Let’s face it, understanding native speakers can be hard. If you’ve ever felt lost listening to a conversation in English, or frustrated when you tried to watch a movie in English, you know what I mean.
I’ve been in that situation, too. When I studied in Russia for the first time, I often didn’t understand what my roommates were saying, even though I had studied Russian for three years!
The good news is that there are ways to improve your listening skills. Let’s look at a few that you can use with the stories in American Voices.
Listening in a foreign language can be tiring, so don’t try to swallow a long podcast or movie in English all at once. Pick a shorter piece, no longer than five or ten minutes. You may want to just work intensively on one or two minutes at a time.
You don’t need to learn them all, but this can give you an idea of what to listen for.
Try listening without reading along with the transcript at first – did you hear any of the words from the list?
Now listen again with the transcript. Are there words that you know, but didn’t understand when you were just listening? Think about what made them hard to recognize.
It’s often a matter of “connected speech.” In other words, when we speak quickly, it often won’t sound like the slow, careful speech you hear in textbooks. Sounds can blend together or even disappear!
You can get a sense of this by looking away as you listen, pausing after each sentence and then looking at the transcript. Were there words that sounded very different from what you expected?
Some apps or websites let you change the speed of playback. It may be tempting, but please don’t do this!
First of all, you can’t ask people in the real world to speak at 0.5 speed. You need to adjust to their normal rate of speech.
Second, the changes you hear in connected speech would still be in the recording, even at .25 speed. But: if you do ask a native speaker to slow down, they will probably speak not just more slowly, but more clearly, too. So a recording played back at .5 speed is doubly unnatural.
Go back to the recording, open the transcript, and pause and repeat aloud after every sentence. Give yourself time to practice this!
Try doing some mini-dictations: nothing long, just a sentence or two. This will help you be more aware of how little words or phrases like “the,” “of,” “have,” “in the,” can change in quick speech.
And when you’re familiar with the piece and ready for a challenge, try “shadowing” – reading the piece aloud without pauses, together with the speaker. Try to match the rhythm, and even the emotion of the speaker as closely as you can.
It’s time to take action! Try these techniques now on the free sample story, “Picture a Box.” It’s an amazing story and narrator Nate DiMeo speaks at a fairly relaxed pace, so it’s a great way to start. Download this listening log page – fill it out and send a scan or a clear photo, and I’ll respond with personalized feedback.
By the way, many of these techniques can help with video, too. Spanish teacher Diego Cuadros has great suggestions on using short videos to power up your language learning. And if you’d like to understand your favorite TV shows, Cara Leopold specializes in helping people become subtitle free.
Feel free to leave a comment and let me know how it’s going!
Dr. Curtis Ford
Editor, American Voices