How To Improve Your Foreign Language Comprehension
- Donovan NagelTeacher, translator, polyglot🎓 B.A., Theology, Australian College of Theology, NSW🎓 M.A., Applied Linguistics, University of New England, NSW
Applied Linguistics graduate, teacher and translator. Founder of The Mezzofanti Guild and Talk In Arabic.
Note: For high quality audio to improve listening comprehension, I highly recommend the Rocket Languages series which is one of the most comprehensive natural dialogue resources online for various languages.
Select the language you’re learning to take a listen:
Or read my review here.
Also be sure to visit my Essential Language Learning Tools page where I’ve listed the best tools to help you improve your listening 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 foreign language 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.
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 foreign language 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 in your target language 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 (read my Glossika review). It’s an audio product available in loads of different languages, spoken at natural speed and highly repetitive.
I’ve also mentioned a fantastic natural dialogue resource at the top of this article which is called Rocket (scroll up and select a language) and it’s one of the most comprehensive online courses available with a real focus on natural speed dialogues to improve listening (read my Rocket review).
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.
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