" voice comes down to suprasegmental elements.
While largely "mechanical" in nature, suprasegmental elements still cause headaches because the "norm" tends to differ frmo language to language.
Solution: Check out these three videos from Hadar Shemesh: Melody, Stress and Rhythm in American intonation | Connected Speech and Phrasing | Intonation and Pitch. It'll take about an hour to get through them, but by the time you finish, you'll know exactly what to listen for in order to identify the "music" of speech—and, perhaps more importantly, give you a simple way to practice hearing and replicating these things, yourself.
Although you know how to construct the sentence, the words are accurate and you don’t make any grammar mistakes… but if you don’t distinguish the right words, if you don’t stress the right words and put emphasis on the words that are stressed, you become unclear.
[Pronunciation is about] recognizing your speech patterns and listening to how native speakers speak, which helps you to understand how [a language] should be spoken.
~ Hadar Shemesh
1c. "Register" issues
It's important to recognize that, in a certain sense, we have many voices. We have "our" voice, but we don't use that neutral voice all the time. When we're frightened, we stutter; when we're angry, we're loud; when we complain, we often drag vowel sounds out. If you're in a formal situation, you probably speak quite clearly; if you're drunk, your words will slur together.
None of that stuff is new, per se. It's just a mix of the same phonetic elements and suprasegmental features we talked about above... but they're new mixes, and they come with a learning curve. Expect to experience growing pains when making the jump from content targeted at learners (which tends to be prnounced as clearly and neutrally as possible) to content aimed at natives (which likely contains the full range of emotional nuance available in the language.)
Solution: Find a transcript and listen carefully. Your goal is to identify specific ways that the speaker's voice differs from what you'd expect of "neutral" speech. In concrete terms, what does it mean to speak in an "angry" or "frightened" voice?
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2. "Knowledge" problems: From words to meaning
Figuring out what was said is only the beginning of the game: now you've got to make sense of what those words actually mean. Knowing that the speaker said sagacious doesn't (immediately) help you if you don't know what that word means.
Takeaway for learners: You can make your life significantly easier by picking a single medium-and-genre pair and then sticking to it for awhile. The amount of unique language used in Dave2D's YouTube laptop reviews is significantly more limited than the amount of unique language used across the entirety of English. You can more quickly get "fluent" in "Dave2D tech English"—and from there, consuming a bunch of those videos will serve as a springboard to help you get through different mediums and types of content. (Replace Dave2D YouTube laptop reviews with whatever you're personally interested in.)
2a. Not enough processing speed
Perhaps the most common complaint made by learners is that people speak too fast.
- Underwood (1989) lists it as the #1 problem learners face: "Many English learners believe that the greatest difficulty with listening comprehension is that the listener cannot control how quickly a speaker speaks (p16)."
- In Zeng (2007), 100% of surveyed Chinese students felt that their greatest problem with listening comprehension was that speech is too fast.
Solution: Simply take a few listens. If your problem really comes down to the fact that someone is speaking too quickly for you to follow, you will understand more and more with each replay, even without doing anything else. (If you've listened to a piece of audio several times but it's still incomprehensible, look into other potential issues first.)
As you spend more time listening—and especially as you master the sounds-to-words "bottom-up" skills mentioned above in section one—this will eventually become a non-issue.
2b. Unknown words and grammar
This one is pretty self-explanatory: the fact that you're learning a language means that your abilities are limited. You're well aware of the fact that you need to learn more words and get a better grasp on grammar points and sentence structures.
What I don't think as many people realize—discussed at length in my article on how many words do you need to know to speak another language—is the fact that not all words (or sentence structures!) are made equally.
- Professor is one of the most common words used in Harry Potter, but it isn't even in the top 10,000 words used in the "old" literature hosted on Project Gutenberg
- Wand is another word that's very important for Harry Potter, but it's the 28,606th most-common word on Wikipedia (meaning you'd 28,605 words appear more often)
Solution: In the very beginning, try limiting your listening materials to a single person (say a podcaster or YouTuber). You'll get used to their voice relatively quickly, and this will let you spend more of your attention on the new vocab words or grammar points. Branch out to new people (ideally still talking about the same topic—music theory, book reviews, cooking, whatever your thing is) as your confidence improves.
Limiting yourself like this is essentially a way to minimalize chaos. If you're against doing that for whatever reason, then continue with the process of learning vocabuary and grammar, but try to put an emphasis on learning the sort of words and grammar that commonly come up in the content you enjoy consuming.
2c. "Filtering" issues
Not everything we say is essential information. A lot of it is just fluff that helps string the keypoints together. In this Reddit comment I demonstrate what this means for comprehension by breaking down a couple paragraphs from Murakami Haruki's Kafka on the Shore.
But to be brief, consider this:
- He was driving a jet black car.
- He was sabotaging a black car.
If you missed the word jet, you wouldn't really miss anything important. If you missed the word sabotage, you completely miss the meaning of the sentence.
Solution: Constantly ask yourself what the goal/desired outcome of a given listening session is: whether it's a phone call or a paragraph in an audiobook, what are you hoping to learn? From there, get in the habit of focusing on what you can understand, rather than what you can't. Sometimes, that's going to be little more than someone went somewhere and did something. With practice, you'll get better at making on-the-fly decisions about whether your imperfect understanding is good enough to satisfy your goal or if you need to go back and address an important misunderstanding.
2d. "Matching" issues
For the sake of avoiding redundancy, we often make ambiguous references back to things that were previously said using words like this or that: I think that that is great. If your target language belongs to a high-context culture, speakers will omit a lot of parenthetical information—they feel it would be condescending to assume you aren't capable of connecting dots by yourself. Even in the best of situations, conversations often bounce around without progressing in a linear fashion.
As such, you may find yourself in situations where you understand what is being said, but you aren't sure what that particular comment is referring to.
Solution: Go back through the dialog again and pay more attention. As your listening skills improve, you'll get better at filing potentially useful information away for later.
2e. "Cultural" or "background information" issues
The expected sequence of events in a particular scenario (known as behavioral scripts) differ from culture to culture. These scripts allow for communication to occur "between" the lines. Consider the following scenarios:
- Jeff Dunham has a joke that goes something like this: The Washington monument? I thought it as a monument to Bill Clinton!
--> This is a pretty simple sentence, but its meaning will go completely over your head if you aren't familiar with US political scandals.
- Coffee or tea? One night at university in Japan I invited a few friends over for dinner. I asked a Japanese friend if he wanted something to drink—he said no. A few minutes later, my Japanese roommate gave the guy a glass of tea, which he happily drank. I was confused.
--> The issue here wasn't language but culture: I expected an honest answer, but my Japanese friend expected that I would know he was going to initial defer my offer. My Japanese roommate informed me that next time I should skip the shenanigans and get right to the point: coffee or tea?
If you find yourself in a situation where you (seem to) understand everything that's been said but you don't understand why it's significant or the subsequent comment seems like it came completely out of the blue, you might be missing important background information.
Solution: Try Googling around or asking a native speaker and see what you find. Unfortunately, life is hard when you don't know what it is that you don't know.
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3. Non-linguistic problems: How you can sabotage yourself
Surprisingly often, what holds us back doesn't necessarily have anything to do with our actual language proficiency. I'm tempted to call these "you" or "us" problems because they all refer to psychological/cognitive ways that we sabotage ourselves.
Takeaway for learners: Language is performance, and that makes many people (especially introverts) feel nervous, anxious, and frustrated. Know that there are a number of socio-affective strategies you can employ to reduce those forms of emotional interference, and that most negative feelings associated with a language will lessen over time and exposure.
3a. Spacing out
As simple as it sounds, spacing out is an eternal danger that threatens beginners and advanced students alike. Life is full of distractions, and listening is an intense activity. Missing a few seconds here or there likely means missing an entire bit of dialogue—and if you're not careful, you might find that you've spent 15 minutes listening to a YouTube video but don't really remember what was said. (This is a personal struggle for me; I have difficulties following podcasts even in English.)
Solution: I've personally gotten the most mileage out of the form of meditation introduced in John Yates' The Mind Illuminated. To him, meditation is training for two things: focus (how to summon, direct, and sustian it) and awareness (keeping tabs on what's going on around you.)
The book basically asks you to practice by picking a meditation object (your breath) and focusing on it. Before long your mind will wander. That's OK—in fact, it's sort of the point. Upon realizing that your mind has wandered, pat yourself on the back and bring your attention back to your breath. With practice, you'll get faster at recognizing that your mind has wandered, meaning that you space out less often (and for less amounts of time).
More importantly, the breath is commonly used as a meditation object merely because it's convenient. Once you learn to direct your focus, you can direct it to whatever you want—such as the podcast or test question or conversation that you feel you should be listening to.
The best way to train mind-wandering is... simply taking a moment to enjoy and appreciate "waking up" from mind-wandering... Conscious intention and affirmation powerfully influence our unconscious processes. By valuing this moment, you're training the mind through positive reinfocement to wake you up more quickly in the future. (P82).
3b. Negative feelings: frustration, anxiety, nervousness, etc
Learning a language involves spending a lot of time not understanding things, which is frustrating. We've spent most of our lives effortlessly understanding things, and it can be a shock to suddenly find that you don't understand things. We feel helpless and we feel stupid, and that negativity can give birth to all sorts of complicated feelings that throw wrenches in our efforts to make sense of the world in another language.
During my third year of university I told an academic advisor that I spoke Spanish. She suddenly switched into Spanish, and I was so shocked that my brain froze for about ten seconds. The advisor smirked and then switched back to English. I felt so ashamed by the experience that I stopped doing anything in Spanish for awhile—and the worst part of it all was that, walking out the door, I was actually able to recite most of what she'd said. I understood... my brain just couldn't get over the we're not using English right now! factor, for whatever reason.
Solution: Unfortunately, things are going to suck for awhile. Having been through this process in a few languages now, though, I promise you that things get better. After a few encounters your brain figures out that it isn't going to die, and things get a little less painful from there. Eventually, through sheer exposure, you develop confidence that (a) you will understand what is said to you, and (b) that the other person will understand what you say back to them. It just takes time.
If this is a chronic issue for you, I personally got a lot of value out of the book The Happiness Animal and No Mud, No Lotus. The first book provides an effective method to walk your way back from any emotion, observe the things chained to it, and eventually find its source. The second book contains a lot of practice advice in regards to coming to terms with those things.
3c. Startling yourself into missing subsequent words
When you stumble into an unknown word or grammar point, it's startling. Especially if you're a total beginner.
What's scarier is that, if the average native English speaker talks at a rate of 150 words per minute, dwelling on that missed word for just half a second means that you probably end up missing the next two words, too. Now you've gone from missing a single word to (most likely) failing to understand an entire sentence—and if this was an important sentence, you might struggle understanding the entire point being made.
Solution: A big part of learning to listen at native speeds is learning to let ambiguities go. If you're lucky, context will quickly clarify whatever it was that you missed—or maybe you discover there's no probelm at all, because what you missed was a non-essential word. If you're unlucky, you'll at least know exactly what the problem is, enabling you to quickly rewind if you're watching a video or ask for clarification if you're having a conversation.
Here's another student quote from Wang (2010):
Sometimes, the speed is too fast. For instance, when I was trying to figure out the meaning of the first sentence, the second sentence flashed away, then I had to struggle with the third sentence as I missed some information in the middle.
The challenges presented by different listening activities
In the above section we walked through a bunch of potential problems you might run into when listening to something in a foreign language. While that's good to know, it might not be super practical. Listening isn't listening isn't listening. Different activities entail different challenges and place different demands on you, as a listener.
This is a more "hands-on" section. We'll look at different sort of listening activities you might choose to engage in, then talk about what makes each one harder or easier.
So long as you don't feel too nervous, this is probably the easiest form of natural listening practice available to you—you get to take advantage of the word please. You can ask your partner to repeat themselves, to rephrase a confusing sentence, or simply to slow down. (It may sound scary at first, but in reality, people hardly notice. While you're hyper aware of your own mistakes, the person you're talking to isn't. Furthermore, we regularly ask people to repeat themselves when speaking our native language.)
The good news doesn't only come from your end: your partner will quickly get a feel for what sort of language you do and don't understand, then adjust their speech accordingly.
In a word, conversations are interactive.
As surprising as it may sound, while one-on-one conversations are perhaps the easiest form of listening practice, conversations with you and multiple native speakers might well be one of the hardest.
The "harsh reality" of the 80/20 rule is that 80% of the language gets used only 20% of the time. You can take this math further: 64% of the language gets used only 4% of the time; 51.2% of the language gets used less than 1% of the time. Achieving 98% text-coverage of a not-too-technical novel only requires ~8,000 words, but the average college-educated English speaker knows ~25,000+ words.
The takeaway here is that small adjustments by a native speaker can result in speech that is dramatically easier to understand. Native speakers likely make these accomodations almost unconsciously, even if you're a very advanced speaker. As such, you'll likely notice a stark difference in difficulty between mutli-person conversations and one-on-one conversations.
This difficulty is further compounded by the fact that the entire group is playing off of each other—topics are getting tossed in and out, cultural references may be being made, people are talking over each other and making inside jokes, and all sorts of stuff. Whereas there are clear turns to be taken in one-on-one conversations, you have to proactively seek opportunities to get your word in when multiple speakers are involved.
Movies and television shows
When you're in the middle of a multi-person conversation, you still have a saving grace: these people are your friends, so they're probably relatively similar to you. If you're watching a movie or television show, however, you're now thrown into the midst of conversations between lawyers, medieval pirates, and space marines from the year 3,000. They may discuss things you're not remotely familiar, may have very different accents, and use a lot of jargon. Compared to a real-life conversation, you're also more likely to be faced with very emotional speech, which adds another layer of difficulty for your ears.
The saving grace is that you can pick what you watch. A show about the daily lives of normal people will likely be on the easier side—all of the stuff that comes up is language that will realistically show up in the course of a given day.
All of the same comments apply here, depending on what you're listening to. A podcast where a single speaker just talks about random topics will probably be pretty easy to follow; a podcast where people argue about politics will be harder to follow.
Whether you pick an easier or harder podcast, life is made a little more difficult by the fact that your eyes don't have anything to do. If I'm not being careful, I often find myself distracted by things that are happening around me when listening to podcasts.
Audiobooks are books—read aloud. This presents a number of unique challenges.
- Whereas speech is spontaneous, authors can rewrite a single sentence until they're happy with it. This leads to sentences that are longer, more complex in structure, and peppered with more difficult/specific vocabulary words.
- Whereas speech is disjointed, and a person may re-approach the same idea several ways before feeling like they've made their point well enough to move on, writing is often much denser in terms of meaning-expressed-per-wordcount. You'll need more processing power.
- Whereas conversations are pure dialogue (what you're saying), books aren't. They also include descriptions of what things look or feel like, for example—this may mean you're seeing your target language used in ways you haven't used it before because, in real life or in a movie, you can simply show something instead of narrating a description of its appearance.
- In quite physical ways, the written language is different than the spoken language. You may encounter verb forms or sentence structures in writing that just don't really get used in speech.
In other words, audiobooks present you with all of the challenges of both reading and listening.
In most of the things you find yourself listening to, the primary goal is communicative in nature. Whether you're talking about your day or explaining nuclear fusion, you'll do your best to speak in a way that makes yourself more likely to be understood.
With music, however, priorities change. Speech may speeed up or slow down in order to fit a certain rhythm, singers constantly employ non-standard articulations of vowels and consonants to help with pitch or to create effect, and a bunch of sounds will be competing with the voice for attention.
Music is great in that it's replayable, but depending on your musical preferences, it'll likely be quite awhile before you can effortlessly understand what you hear.
There's no silver bullet for listening comprehension: different types of listening involve different sorts of challenges, and there is a whole variety of reasons you might not understand a given piece of audio. Glossika tries to streamline the process of improving your listening comprehension by giving you a massive amount of comprehensible input.
If you're learning independently, employ purposeful practice:
- Identify the reason(s) you're struggling to understand a specific piece of audio
- Come up with steps you can take to address that specific weakness
- Keep the things that give better results, discard the things that give worse results
- Listen to as much content that you can understand as possible—over time, you'll struggle less often... and when you do encounter hurdles, you'll know exactly what you need to do to get over them
Interested in listening comprehension or pronunciation?
- How to Improve your Pronunciation in Any Language
- 3 Scientifically-Proven Ways to Improve How You Learn
- The Glossika Method: How We Develop Your Language Abilities
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