I have seen many learners of English panicking in class and in exams when the time came to do a listening activity or a listening test. people feeling sick and me feeling sick mfor them, because many of them were suffering for the wrong reasons: not knowing what to do about it, having spent endless hours frustrated, not understanding why they weren’t making as much progress as they wanted, as they needed. And in some cases, no progress at all.
Obviously I have spent a lot of time thinking about ways to help people. I looked in many places: I looked in books, I looked for answers asking colleagues over the years. And I looked into my own experience, reflecting in how I came to the listening skills I have now.
I am going to state the obvious now: if you are learning English, it is a foreign language for you. It is a language you are not familiar with. In teaching and learning it (I will speak about practising it which is a whole different matter), emphasis has been made on grammar (good!) and vocabulary (good!). However something has been traditionally neglected is learning something that belongs alongside grammar structures and vocabulary items: the sounds of English and the rules to combine them.
Building blocks: not only words, but sounds too.
It is funny: I like to think of grammar and vocabulary as the building blocks you need to start combining to produce linguistic messages, to communicate in any language. Grammar structures and vocabulary items, abstractly considered, are what you need for the four traditional skills: speaking, listening, writing and reading. However, if you do not know how they are pronounced you will not be able to understand spoken messages and if you are not able to pronounce things correctly, your spoken messages will be problematic.
Therefore, establishing a comparison, the individual sounds of the English language are the building blocks, like vocabulary items. And the rules for combining them would be a kind of grammar. I would say we were missing a whole area that was very important.
A quick historical aside.
The reasons this has been neglected in the traditional language classroom in Spain are predictable. The languages that were taught in Spain for many years were mostly dead languages – Latin and Greek. Until schooling became widespread, the only people who were likely to be bilingual were those in regions where there was a local language, like Gallego and Catalan. French was for the elites and it was a symbol of status that very few people used outside the classroom.
To cut the story short, hardly anybody was learning to speak any other languages than their own. Therefore, why bother with pronunciation, if speaking and listening hardly ever happened. And if they happened “We can manage”.
So what’s wrong with me doctor?
The attitude to learning, as with any other task in life, is always important: if you see something as a problem – it becomes a problem for you. If you do not understand what your problem is, the solution with elude you. Unless you have some congenital or acquired medical condition, you are perfectly able to acquire a language, including speaking and listening skills. Here is a list, however, of the things you might need to pay attention to. They are not your fault… until you don’t do anything to solve them!
You are not tuned.
What do I mean by this? Imagine you are listening to the radio. if you do not tune to the exact frequency, you will have background noise or the signal will come and go. When we listen to people we are in the right frequency too. Sometimes it happens with people in your own language: you do not understand them. That is because you do not know their “frequency”: they speak differently enough so you have trouble understanding them:
This is a trailer for the Wreck it Ralph! sequel. Here, the other princesses who all speak standard English (Including Pocahontas!) complain that they cannot understand Merida, who speaks in Scottish English (I don’t think that’s gaelic, you would understand even far less). This is a joke among native speakers. So it could happen to you. If you happen to find yourself in such an extreme situation, do not blame yourself, ask for help!
But my point here obviously is that if you are not familiar with the way that native speakers – at least speakers of standard varieties – pronounce things, then you will be expecting whatever your brain makes up.
Solution (for this and other problems about your listening): Listen to video with subtitles in English or books with audio version. reading and listening to what you are reading. Look for lyric videos of popular songs on youtube (you can look at my posts on Katy Perry or Nicky Minaj) or use apps like “Learn English Podcasts” from the British council.
Obviously, no matter how much you have listened to native speakers, you could come across new vocabulary. That is not a listening problem, that is in the first place a vocabulary problem: you need to know the word, know its meaning and then hear it being pronounced. Even if you are a native speaker, if the word or the meaning with which it is used is new to you, that will create interference. But your listening skills are not to blame. The same applies to unfamiliar or new grammar structures, or simply new accents like Merida’s.
Therefore, be careful not to blame your listening skills when the reason may well be other deficits. Even someone saying something completely unexpected: there is this line from the film “As good as it gets” where Carol (Helen Hunt) is packing for her first holiday in years and says “here is a suitcase, surprised to be used”. If you think about it all the words she uses are rather basic, it is the way she has created the sentence that is totally unexpected and anybody could reasonably ask her “Sorry, what did you say?”.
Expectations about what is coming next are a fundamental pillar of listening, it is actually our radio frequency tuner. The more we listen, the more samples we gather, the more precise our listening machine becomes. The good news is that our brain is very capable of extrapolating efficiently, so once you cross a certain threshold, your listening skills improve dramatically. But you need to give it food! The first day you work with a colleague from Australia you will probably feel lost, after a week, you may even speak a little like them!
Another factor that helps a lot, specially with the foundations of your english listening skills is repetition. I mean, listening to the same things over an over. I cannot thank enough those music casettes and CDs with the lyrics printed on when I was a teenager. I would listen to the music over and over and eventually, what they were saying became absolutely familiar. And then I thought, OK, let’s expand on this.
I could ramble on about this and other anecdotes… but this is getting long, right? So one final sentence: be objective and do not blame your listening skills when you might have other problems working against you.
And if you feel you need help and guidance, you can contact me here!