Listening is a very important part of learning English, but how can we improve it?
This post will focus on three levels of challenge in listening - listening at an accessible speed, listening at natural speed and listening to a range of accents and dialects. If you are C1, or certainly if you are C2, you might want to skip the first section. For lower levels than this, I believe a combination of all levels of challenge is necessary if you want to get past feeling like a learner and really improve your listening.
Many lower level learners are reluctant to listen to English at natural speed in a range of accents, feeling that they are not “ready”, but in fact it is never too soon, so even if you’re a beginner, you should keep reading beyond the accessible speed section of this post!
If you are preparing for an exam, please be aware that for the latest information on exam format you should always go straight to the source: IELTS website. You can practice free online Listening tests.
Listening at an accessible speed
Nearly all courses and coursebooks contain listening exercises which are pitched at the level of their learners, and while it is arguably unhelpful to listen exclusively to unnaturally slowed, simplified speech, there is no doubt that graded listening helps our confidence enormously.
However, if you don’t have the time or money for an English course, or if you want to supplement the course you are on with some extra graded listening practice, you may be wondering where to find listening at the right level of difficulty for you. Here are some options.
Voice of America’s Learning English site has news stories in simple English. Stories are available as both audio and written text, and the audio is much slower than natural speech. It’s up to you if you want to read along. On the same webpage you will find links to English language courses at two levels. Because it’s an American product, these levels aren’t linked to the European Framework, but I would say Level 1 is useful for absolute beginners and Level 2 for A2/B1 or pre-intermediate learners. The best way to see if the level is right for you is to try one.
If you need a wider range of graded listenings, The British Council’s LearnEnglish website has an entire section dedicated to listening. Here you can find dozens of listening activities, organised by level from Beginner A1 up to Advanced C1. The listenings are based on work and social situations, as well as useful scenarios like renting a flat, and they come with preparation activities to get you ready.
Another way to make listening more accessible is to choose whatever we like to hear and play it at a slower speed. On YouTube, for example, click on the settings button at the bottom of the video and choose playback speed, then select 0.75 for slower speech that still sounds realistic. 0.5 will sound a little creepy, but you still get all the rises, falls and connected speech features of natural talking, so if you’re comfortable with it, go for it! Most audiobooks and podcasts also have this feature.
Listening at natural speed
As babies, our first exposure to language is through listening, but as adult language learners, preconceptions and anxieties can sometimes get in the way of understanding. Some learners feel panic when they are exposed to natural speech, and this is often triggered by the misguided idea that we need to catch every word, when in fact we should be focusing on what we do understand. If we are going to improve our listening, it is crucial to overcome this fear of unfamiliar words and sounds.
So how do we set ourselves achievable goals listening to English at natural speed even at lower levels?
If you are an absolute beginner, you can start by watching a series in English with subtitles in your own language, or by having the radio on in the background while we’re making dinner. It doesn’t matter if you are following the subtitles more than the audio, or just dancing to the songs on the radio - exposure to the sounds of natural speed English, and features like connected speech, is a good enough place to start. Your achievable goal in this instance is just to get used to the sounds you hear, to be in the room with them and not go into the cold sweats of some past English-class trauma!
If you have more than a beginner level, you can set yourself a slightly higher goal. For example, watch your favourite episode of that series again, but this time without the subtitles. You already know what happens, so you don’t have to worry about missing any plot, and the context will help you see just how much you do understand. Alternatively, choose a new series, with a simpler plot, and watch it from the start in English, with subtitles in English at first, and without when you are ready.
Films are also a great idea for an enjoyable way to listen to English at natural speed.
Listening to a range of accents and dialects.
I still remember the first time I went to Madrid, after a year of living in Malaga and by now communicating perfectly happily in Spanish, only to find myself struggling to understand and be understood while ordering a coffee! Some might say that surely “standard” Spanish is much easier than Andaluz, but there is no harder and easier with languages, accents and dialects - it is a matter of what we are used to.
In my opinion, we cannot really call ourselves proficient in a language until we are able to understand a reasonable range of accents. Contrary to what you might think, BBC radio is a good place to start working on this. On the BBC Sounds app, you have free access to radio stations including 6 Music, with DJ accents ranging from the lilting Welsh of Cerys Matthews to the gravelly drawl of Iggy Pop, 1Xtra, with younger accents and vocabulary, and BBC Asian Network, with a range of British Asian accents, not to mention some amazing Hindi tunes.
There are also podcasts and redacted audiobooks on BBC Sounds, again with a range of accents and dialects among the performers and actors. Above all, you can hear music, which you already know is a great way to tune your ear.
A final word
So, to sum up, whatever you choose for your listening practice, you don’t always have to fully understand what you hear. It’s fine to rely on aids like subtitles sometimes, or even to just let the sounds wash over you, but if you want to improve your listening at all, you do need to move beyond what’s comfortable for you to understand. If you can repeat every word of what was said, it’s too easy and you need to be braver!