Strategies to improve your listening comprehension

Strategies to improve your listening comprehension skill

There are some specific parts and exercises of a language class that, depending on which skill is being practised, will cause more or less pleasure in our language students. Such is the case with the listening comprehension skill. Quite a large number of language students feel threatened and suffer considerably each time they see themselves exposed to a listening comprehension exercise. Some of them may even see it as some sort of divine punishment to which they don’t want to be subjected unless it is strictly necessary.

The truth is that listening comprehension, whether we like it or not, is a fundamental and absolutely necessary element in oral communication. Without understanding our interlocutor is very difficult to get our message across. Even more so when we have to attend a talk or a conference for business or academic reasons, as we cannot ask for repetition at every minute. Telephone conversations in a foreign language are extremely complicated as well. We cannot see the other´s gestures and the nonverbal language, which makes for 95 % of all our communication.

Listening comprehension is also a key factor in language acquisition. I´ve recently done some research in connection with this topic, and it points to the key role that listening comprehension plays in the foreign language acquisition process. Exposure to spoken language is always the first step before students start speaking. This exposure can come through listening comprehension exercises in class, interaction with other students and the teacher talk, of course.

Fortunately, there are various resources language students can resort to if they want to work on and improve their listening comprehension skill. Here I will mention just two, the ones I consider essential:

  • Pronunciation and intonation: Students need to know and practise the target language sounds. This does not mean studying the Phonetics of the language from top to bottom but practising, listening and repeating those sounds, words and combinations that may turn out to be more difficult for the student, because they don’t exist in the student’s mother tongue and may, therefore, jeopardise or block communication in the future. It also involves the practice of what we call “sentence stress” and this means being exposed to the language’s specific rhythm and to the way words are stressed in a sentence. This is perhaps more important in English than in Spanish, as English is a stress-timed language.The objective of this practice is not for the student to sound like a native, but for him to know what to expect from a native and his or her accent and sounds.
  • Exposure to the specific accent: Students need as much exposure to the target language as possible. As I’ve already mentioned in another post, class hours are not enough if you want to achieve a real and notorious improvement in your oral comprehension. Today, there are numerous resources for language students, especially on the web. The most famous, and the ones I think are worth mentioning, are the “podcasts” or audio files which are very easy to download and can be saved in any mobile device. There are also many webpages that offer interesting material for listening comprehension purposes such as different radios, tv programmes, newspaper websites with audio files and videos, websites with songs, etc. The same textbooks may even offer extra resources on their websites.
  • It is also important to mention that students cannot learn from what they don´t understand so the oral input (linguistic term for oral exposure) should be adapted to suit the learner´s  skill level. On this web, you will find some useful audio resources both for elementary and for more advanced students.

All in all, listening comprehension deserves a special treatment as it is an essential part of foreign language learning. Students should not panic every time they have to face a listening comprehension exercise as they can choose from a wide variety of  tools and resources to work with. What´s more important, they should be made aware of the crucial role that listening plays in their own language acquisition processes.

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