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How to Really Improve Your English Listening Skills

Do you have these annoying problems?

  • You find it very difficult to improve your English listening.
  • You don’t have time to improve your listening.
  • Your listening has stayed at the same level for a long time (even though you listen to English regularly).

If you have these problems, keep reading.

In this article, you’ll learn:

Let’s get started.

Why Most People Fail to Improve Their English Listening Skills

Want to improve? Spend a lot of time listening to English!

Want to improve? Spend a lot of time listening to English!

There’s only one reason people fail: they don’t listen to English enough.

This makes sense. If you spend 1,000 hours listening to English, your listening will definitely improve.

Unfortunately, here’s what many people do to improve their listening:

  • Watching a few movies in English every week.
  • Listening to something in English 3 – 5 times a week.
  • Listening to English for 15 minutes per day.

These actions are weak. They aren’t significant enough to make a difference.

Think about it. If you listen to English for 15 minutes a day. One year from now, you will have listened to only 91 hours of English.

This is simply not enough. It will take you many years to see an improvement.

People Who Listen to English A Lot Also Fail

Some people spend several hours a day listening to English. They know that, for their listening to improve, they need a lot of practice.

Unfortunately, this group of people usually fail to improve their listening as well.

Why is that?

Well, here’s what usually happens to these people:

  1. At first, they’re excited to improve their listening.
  2. They decide to listen to English for 2 hours every day.
  3. After a while, they find it difficult to force themselves to practice.
  4. Finally, they lose motivation and quit.
  5. Because they quit too soon, their listening skills didn’t improved.

This is how many “motivated” English students fail. They practice a lot in the beginning, and then they quit soon afterwards because it’s hard to maintain that kind of practice.

Here’s the lesson to be learned: For your listening skills to improve, you must listen to English for a long period of time.

Listening to English for several hours per day “for a month” is not enough. You need to do it for many months (or over a year).

How to “Successfully” Improve Your Listening Skills (Even If You Don’t Have Time)

Want to improve your listening “successfully”?

If you do these two things, your success is 100% guaranteed:

  1. Listen to a lot of English every day.
  2. Do it for a long period of time.

But how do you do that if you don’t have time?

Well, let me share the method I used. Here’s what you need to do:

Step 1: Add a lot of English listening material to your smartphone.

Add English listening material to your phone!

What kind of English material to add to your phone?

Podcasts.

Podcasts are audio shows (similar to radio programs), which you can download from the Internet for free.

There are two ways to add podcasts to your phone:

Option A: If your phone is connected to the Internet, follow these steps:

  1. Install a podcast app on your phone. (I use Pocket Casts.) This app will let you listen to podcasts.
  2. Use the podcast app to find and subscribe to podcasts that interest you.
  3. After that, you’ll be able to download those podcasts to your phone.

For detailed information on how to do this, check out this article.

Option B: If your phone isn’t connected to the Internet (or if you don’t want to use too much Internet on your phone), follow these steps:

  1. Use Google to find podcasts that can be downloaded as MP3 files. (Or you can visit this page.)
  2. Download the podcasts on your computer.
  3. Transfer the downloaded podcasts to your phone.
  4. Because those podcasts are MP3 files, you can listen to them using any media player of your choice.

It’s up to you how to do it. What’s important is that a lot of English listening material must “always” be available on your phone (so you can listen to English whenever you want).

Once your phone is filled with listening material, it’s time for step 2.

Step 2: Turn boring time into listening time.

This step is important.

Instead of listening to English “in your free time”, do it during these activities:

  • Driving.
  • Riding a bus or train.
  • Doing house chores (washing dishes, cooking, etc.)
  • Working out.
  • Waiting for something.
  • …and many more.

Feeling bored? Listen to something in English!

These activities have one thing in common: they don’t require concentration or deep thinking.

Throughout the day, there are a lot of activities like the examples above. These are the best times to improve your listening skills!

With this method, it’s quite easy to listen to English for 1 – 2 hours every day. And because you don’t have to find time to practice, you’re less likely to quit.

This is the easiest, most reliable way to improve your English listening skill. If you use this method long enough, your English listening will definitely improve.

The Best Kind of English Listening Material

When it comes to English listening material, there are many different options:

  • Movies.
  • TV series.
  • Podcasts
  • TV shows.
  • YouTube videos.
  • Audiobooks.
  • Etc.

Many students get overwhelmed by this. They’re not sure what to listen to.

So, let me share my opinion on what’s best for most English students (both beginners and intermediates).

I believe that “podcastsare the best English material to listen to.

Here’s why:

Reason #1: it’s easy to find time to listen to podcasts.

As I said earlier, for your listening to improve, you need A LOT of practice. You need to listen to English whenever possible.

What I like about podcasts is that they are “audio”. Therefore, you can listen to them while driving, working out, etc. This allows you to listen to a lot of English every day (without spending extra time).

Unfortunately, this is not possible with “video” materials like movies or TV shows. (You can’t watch a video while driving.)

This is why I don’t recommend using movies or anything that’s in video format.

Reason #2: podcasts are conversation-packed.

The best listening materials are the ones where people are constantly talking.

The worst materials are the ones where, after 10 minutes have passed by, only a few sentences have been spoken.

Many movies and TV series are like that. They contain too many scenes that have no or very little dialogue. (Action movies are a great example. It’s highly possible for someone to watch 100 action movies and not notice any improvement in their listening.)

Unlike movies or TV series, podcasts are usually pure conversation. This make them a great choice for listening material.

Reason #3: podcasts are easier to understand than movies (and TV series).

Many students try to improve their listening by watching movies.

Unfortunately, movie dialogues are really difficult to understand.

This is because, in movies, actors tend to exaggerate the way they speak. They whisper, shout, mumble, etc. This makes them difficult to understand. Also, the music and sound effects in movies can be really loud sometimes. This makes it difficult to hear what the characters are saying.

In fact, even native English speakers have trouble understanding movie dialogues!

Don’t believe me? Here’s some proof:

This is why, for beginners and intermediates, movies are a bad choice for listening material.

Reason 4: there are a lot of FREE podcasts on the Internet.

Since you need to listen to English a lot, the material you use should be free otherwise improving your listening will turn into an expensive endeavor.

And guess what. There are now more than 100,000 English-language podcasts. This number is mind-blowing. And the best news is, these podcasts are free!!!

With this number of podcasts, you can find any kind of podcasts you want:

  • American podcasts.
  • British podcasts.
  • Podcasts on topics that interest you.
  • Podcasts that are easy to understand.
  • Podcasts that are a bit challenging to understand.
  • Etc.

Bottom line: I recommend listening to podcasts to improve your listening because…

  1. Podcasts are audio.
  2. Podcasts are conversation-packed.
  3. There are a lot of FREE podcasts.

What to Do If You Don’t Understand

I don't understand what they're saying!!!

I don’t understand what they’re saying!!!

Unlike movies, most podcasts don’t have transcripts. If you can’t make out some words, or if you don’t understand some sentences, there’s no way to know what those words/sentences are.

So, what should you do when that happens?

Well, there are three things you can do.

Thing #1: Do nothing.

It’s not a big deal if you don’t understand some parts of the conversation as long as you understand the main idea. You don’t need to read the transcript just because you can’t make out some words/sentences.

Now you might be wondering, “If I don’t read, how will I learn the meaning of new vocabulary?”

This is a common concern. Some English students believe that in order to learn new words, they must look up those words in a dictionary. They believe that it’s the only way to learn new words.

But that’s not true! The truth is, your amazing brain has the ability to learn the meanings of new words from context (surrounding words). This is how you learned your first language (without using any transcript or dictionary).

So, don’t worry if you don’t know some words when listening to English. If you hear people use those words multiple times in different contexts, your brain will eventually figure out the meanings of those words.

But what if what you’re listening to is too difficult, and you don’t even understand the main idea? What do you do?

In this case, you should do thing #2.

Thing #2: Listen to something “easier”.

When some students start listening to something, they try to finish it even though it’s too difficult to understand. Trying to do so is painful. After a while, these students usually quit improving their English altogether!

This behavior is ridiculous. There’s a lot of free English material on the Internet. And new English material is produced every day. Therefore, there’s absolutely no need to “finish” what you start.

If what you’re listening to is too difficult (or boring), just delete it and find something else to listen to!

But what if almost everything is too difficult for you? What do you do?

In this case, you should do thing #3.

Thing #3: Read in English to improve your vocabulary.

Read in English to quickly learn the most common vocabulary.

Read in English to quickly learn the most common vocabulary.

If you feel like almost everything you listen to is too difficult to understand, your vocabulary is probably very small. That’s why you have trouble understanding most English conversations.

In this case, I recommend that, other than listening to English, you also read in English to quickly learn words and phrases commonly used in conversations. For recommendations on what to read, check out this resource.

Note: If you already know a lot of common words, and the main reason you have trouble understanding is because you’re not good at recognizing words spoken quickly, then you don’t need to read in English. You can simply focus on listening to a lot of English.

Special Advice for Beginners

If you’re a beginner, here’s my special advice for you:

Start small in the beginning.

At first, don’t do anything that will discourage you and make you quit. If you quit, everything will be all for NOTHING.

I said earlier that you must listen to English a lot. But in the beginning, don’t worry about that yet. Instead, please focus on getting yourself to listen to English “every day” (even if it’s just 10 – 15 minutes per day).

At this stage, you goal is NOT to improve your listening. Your goal is to develop the habit of regular listening. Once the habit is formed, improving your listening will be quite easy.

Things you should NOT do in the beginning (because they might make you give up and quit):

  • Listening to something that’s quite difficult to understand.
  • Forcing yourself to listen to English for several hours a day.
  • Beating yourself up when you feel like you’re not practicing enough.

In the beginning (the first month), it’s OK to listen for just 10 – 15 minutes a day. It’s also OK to listen to something that’s very easy to understand. Just make sure that you do it every day (or almost every day).

If you fail to listen to English for a few days, that’s OK. Don’t beat yourself up. Don’t use that as an excuse to quit. Just relax, and promise yourself that you will listen to English the next day (or when you have a chance).

Biggest Problem Among Intermediate Listeners – Their Listening Improves Very Slowly!!!

Is your listening improving at a snail’s pace?

Many intermediate listeners feel like their listening has stayed at the same level for years, even though they still listen to English regularly.

This is something that I’ve experience myself as well.

When I began to improve my listening, it didn’t take long for me to notice an improvement.

However, as time passed by, it became more and more difficult for me to notice an improvement. I was still listening to English regularly, but my listening seemed to be improving at an extremely slow pace.

At the time, I didn’t know why. But now I do.

Why Your Listening Improves Very Slowly (Even Though You Listen To English Quite A Lot)

If you haven’t noticed a significant improvement in your listening in a long time, here’s the reason:

You keep listening to things you can “easily” understand.

Examples:

  • You keep listening to the same speakers who you can understand very well.
  • You only listen to American English or British English, but not both.
  • You keep listening to the same topic(s). For example, you only listen to business podcasts.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s perfectly OK to listen to easy stuff because it can still improve your listening. But be careful. If you only listen to easy stuff, don’t expect to see a quick and significant improvement.

This is like trying to improve your piano skills by only practicing “easy” songs. It’s not effective.

What Can Intermediates Do To “Quickly” Improve Their Listening?

Want to improve quickly? Challenge yourself!

Want to improve quickly? Challenge yourself!

The answer: listen to challenging English material.

Let me explain…

First, let’s divide all English material in the world into three categories:

  1. Too difficult English material.
  2. Easy English material.
  3. Challenging English material.

Let’s discuss which category is best (and why).

Category #1: Too-difficult English material

Too difficult material is anything that, when you listen to it, you can’t even understand “the main idea.”

It’s a waste of time to listen to something you don’t understand. So, this is the kind of English material that you should avoid.

Category #2: Easy English material

Easy material is anything that you can understand almost every single word/sentence. (Example: a conversation between two people who both speak clearly.)

The reason many intermediate listeners have difficultly improving is that they only listen to this kind of English material.

Category #3: Challenging English material

Challenging material is conversations or talks in which you cannot make out every single word or sentence, but you still understand the main idea.

Examples of challenging material:

  • Conversations in which people speak a bit fast (but you still understand the conversation).
  • Conversations that contain some words and phrases you don’t know (but you still understand the main idea).
  • Conversations in which you can hear and understand 80 – 90% of the sentences.

This is the best kind of English material to listen to.

Want to know why beginners improve fast? It’s because, for them, almost everything they listen to is challenging. When you expose yourself to challenging stuff, you improve quickly.

If you’re an intermediate or advanced listener who wants to improve quickly, make sure that you listen to a lot of challenging stuff.

Here are a few ideas on how to do that:

  • Listen to speakers who don’t speak clearly – Don’t keep listening to people who you can perfectly understand (these are usually people who speak clearly). Different people have different ways of talking. Some people are more challenging to understand than others. Make sure to listen to those people as well.
  • Listen to conversations on various topics – Don’t keep listening to conversations on the same topics. Also listen to topics in which you have limited or little knowledge.
  • Listen to both American and British English – If you’re already good at listening to one of these accents, practice listening to the other accent as well.

Summary

These are the most important things you’ve learned from this article:

  1. You must listen to a lot of English every day. The best way to do that without spending extra time is to listen to English during activities that don’t require concentration or deep thinking.
  2. Podcasts are the best choice for listening material.
  3. If you’re a beginner, you should start small in the beginning. And if possible, you should also read in English to quickly learn the most common vocabulary.
  4. If your listening is at an intermediate level, and it seems like your listening is no longer improving, listen to challenging stuff MORE.

The Last Thing You Need to Know

Everything I share in this article is meant to be a guideline, not a rule that can’t be broken.

If you disagree with some of the things I said, feel free to ignore them. If you think some of my advice is too difficult to follow, feel free to disregard that advice.

For example, I said earlier that movies and TV series, in general, are too difficult for most students. But if you happen to know a TV series that seems perfect for you, feel free to use it to improve your listening.

Here’s another example: I suggested that you should listen to both American and British English. However, if you only want to improve your ability to understand American people (maybe you’re currently working or studying in America), then you can listen to just American English.

My point is, you don’t have to believe or follow everything I say. Treat my advice as a guideline, not a rule.


 
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