How To Improve Your Foreign Language Comprehension

Improving Language Comprehension

Have you ever tried to converse with a native speaker of your target language but found that despite being able to speak pretty well you can barely catch a word of what he/she says?

It’s not that they’re speaking too fast. They’re speaking normally.

The problem is your listening comprehension skills need a lot of work.

One of the most difficult parts about learning a new language is listening comprehension (being able to grasp and make sense of what you hear). You can be an excellent speaker and be able to read really well yet still not understand more than a fraction of what other people are saying.

The reason for this is that speech is a series of sound units that are connected together quickly when spoken by a native speaker and they’re difficult to distinguish with an untrained ear.

There’s no shortcut around this unfortunately.

The only way we train our ears to distinguish sounds in foreign speech is by lots and lots of exposure. Listen, listen and listen some more. And this takes time.

There are a lot of people around who claim to master languages in extremely short amounts of time and I don’t doubt that they can speak well but I’m always skeptical about their level of listening comprehension in that time.

This is why I refer to listening comprehension as the one aspect of language learning that you can’t bullshit (see my post about it here).


My experience with listening comprehension

I’ve been on a journey with the Arabic language for over 12 years. I started studying this language and some its dialects when I was 18 years old and I’m still working away at it.

Despite my determination and enthusiasm in my first year of Arabic, it wasn’t until about 3 years after I had started that I one day had this incredible epiphany moment during a conversation with some Egyptian friends.

“Oh my God! Everything you’re saying right now makes perfect sense to me! I don’t really have to try to understand you anymore – I just get it.”

It really did happen like that for me.

It was just a sudden defining moment of realization – almost like my ability to comprehend another language became apparent overnight. This is how it felt even though I knew it was a gradual process over a long time.

In that photo at the top of the page is a girl I met in Russia at the start of this year during my Russian language immersion trip.

She can’t speak a word of English and when I met her I could barely speak a word of Russian.

When she spoke to me in the beginning it was just a mishmash of sounds that made no sense to me at all.

But after deliberately focusing on improving my comprehension skills (Glossika was very useful for this) I ended up having a similar epiphany moment about a month ago when I was with her and I suddenly realized that I was understanding her with much less effort.


How you can improve your listening comprehension skills

As I said, unfortunately there aren’t really any shortcuts for this.

You need to have a lot of exposure to native speaker conversation in order to get better at it.

It took me 3 years the first time to reach a point where I felt that listening comprehension wasn’t a struggle anymore but that was a lot longer than it needed to be (subsequent languages like Irish, Korean and Russian have been much faster because I’ve discovered more about myself and more efficient learning approaches).

I neglected this area of focus for a long time.

It doesn’t have to take that long provided you’re determined and proactive about training your comprehension skills.

Firstly, it’s important to remember that speaking practice improves listening skills as well as speaking skills.

I’ve never really been one to agree with long silent periods of learning before being ready to speak – eventually you’re going to have to speak to people and make mistakes so it’s better to start early!

This not only makes you a better speaker but will constantly challenge you to understand what’s being said to or asked of you (hence improving your listening).

One reason why speaking to other people is beneficial to your listening comprehension skills is that native speakers will naturally dumb down and slow down their speech for new learners, as well as using gestures, facial expressions and so on that help us put two and two together when we’re trying to understand.

These helpful cues are like training wheels for listening comprehension so don’t underestimate their importance.

As you get better and better you’ll find yourself understanding and responding to fast, natural speech and it’s at this point that the training wheels come off. :)


Listen to what interests you and do it repetitively

Here’s one really useful method that I use when I don’t have anyone else to speak to get the most out of listening material and train my comprehension skills:

Take a good movie in the language you’re learning and find a short scene that you like:

Make sure it’s a short, clear dialogue.

If you can get the subtitles for it and do what I mentioned here with a flashcard app like Anki then it’s even better.

Use a free program like Audacity to record the scene to an audio file (you can set Audacity to not record from the microphone but rather from the speaker output). If you’re not the technical type and have no clue how to do this, you can easily just use a voice memo app on your smart phone by holding it up to the speakers and hitting the record button.

Now you’ve got your favorite foreign movie scene for easy listening while you’re driving, walking or doing the house chores.

Listen to it as repetitively as you would a song – dozens and even hundreds of times.

If you find it hard to make out certain words, try using Audacity to slow down the speed of the sound file so you can hear it better.

You’ll notice that the more you do this, the more the individual sounds become clear instead of just being one long string of mishmashed sound that you can’t understand.

Remember that spoken sentences are made up of lots of individual words but they sound like one big connected sound to an untrained ear.

It’s up to us to be able to spot the gaps and identify those individual words.

If you’re looking to get hold of good, repetitive listening material then the product that I’ve found very useful is Glossika GSR which I reviewed here. It’s an audio product available in loads of different languages, spoken at natural speed and highly repetitive.

The other audio product that I plug quite a bit on this blog (because I think it’s a brilliant and unique concept) is Earworms MBT which is also highly repetitive dialogue material but unique in that it’s placed over the top of catchy music making it harder to forget.

But listening material is something you can usually find and create on your own for free as I mentioned above. The key is in lots of repetition.


This was written by .

Did you find this interesting, useful or encouraging? A quick share on Facebook or Twitter will make my day! Thanks. :)

Comments: If you’ve got something you’d like to add to this or some constructive criticism you can do that at the bottom of this page. Just please be respectful. Any abusive or nonsensical comments will be deleted.

How To Improve Language Fluency When You’re At A High Level

italki Arabic language

I finally got a chance this week to meet and hang out with one of the fantastic Arabic teachers from italki here in Cairo.

I gave her a t-shirt (courtesy of italki) and she gave me some fresh dates from her farm near Assuit in Upper Egypt. This is why I love learning languages and travel – making new and interesting friends all around the world. :)


Most of us eventually hit learning plateaus.

These are times where we feel like we’re not learning much anymore. Learning stops feeling like a rapid ascent and no matter how much study we do it seems like we’re getting nowhere.

When you’ve finished a book or a course and hit a learning plateau it can leave you wondering, “Well, what do I do now?”

There’s a pretty straightforward enough explanation for why this happens too: we become proficient enough in the language and able to use it enough to achieve what we want or need that all the gaps in our proficiency level start to become less clear and definable (this is where fossilization becomes a risk).

Put simply, when I can’t talk about what I did yesterday, I know that I need to learn the past tense.

If I can’t talk about what I’m doing tomorrow then I need to learn the future tense.

It’s more obvious when you’re at a low level what needs to be learned and what doesn’t.

But when you’re at a higher level you know most of this stuff already. This doesn’t mean you know it perfectly by any means but you know enough language to handle most situations.

This is where we reach higher level plateaus.

So firstly let’s clear up one misconception:


Fluent DOES NOT mean you can talk about advanced topics

I think the word advanced is almost as poorly defined and confusing for people as the word fluency.

You can be very fluent in a language and still not be able to discuss loads of advanced topics.

How so?

My dad is totally computer illiterate. He’s the kind of guy who needs help finding the power button on a computer.

I on the other hand am a bit of a nerd. I like programming, I use an open source operating system, I do things like vector and web design, and so on.

If I talked to my dad about any of those things or on the same level that I would talk to another person with the same interests as mine, do you think he’d have a clue what I’m talking about?

It would basically be a foreign language to him.

So would it then be correct to say that I’m more fluent in English because I can talk about something that he can’t?

No way!

We’re both perfectly fluent English speakers.

So fluency has nothing to do with content and even if there are a bunch of topics that you can’t talk about in a foreign language, it’s not an indicator of your proficiency level.

You can be at near-native level fluency and still be unable to discuss a range a topics that you’re unfamiliar with or not knowledgeable in.

The key is in how you would respond to someone who was talking with you about an advanced topic that you don’t understand.

Are you any less fluent if you choose easier words over others? For example, using look at instead of examinetalk to instead of discussfight instead of dispute or argument, and so on.

Could you explain your political, religious or social views in a simpler way even if you didn’t know all the terms?

How about describing your feelings or emotions?

Think about people who live in lower socio-economic areas of your country who aren’t highly educated – how do they communicate with each other? Actually the term lower socio-economic is a good example – I know plenty of people back home who wouldn’t even know what that means.

They’d use a simple word like poor instead and they’re just as fluent as I am!

As a language learning exercise pick any advanced level conversation and see if you can re-word it using layman’s terms (first in your native language and then in your foreign language).

Knowledge of advanced content has nothing to do with your fluency level.


We become settled on comfortable ways of expressing things

Language learners develop habits over time.

These aren’t necessarily bad or wrong habits either.

We pick up certain ways of saying things that work well for us if they get whatever it is we want done. They achieve the goal we want so we no longer see a need to improve on them.

For example, in Arabic there are so many ways to go about haggling prices in street markets (you could write a book on haggle slang I’m sure :)).

Since there is a verb that literally means ‘to make something cheaper’ (rakhas (رخص)) should a person just use that every time?

If it makes sense and it works why not?

But what about the plethora of other ways you could get the same point across – (for example using the verb ‘to make something go down’ (nazzal(نزل)) for the price)?

It’s quite easy for a learner to develop a habit of using the same word or expression every time in the same situation.

When I first arrived here in Cairo 12 years ago one of the first phrases I learned was ‘can you take me to…’ for taking taxis. I used it every single time I got in a taxi as a new learner.

The problem is – native speakers rarely if ever do this. Even though it’s not incorrect and gets the job done, there are better ways to handle the situation. Cab drivers don’t have time to sit there and listen to you speak that long-winded shite on a busy street when they want to keep moving.

It requires a real conscience effort on our part as learners to stop and think about what we’re saying and whether or not there are other better ways to say it.

Be attentive to the way native speakers do it.

When we talk about improving at high levels what we actually want to do is to find better or more appropriate ways to say the things we already know.

So as a high level learner of Arabic how am I doing this?

In addition to taking private lessons a few times a week, there are two things I’m mainly doing now to improve at my level (one is a self-learning exercise and the other is social).


Dissecting video and audio content

Now this can be quite tedious if I spend too much time on it but it helps me immensely in small portions.

I’ve been using talk shows on CBC (a popular station here in Egypt).

Anki SRS

Talk/interview shows are the best source to use because they’re natural and mostly unscripted. I don’t like to use films for this reason.

Listening to real people interact on a talk show or in an interview allows you to hear how language is naturally used between two or more people and it generally stays on topic.

I save the YouTube file to my computer (so I can easily rewind, pause and cut the file if I need to) using any one of the many browser add-ons to do this and I choose an interesting but brief one minute segment of the interview.

I listen to that segment dozens or even hundreds of times over.

I then take whatever new words and expressions I can get out of it and store them on Anki which is one of several great flashcard programs (once I’m done with Anki I can export the Anki file to Dropbox and then import it to my Android).

There are two difficulties I face doing this however:

1. It’s not always possible to find colloquial expressions or vocab definitions online (this is an even bigger problem for languages like Arabic where dialect material is scarce).

2. A lot of the new expressions I hear are unable to be translated literally and make no sense to outsiders. This is one of the biggest challenges for higher level learners in that there are lots of idiomatic expressions which can’t be literally translated or understood without an explanation.

So because of this it’s essential that I take notes on the segment and then show them to my private tutor the next time I see him (who often says things to me like, “Oh man, this is a very slang expression. Where did you hear it?”) :)

In the screenshot above is an interview I watched recently where the woman uses an array of descriptive language taken from a classic novel and a lot of it just stumped the hell out of me. I couldn’t find an answer for much of it anywhere online so having a teacher was vital to get explanations.

This is something you can find a tool like italki very useful for if you don’t have access to local teachers or practice partners.

The most important thing is that whatever I learn on my own by watching or listening to something, I put it into practice as soon as possible.

Memorizing flashcards is an utterly pointless exercise if you don’t use what you’re learning.

I like to think of my goal as being 10% study time – the other 90% of the time should be using/practicing what I covered in that 10% of the time.


Prepare for real situations and take advantage of them

I have a huge tear on a pair of my good shorts right now.

I was going to throw them out but I see it as a great opportunity for me to improve my Arabic and learn a few new things because there happens to be a tailor on my street here.

So I’ve actually been learning new words and expressions to do with mending clothes and will go down to one of the local places here to get my shorts mended next week.

Of course I could easily get this done without any problems already.

I could speak fluently with the guy and get the job done without having to learn anything new but that would be a wasted opportunity to improve. Wouldn’t it be better to use moments like these as opportunities to pick up a few new profession-specific terms and find out exactly how native speakers deal with clothing repair/alterations?

Sometimes you don’t even need to learn new vocab or expressions – you might just have to discover exactly how a native speaker would ask for it (with words you already know).

The lessons I have with my private tutor are all highly practical, situational lessons like this. We pick a real situation, he teaches me a bunch of local expressions and terms I can use (a lot of which aren’t covered by any textbook because they’re very colloquial/slang) and then we role-play them.

After the lesson I head off and use it all as soon as possible.

This doesn’t just have to be situations that are unfamiliar.

Think about all the things you can already talk about in a foreign language and consider how you can improve on them.

I spent a 2 hour lesson last Thursday on how to improve my conversation with the butcher and all the different meat cuts, how to request lean meat, minced meat, breast, chops, portions and so on. It was a super specific lesson and it amazed me just how many local expressions there are for that one situation alone.

If you’re stuck on a learning plateau just open your mind to the almost infinite amount of different situational expressions you could work on improving.


Should I use higher level textbooks?

Just one final note on textbooks for higher level learners.

I’m reviewing a few incredibly outstanding books for colloquial Arabic from AUC at the moment (see here, here and here) and one thing they have in common is that they teach by addressing real world issues through the target language.

This means that they focus on getting you to think about serious topics that will require you to use new terms and expressions.

They equip you with the expressions and terms you need and then through both reading and video content you’re able to see/hear and apply them through interaction.

Language learning in a sense then becomes incidental to serious, interesting discussion (rather than the other way round).

The thing I like about these kinds of books is that you can use them on your own or use them as points of discussion with language exchange partners or in a classroom.

The point is they’re not just teaching you language in isolation (a lot of textbooks will run through chapter-by-chapter analysis of advanced grammar, isolated word lists and so on). These kinds of books might interest some people but there’s little value in them for improving your conversational skills overall.

It’s of course not possible for me to address individual languages and what books are available here but it’s something for you to keep in mind when looking for a text to work with (be sure to make recommendations of your own in the comment section below to help others if you use any!).


Are there any issues you’ve faced as a high level learner trying to improve (comment below)? 

What have you found helpful?


This was written by .

Did you find this interesting, useful or encouraging? A quick share on Facebook or Twitter will make my day! Thanks. :)

Comments: If you’ve got something you’d like to add to this or some constructive criticism you can do that at the bottom of this page. Just please be respectful. Any abusive or nonsensical comments will be deleted.

Guest Post: How to get started on learning Russian

October 23, 2014 – 7:14 pm

Learning Russian This guest post is from Natalie who runs a blog called Fluent Historian. Natalie’s one of the most passionate

It’s Time To De-Bullshitize What Language Immersion Means

October 15, 2014 – 11:56 pm

Language Immersion Okay… so ‘de-bullshitize’ isn’t really a word. I thought about using ‘clarify’ but it doesn’t have the same effect. I’ve…

Update From Nubia + Early Access To The Epic Arabic Language Project

October 8, 2014 – 12:43 am

Abu Simbel, Egypt G’day! How’s your language learning going? I’ve finally arrived back in Cairo after an amazing journey down to Nubia in…

7 Questions You Have To Ask Before Buying A Language Product (#3 Is Vital)

September 25, 2014 – 11:08 pm

7 Questions You Have To Ask Before Buying A Language Product (#3 Is Vital) The challenge that most of us often face when buying books or resources to learn a foreign language is not

About The Mezzofanti Guild

Learning another language or want to? This site is aimed at offering you unique foreign language learning tips, travel advice, anecdotes, encouragement and providing another handy place for language learners to connect.

Click here to read more about The Mezzofanti Guild.

Like this blog?