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The Listening Linchpin: Why Listening is Key in Learning a Foreign Language

Anyone who has ever studied a second language in a classroom and then had the experience of speaking with a native speaker in a real conversation can tell you; the real thing is so much harder to understand!  You might think that you are fluent in French until you are greeted by your waiter at Huitrerie Regis in Paris and struggle to order the oysters.  “Why does he talk so fast!?”  You may ask yourself.  “What’s up with his accent?”  You have just learned first-hand that experiencing a language in the real world outside of the classroom is a lot different than the books and the careful practice conversations.

It may be a struggle at first to listen to native speakers of the language you are learning and experience a whole lot of comprehension.  In fact, I know from experience that it can be really frustrating.  And the traditional way that we learn a language focuses much on speaking.  But the listening part of language learning is just as important as the speaking, perhaps even more so.  There are studies that show that as much as 50% of communication is comprised of listening!  Now think about how much time you spend on listening exercises in your language learning?  Is it 50%?  Probably not.  Perhaps we need to spend more time listening when learning.

Here are a few keys to improve listening techniques:

  1. Be active in listening, not passive.

This is a case of fake it till you make it.  I don’t know about you, but sometimes not understanding the words that someone is speaking can become so overwhelming that I want to mentally check out.  You know the symptoms, your eyes glaze over, you suddenly need to check your phone, or you keep glancing over the speaker’s shoulder to check out the clock on the wall.  Don’t give in to temptation.  Engage in what they are saying.  If you want to get better at listening you have to be an active participant in it, even if you have no idea what is being said at first.  Sit forward.  Look the speaker in the eyes.  Nod your head when it seems right to do so.  Make noises of interest.  Be present.  Keep acting like you get what they are saying, and eventually you will!

  1. Help your short-term memory.

According to research, it is harder to store new languages in our short-term memory than it is our native tongue.  Learning a language from a book and not just from the people and the world around you make it difficult to understand and absorb the “segmentation rules,” or the way that individual words fit together to convey a thought or a concept, and instead our brain tries to remember each word individually.  It makes it difficult for our poor brains to store.  But, luckily, there are some things that we can do to help our brains learn the “segmentation rules” of the language we are learning.

You can do things like watching tv or movies in your chosen language or listening to the radio.  Reading a book in your chosen language while listening along to the audio version in that same language can be really helpful too, it will help you engage in the language in two sense at once.  One of the very best things that you can do is to spend time with native speakers in a relaxed, social environment and just listen to them talk.  This is one of the things that make our immersion experiences at Fleetham Lodge particularly valuable for students, we always plan a few special outings that allow our students to engage, relax, and enjoy time with native English speakers in really fun ways.  We will often go to the village Pub, or perhaps enjoy a festival or a play downtown.

  1. Turn your listening right-side up instead of upside down.

Try top-down listening instead of bottom-up listening.  Bottom-up listening involves listening carefully to each word and focusing on the sentence structure, the grammar, etc.  This is totally fine and a great way to learn, some of the time.  But we also need a top-down listening approach focuses more on a total comprehension, getting the gist of the concept of what is being said.  The difference is subtle but it can really help bolster your language skills.  To try this bottom-up listening you can try reading about a movie or a play before you go see it performed in your chosen language.  That way you will know the gist of what is happening and it will help you make important connections in your new language.

Listening is so important!  I hope that these techniques can help you boost your language learning to new heights.  I love helping students gain fluency in English and help achieve their dreams by passing the IELTS.  Check out my online IELTS focused courses, my IELTS immersion workshops, or get some one-on-one coaching with me to really focus on what you need to succeed in your IELTS examinations.

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