If you have difficulties in listening to and understanding English, you’re not alone. This is one of the most common problems for English learners! It’s frustrating and embarrassing when you can’t understand, but in this lesson I’m going to explain why it’s so difficult and teach you how to improve.
Listening to English and successfully understanding it is difficult for three reasons.
1. Many English words are pronounced differently from their written form
We have lots of words with silent letters like thought, island, and muscle. Also, many letters can be pronounced in different ways, like the a in apple, father, and game.
So you might easily recognize words in writing, but then when you hear words with the same letters being pronounced differently, it’s harder to recognize them.
2. When native English speakers talk fast, we link the words together
Native English speakers often shorten and connect the words when speaking fast. We don’t pronounce every individual word clearly.
So the question “How are you feeling today?” sounds like, “Howya feelint’day?”
And “I’m going to have lunch” sounds like “I’m gonna’avlunch.”
This linking happens in all spoken English sentences, and it’s one big reason that it’s so difficult to understand.
3. English learners get too little listening practice
Most English learners read too much and don’t listen to enough English.
But remember that babies and young children learn English by listening first – for several YEARS! – and then learning to read later. Getting more English listening practice is essential if you want to become fluent in the language.
Okay. Now that you know why listening is difficult, here is how to improve it.
There are two elements: practicing every day and practicing the right way.
Improve your English listening by practicing every day
Create the habit of listening to English for at least 15 minutes daily, but ideally as much as possible. Even if you’re busy and you don’t have much time, you can listen while driving to work or school, while taking public transportation, exercising, or doing housework.
What should you listen to?
But if you’re looking for some free options, check out:
Improve your English listening by practicing the right way
What does this mean? Well, there is a right way and a wrong way to practice English listening.
The wrong way to do English listening practice is this: you try to listen once, but you don’t understand every word and so you get frustrated and you give up and stop practicing after the first try. That’s a very common experience, but it won’t help you make progress.
To do English listening practice the right way, the first step is to relax and know that it’s completely normal to have limited understanding the first time you listen.
You should listen at least three times.
Listen the first time for the general topics; don’t try to understand every word. Just try to understand the main ideas.
Then, listen again and now try to understand some more specific details. Again, remember that it’s okay not to catch every word.
Listen the third time while reading the transcript, the text. Now you can pay attention to the individual words and see if your previous understanding was correct.
This type of listening, from more general to more specific, is the most effective way to practice and improve your English listening ability.
Your action item for today is to try it! Go to one of the websites I mentioned earlier, and listen to one program three times. If you make a habit of English listening every day and you practice the right way, listening three times to the same audio from general to specific, your understanding of spoken English will improve over time.
Improve your English listening by taking my course
You can also improve your listening skills by joining my Listening Course, which has 45 lessons with exercises that help you go from understanding the general idea, to specific details, to specific words. The audios in this course are available at both slow and fast speeds, so you can listen at whichever level feels most comfortable.
Whether or not you choose to sign up for my Listening Course, I hope this lesson has given you some practical tips for working on your listening and learning how to understand English better!