on July 14 2010 11:04 am 0

Three Ways to Improve Your Ability to Listen for Detail

At some point, your listening comprehension skills will become good enough that you can pick out the general topic of a conversation even without a context. Sure, sometimes you’ll get it wrong. Sometimes, you’ll think you heard one thing, but the speaker actually said something completely different. That’s perfectly normal.

Needless to say, though, you don’t want to get stuck at that stage. Once you’re there, the next thing to go after is all those finer details you’ve been missing. If you’re interacting in the language a lot, listening skills tend to improve on their own, but with or without interaction, there are things you can to to speed up the process.

Try Shadow Reading

Shadow reading or listen reading is the technique of following along with a transcript as you’re listening. If you study primarily from written material, spoken words may not register in your mind as fast as written ones. Using both together helps build your mental connections between words’ written forms and their sounds.

For more common languages, you can find book/CD sets that provide recorded monologues and dialogues with accompanying transcripts. If you’re having trouble finding these, though, you can also print out the lyrics to songs in your target language. Movies with close captioning can help, too.

If you have a teacher or friend helping you, there are a few practice exercises they can create for you. One is to make a gap-fill exercise by delete select words in the transcript so you can fill in the blanks with the words you heard in the listening. To make it easier, the teacher can put the correct words (along with some extras, for a challenge) at the bottom of the page. That way, you have a pool of possible solutions to pick from.

They can also change some of the words in the transcript to similar sounding words. I sometimes did this with a few of my advanced students who bored easily because it really is challenging. What makes it hard is that the transcript puts the wrong word in your head and you have to override that in order to make out what was really said.

Listen Repeatedly

I’m not a fan of using slow-speed audio to learn. First of all, people don’t talk like that in real life. You’ll eventually have to get used to normal speed. Another problem is that native speakers may pronounce things a little differently when they slow down. In English, for example natural weak forms often change to strong forms, so the speaker will pronounce “a” and “the” as “ey” and “thee” instead of “uh” and “thuh.”

So, instead of looking for material thats slow enough to let you understand everything the first time, look for material spoken at a natural speed and listen to it repeatedly until you do understand. Granted, people don’t repeat themselves indefinitely, either, but at least you’re hearing natural pronunciation.

Start with short material so you don’t lose interest too quickly. Record 5 minutes or so of audio from a news report, movie dialogue, comedy skit or whatever else suits your needs. Music is good for this, too. Then just listen a few times. You might be surprised at how much you can understand after a few listenings.

I think part of the reason this works is because sometimes develop or own, foreign-accented ideas of how words “should be” pronounced and that makes it harder to immediately recognized the word even when we “know” them. Hearing words repeated a few times helps trigger the memory, though, as well as get you used to the correct pronunciation.

Keep Developing Your Vocabulary and Grammar Knowledge

Getting the general idea of a conversation really only requires an understanding some of the words and basic grammar. You hear some words and make sense of them as best you can. That’s while you’re liable to misunderstand even when you thought you understood perfectly. What you thought you understood made sense to you, but your “guess” wasn’t accurate.

Naturally, the more words you know, the more you can understand. Focus on common words, though. Try not to get distracted by vocabulary thats interesting or seemingly basic, but not something you’re likely to need often. (How many words for animals or pieces of furniture do you really, anyway?)

Grammar is also an issue, though. When you’re not very experienced with grammar, your brain needs a little more time to first understand the words and then make sense of the grammar in order to extract meaning from what was said. With fast or even normal-speed speech, though, you may not have time to work out each sentence before the next one comes. All you get is a group of words. Too many sentences like that and you’ll get the gist of the conversation, but miss the details.

Related posts:

  1. Improve Your Speaking Skills by Surrounding Yourself with Opportunity
  2. How to Get the Most from Your Listening Material
  3. Using Songs to Learn a Foreign Language: Get More From Your Pop Music
  4. 10 Ways to Get Started Learning a Foreign Language Today
  5. 7 Low-Tech Ways to Study a Foreign Language

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