Many people drastically underestimate the importance of listening when learning a second language. But language research has determined that when we use language, we spend between 40-50% of our time listening! Most learners spend nowhere near that amount of time on listening practice. There is a significant difference, though, between listening passively to something and listening for the purpose of learning. When you are listening for learning, you are actively engaging with the language that is being spoken and trying to make sense of it and learn from it. You are listening to new sounds in an unfamiliar language and new ways of putting words together to form sentences. You are even listening to new ways of making logical arguments and ways of saying things unique to a culture. There are many ‘sayings’ in every language that do not normally occur in written language. It is only by listening to spoken language that they will ever get learned.

Great ways to start your listening practice include:

  • watch YouTube videos in the target language with the subtitles turned on in that language, not translated. You can also slow down the speed on many YouTube videos so that it is easier to understand;
  • find videos that are geared towards language learners;
  • listen to an audiobook while also reading the text copy of the book or listen to a book that you are already familiar with;
  • watch “soap operas” which often have predictable subject matter and dialogues;
  • if you’re a beginner, watch children’s shows. They often have a lot of visuals to help support understanding.

“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”

– Stephen R. Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change

Even on an unconscious level, listening in a new language is an important aspect of language learning. Your brain needs to learn how to break any new language into familiar chunks. When you’re learning a new language, your brain has no idea what those chunks sound like, so it has to store every word in short term memory individually. That takes up a lot of space! Your brain learns how to do chunk language unconsciously; you can’t teach yourself how to do this, so you need a lot of listening to help your brain learn how to do it. Your brain will eventually learn what ‘just sounds right’.

On a conscious level, there are two types of listening that you can practise. The first type of listening can be thought of as ‘big picture’ listening. You are trying to generally understand what is being said. You aren’t paying terribly close attention to specific verb tenses or prepositions to see how they are used correctly; you are trying to get the ‘gist’ or overall meaning. The second type of listening that you can practice is focussed or intensive listening. This will generally happen with recordings of spoken language, when you have the opportunity to replay the language sample many times. You want to be able to dissect the speech into smaller parts. Only focus on one or two things with each review of a recording. Perhaps the first time you listen to a recording, you want to focus on new vocabulary. Then on the second time you listen, you focus on the verb tenses, and so on. This way, a 90-second clip could take you an hour or two to completely work through.

Try writing down something that you are listening to. Using a video on YouTube is great for this because you can slow down the rate of the video and you can use the space bar and back arrow to pause and repeat the last 5 seconds of the video as many times as you need to. Notice that how something is said is often slightly different that how it appears in writing. Both big picture and intensive listening contribute valuable aspects to language learning.

Listen to material that is at your level. Trying to listen to native speakers having a conversation when you have just begun to learn a language will only result in frustration. Likewise, listening to something that is too easy or that you understand completely won’t challenge you to learn new language features. Make sure that what you are listening to is suitable for your purposes. It needs to be at the right skill level but also be about the topic that you are interested in. If you are trying to learn English for university, for example, it is better to listen to academic talks rather than action movies. You need to have the right vocabulary and sentences structures to match the situation. Remember that you are listening to understand, not as a prelude to speaking. This is an important distinction. If you are busy trying to frame your contribution to a discussion, then you may not be understanding everything that is being said. And in the long run, understanding is the heart of any real learning that is ever done.