How To Improve Your Foreign Language Comprehension

How To Improve Your Foreign Language Comprehension

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:

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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.

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 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.

Support me by sharing:

Here's what you should read next:

How To Use Audacity For Language Learning [+ Subtitles]

How To Use Linux For Language Learning (Part 3: LWT, mpv, qutebrowser)

How To Use Linux For Language Learning (Part 2: youtube-dl, mpv, qutebrowser + ranger bindings)

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Donovan Nagel - B. Th, MA AppLing
I'm an Applied Linguistics graduate, teacher and translator with a passion for language learning (especially Arabic).
Currently learning: Icelandic


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No, it's not true for phonemes,phonemes are different in different languages, or even dialects. You can recognize "tree" because you learned the range of phonemes as a child.

Children learn language because they hear hours and hours of speech, not one recording over and over. Children hear many people, not just their parents. But it's not so much a problem of listening to one speaker, the problem is it's one EXACT recording, so there is absolutely no variation that happens in natural speech.

A Viewer

It's only a beginning; I doubt Mr. Nagel meant it for an everlasting thing@


Listening to one recording over and over is not useful, it doesn't work because of natural variation. Nothing is pronounced the same twice, phonemes are ranges of sounds, rather than one precise sound. Listening to one recording won't help you to discover this ranges no matter how often you listen to it.


I believe, master first the first recording, listen and imitate patiently. Then once you have mastered the first tape: new words, meaning and synonyms, repetitions after repetitions, after which you would then be ready for the next tape/video. If you keep on changing, then for sure, you would go crazy ... establish something first before the next video. Good luck...

Donovan Nagel

I disagree.

For example, the Auditory Cortex (the part of the brain that processes sound input) is capable of recognizing the same music note played on many different musical instruments.

A G chord on guitar which sounds very different to a G on a flute is still recognizable as a G note.

The same is true for language phonemes. You might have a deeper or higher voice than I do, but if we both say 'tree' it's recognizable despite variation in pitch and so on.

If what you're saying is fact, how does a baby start to understand spoken language if he/she only hears its mother and father speaking?


I really have to agree with Mezzoguild on this one. Nobody says you have to listen to just one recording over and over. You do that until you truly understand that excerpt, then you move on to a new recording. The idea is to work with many samples.

By the way, for people interested in Spanish and French, this is exactly the approach recommended on the website where they even provide some free samples of natural conversation.

Phil a 5 minute recording you may hear multiple examples of the same word, so therefore negating what Visitor said.


Hi Donovan -

In my case, listening to songs has been very helpful in learning vocabulary - songs are repetitive, hence phrases and words are easy to remember. But I agree that as far as listening comprehension, this is only part of the story, whereas news, movies, interviews etc. are the real deal.

I really liked the part of your post where you mention the first time you actually understood what someone was saying in a foreign language without you trying to. I can relate. I've been learning Spanish for a while and can be considered intermediate. Speaking and reading still comes easier than listening, but I loved the moment when, while watching an interview on TV, I actually was focused on the message and not trying to understand. It was just happening. I didn't understand 100%, but enough to make me feel great. :)

Good post.


Thanks for your comment, Pola.

It's a great feeling isn't it! :)

I'm glad I found your blog too.


What an exciting discussion! As an ESL teacher and language student of many years (and a few languages), I totally get the various opinions expressed. I remember one student, in particular, who wanted to impress everyone that his English was so good (that he didn't need to be in ESL classes anymore). He would begin a conversation with you, and it was like it was all one way. He hardly listened to, or perhaps didn't understand, what your responses were. He just kept going, making point after point. It became so tedious because, of course, his responses to your points often didn't make sense, and his almost non-stop talking was hard to follow!

As for your suggestions to keep listening, I also agree that that's the only way. Each LL has to be responsible for improving his/her language learning and not expect that somehow, miraculously, the teacher will be able to TEACH him/her the language. But this is precisely what many students are NOT prepared to do. Perhaps, this is even more the case with young, Asian students who are used to a teacher-centered learning environment. It takes a lot of work, and time, to try to get the student to accept responsibility for his/her learning, or lack of it. Students like these are prone to blame the teacher if they don't do well on "tests."

There are all kinds of exercises involving songs and movies that really work. I've found that when I make the time to work on my listening - yes, for me it's a chore, too - I find it helpful to watch soaps with either close-captioning or subtitles turned on. It also works for movies that were originally made in English and then dubbed over with the target language. Because I'm already familiar with the content, I can focus on how the same ideas are expressed in the that language. I also find it helpful to repeat some of my favorite lines; when the same line is used in real-life, I automatically get it and can respond.

As for hitting that threshold when suddenly everything is understandable, I find that can go and come. Sometimes it depends on your interlocutor, on the situation, the length of the conversation, etc. Also, if you have been away from the particular language environment for some time, you usually need some (short) time to re-attune your ear.

Great job!


In order to have good skills in listening comprehension in English (or any other language) and to speak it fluently, a learner should practise listening to audio and video aids in English (dialogues, thematic texts and narrative stories) with subsequent speaking. It is preferable to have English transcripts of audio and video material. I suggest that learners practise listening comprehension with subsequent speaking on a variety of topics and with materials for all levels on a regular long-term basis in the following sequence:

1. Listen to each sentence several times. Alongside listening see and read each sentence in the transcript.

2. Make sure you understand everything clearly in each sentence in terms of pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar.

3. Without looking into the transcript, try to repeat each sentence (say it aloud) exactly as you have heard it. Being able to repeat a sentence means that a learner has remembered its content.

4. Listen to that particular conversation or text (story) in short paragraphs or chunks, say each paragraph aloud, and compare to the transcript.

5. Listen to the whole conversation or story without interruption several times, and try to tell the content of the whole conversation or text (story) you’ve heard. You can write key words and phrases, or main ideas as a plan, or questions on that particular dialogue or text to make easier for you to convey the content in English. It is important to compare what you’ve said to the transcript.

It is a good idea to record one’s speech on audio aid to compare it with the original audio/video recording.
I believe that for practising listening comprehension and speaking in English it is a good idea to include various practical topics for potential needs of learners with comprehensive vocabulary on each topic. As you know the content of materials matters a great deal.
Ready-made thematic dialogues, questions and answers on conversation topics, thematic texts (informative texts and narrative stories), grammatical usage sentences (in the form of dialogues and texts), and sentences with difficult vocabulary on various topics, especially with fixed phrases and idioms can be used in practising listening comprehension in English.
It’s possible and effective to practise listening comprehension and speaking in English on one’s own this way through self-check using transcripts, books, audio and video aids to provide additional solid practice and to accelerate mastering of English.


I'm trying to learn Spanish (as a third language, Arabic is actually my second language, I am a second generation Arabic speaker and have no problems with that language) and I feel like, if I wanted to, I can relatively quickly get the grammar and vocabulary down. I can watch movies, read the captions, and understand it relatively well. but if the captions are turned off I can't understand very much, especially when they talk fast. This is probably the most difficult obstacle to overcome is listening comprehension. I listen to the radio, etc... and, I think it slowly maybe helps but the process is so insanely slow that it's very tedious and I feel like it will take forever. Not sure how to fix this. I'm not sure how to fix that.


Thank you Donovan for the useful advises for learning languages. I have learned English and German for more than a decade. I want to improve them, because my understanding of these languages is still not very satisfying, especially when it comes to German. By the way, my mother language is Serbian/Bosnian.

Darren X

Since my listening comprehension in French is still pretty bad (I think my aptitude for listening is poor) something I've been doing is working with a website that reads out news reports in French at a slower pace and includes transcripts. I used to read these transcripts first and then listen, but as my vocabularly has improved I'm trying now to listen first, once from beginning to end and then through once again, stopping and rewinding if there's anything I'm still not catching. If I haven't figured it out after a few times, it's either a word I don't know or a grammar concept that I'm not used to *hearing*. Then I look at the transcript, and often think "oh THAT.", or sometimes I have to look up the word. Once I've correctly "heard" the entire item, I listen to it again at regular speed and make sure I can still "hear" everything. A four minute newscast is a good 45 minute exercise for the morning. We'll see how this works.


Wow, this subject is so much my life right now. I'm a 3rd generation Italian who over the years has tried off and on to become fluent in Italian. I've read grammar books for the foundations of the language, learned to read it pretty well, and have listened to the tv at dinner time off and on for a few years. In the past year I've even done Michel Thomas and Pimsleur. I've found that my listening comprehension is sadly pretty awful (in my estimation) and unfortunately I am not exposed to Italian speakers very often in my daily life as well. Suddenly, about two months ago a trip back it Italy for my first time, I'm 47, presented itself and now I am about to go to Italy for 7 weeks and fear all the language learning I've attempted will be for naught. I have stepped up the listening of the TV (Rai), reviewed the language tapes and even worked on Yabla with small excerpts and the translations. I guess I'll see where I stand pretty soon so thabks for the helpful blog and tips.


Great to hear that there are other learners just like me! I have worked very hard to improve my French over the past four years, but still struggle with listening. Most language bloggers seem to have a natural talent at listening (the same with most language teachers) - they think the rest of us are merely lacking motivation! - so its great to read someone who is like the rest of us - trying to heave the language boulder across the dessert of speaking success....!


the article was spot-on, as usual. I could really relate to the epiphany, when the paradigm shifts from alien sounds to meaningful flow. And I do agree that intensive, focused repetition

I was wondering though, when you say:

"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."

I have been experimenting with Audacity over the years, and I have found that the reverse, i.e. speeding up the recording, can prove to be very effective. The underlying idea is to expand my comfort zone and segmentation skills by listening the recording to 1.5 speed and then slowing down to normal speed. A sort of HITT / fartlek training applied to language learning.
Obviously, I am using this technique with short passages.

Do you know of any empirical evidence of this in literature?

Greetings from a fellow linguist, keep up the excellent work!

Andrew Reid

Unfortunately my Arabic classes didn't focus enough on listening practice. Our listening dialogues were scripted from the textbook and usually I would focus on the script and try to match up what they were saying to the script rather than trying to understand it without the script. Towards the end I requested some classes focused specifically on listening practice and it made a significant difference. Another challenge is being able to listen to native speakers talk to each other. When they talk to you, they slow down a bit and use simpler words but when they talk to each other they go faster and use more complicated words, as well as slang expressions.

Donovan Nagel

Yea the problem with so many textbook dialogues is that they're hideously robotic and unnatural sounding. If you haven't seen it already, the Umm al-Dunya book that was recently released by AUC has lots of great listening material (Egyptian).

Very true about listening to native speakers talk to each other too. I learn a lot by playing the quiet observer sometimes :)


Very interesting post. I couldn't agree more. Indeed, there are many opinions and approaches when to start listening... Some say you should reach a certain level first. I don't agree with such an opinion. Sure, if you don't possess rich vocab, at first what you listen to in a foreign language will sound more like a noise or hum. But what I observed myself, when I passed this first stage, I was able to pick out more and more words, which gave me more and more satisfaction and of course more motivation to continue. Such an approach also helps to get used to the flow of the language, various ways of speaking and accents.
Once I focused more on speaking and reading but then I realized that listening comprehension - to real or close to real speech - is as much important. When I went on a holiday to Turkey I was sure I can maintaing a basic conversation, and... although I was able to say something, I couldn't understand anything... Then I changed my approach. Now I try to converse with native speakers as often as I can...


Thanks Donovan, Interesting stuff, sent a message to you recently asking about improving listening comprehension and this answered a lot of my questions. I look forward to listening to more interviews rather than films, as like you said you can really get a better understanding of how people talk in real life this way. Slightly unrelated but I found when you study abroad you also talk about different things than you would on Italki. I talk on Italki every day but when It came to talking to a doctor about tetanus vaccines or calling up the council to explain there was a problem with the electricity in the flat, it was something that talking online had not prepared me for and the words they were using on the phone were words I had not come across, which relates back to the point you made about how you can be a native speaker and still not understand certain subjects. Anyway thank you for this post, great read and tips, I look forward to working on it.


Just to weigh in on the debate held earlier. I think repeatedly listening to the same piece of audio is definitely a good idea, as long as each time you listen you feel as though you are understanding more and more. The point at which you have full comprehension and the pace of speech is not a problem anymore is usually the time to move on to something new. However, if you are not just trying to improve your listening but speaking as well you can still continue to listen at this point if your goal is to imitate what the speakers are saying and use this language yourself.

Both intensive listening and extensive listening are important. I feel that for me intensive listening is where the learning happens, whereas extensive listening is a way to build listening automaticity for what is already known. Listening to something for the first time and seeing how much you understood is also the only really true test of your listening ability. If you listen to that same piece of audio repeatedly, it is easy to fool yourself that you are able to listen to native speaker audio without a problem, when in reality the first time you listen to something new you only understand 40-50% of it.

Interesting article Donovan.


Great post! I have so much trouble understanding at times...looks like I need to be more active and don't give up. It's my first foreign language so it is encouraging to hear that it took 3 years for you to more easily comprehend.

Donovan Nagel

Thanks very much, Jen!

All the best with your first foreign language. :)


Perhaps another person already mentioned this, but I find it extremely helpful to watch video of any kind with subtitles in the target language. It helps me put natural sounds to words I recognize in print, which is great when reading skills are fairly high, and it even helps a ton when just learning a language - I can see the sound-written connection even before my vocabulary is past the beginner stage, which helps me when I am studying with a text book or dictionary.

Donovan Nagel

Theresa, I find watching movies with subtitles very helpful as well. :)

Thanks for your input.


I have discovered something interesting about listening skills. I am English and I have found that if an English person speaks French to me I have no problem understanding them. When a French person speaks to me I go to pieces and have great difficulty. I've come to realise that I am actually lip reading as well as listening. I have a theory that French people use different facial muscles to shape their mouth to speak French. An English person, unless they have a brilliant acent, shapes their mouth and lips like I do and I must be instinctively picking this up. I'd be glad to hear if anyone else has experienced this.


I have experienced this in watching YT videos and listening to non-Quebeqois Canadians speak French. They are generally much more easily understandable than native French speakers to me. I am not lip reading though. I think it's the North American accent (in my case) that makes the sounds more familiar because they are speaking French in the way we all probably read it at first--slanted toward our native accent.

Also, native English speakers expressing themselves in French tend to use simpler sentence structures and turns of phrase that are not too idiomatic. They speak more like an English-speaking person using French than a French-speaking person. This comes out in usage, style, colloquialisms, etc. I've definitely noticed that French in French media is somewhat different than French taught as a second language. For instance, the first sentence we learned was "Nous allons apprendre le francais." Technically correct, but common usage by French speakers to convey the same idea would be more like, "On va apprends le francais." Even though "on" is technically singular, it's regularly used to convey "we" rather than nous. That never came up in French class, and is I think an example of something that would throw off a non-Native French speaker's listening comprehension. A lot of it comes down to what is grammatically correct but not really common usage.


You are so correct with the comment that studying "academic" French is very very different from "street" French in France. One rarely hears "nous", although of course it is technically correct and if you use it, everyone will understand you, but in common everyday French "on" is much more commonly used for "we". I have been using "Yabla" and find this is helping my comprehension. Also going on "youtube" and watching a reality show called "Tellement vrai" which I would probably never watch in English but in French it is interesting to me and understandable. I still have lots of trouble with rapid fire idiomatic French dialogue in films despite many years of academic study which proved useless in the "real world" when I arrived in France. I don't really understand why to this day I usually can understand fairly well what I call "didactic" French, where a narrator is explaining a situation or event, but can't understand dialogue, or "chit chat" between characters in a film. I suppose it is the slang and idiomatic expressions.

Margaret Nahmias

That is like a gente in Brazilian Portuguese in regularly replaces nós (we).


This is a great post. Like others, my listening/comprehension skills are poor. English is my first language and I've been learning Spanish for the past 2+ years, intensely.

I totally agree with Donovan with the idea of repetition for improving comprehension. I've started working my way thru a book that I highly recommend if you are struggling with Spanish listening & comprehension skills. (I'm not sure if it is written for other languages.) It is called "Listen 'n' Learn Spanish with your Favorite Movies". I'm only half way thru my first movie but feel that it has improved my comprehension a bit already. It is a slow process as I've been repeating each scene multiple times with headphones on. But, as Donovan stated, there is no shortcut. You just have to dig in and do it.

Mister L.

I think I have a solution; after I started reading this conversation, Ive become more fluent in English. Just keep posting comments. Believe me it really works :)


I think listening repeatedly is very helpful at the beginning stage. I suppose if one could get an infinite supply of spontaneous listening at one's level then perhaps that would be ideal, but that's not available. You just get used to listening to certain patterns and it helps. In addition, at the early stages beginning level material has a lot of phrases that are really important to have down pat. I find that I can listen for a few minutes in Cantonese and ofter understand fairly well, but after a while I get tired and lose focus. I can last longer in Mandarin, but I can't last forever. After a while I lose focus.


my oral comprehension has always stunk. there are no native french speakers here, and i can't connect on skype. i subscribed to spotify where they have all the audio i want. i downloaded some movies with subtitles (black and white with great plots to boot!). i catch a few words now and then, and i am elated! i think i'll find some french chats, too.


I am trying to learn Uruguayan Spanish but there are almost no resources available. I have found some good shows on Youtube in Argentine Spanish and although I do understand that much, it is a very easy way to listen to the Rioplatense accent. I also tune in to some Uruguayan radio stations and listen to them.

Donald Yasnyi

Thanks for your insights into language comprehension. It is both enlightening and encouraging.

Perhaps you could break down the process into steps. I certainly do not believe comprehension happens in one fell swoop.

My thoughts. The first step is identifying the end of a sentence or phrase. The second is hearing individual words. The third is hearing words you understand. The fourth is hearing phrases as a unit. The fifth is understanding phrases. By this time, you can identify the subject of the speech. At some point in time, the listening becomes much easier or even effortless. However, you still may not fully understand the speech. I am sure there are more steps.

What do you think.


Hi Donald,
I think you have a good technique for comprehension, one that reminds me of something Paul Pimsleur came up with, namely starting from the end, working towards the beginning and finally repeating the entire phrase or sentence. This basically means you are listening to something over and over again until you "get it," which is definitely a good thing.


How about listening to music that you know the lyrics to in the language you want to learn? I imagine that would have to help somewhat.

Jake Foster

I have been learning polish on and off for a number of months. Normally in languages i can speak and read/write better but when it comes to understanding i am unable to keep up or understand what is being said. Over time i am able to slowly hear words that i know but unable to piece together what is being said. Any ideas on how i could improve my listening comprehension? Many thanks :)


I'm learning French and Spanish but I need some tips on grammar apps. Does anyone have some?


i think that listening to the same thing over and over again helps you develop some level of confidence, you start recognizing more sounds. i try to listen to podcasts and watch movies but that is not always easy, because i don’t have enough exposure to the language i’m learning. i’ve started using oigovoz and find it useful for my spanish practice. you can control pronunciation speed and how words are pronounced, choose different voices. thanks for the great article.


Thanks for recommending audacity. It helps a lot because it makes me focus on what I'm listening. And it's fun. Now I don't get bored when I practice my listening skills. Audacity is very useful to repeat parts of dialogue I record. And repetition is the key for learning a language. Thanks.

In addition I would say that vocabulary is also very important for listening comprehension. Maybe some of us are struggling with listening because we don't know enough words or at least many of the frequent words of the target language.

I'm learning Norwegian now (my native language is Spanish). And I realized that I was struggling with listening because I didn't know many of the most frequent words in conversation. I could read newspapers and write god essays. Even I could speak well (if I knew the topic), but my listening was very bad. I thought that my vocabulary could be the problem. I thought that my vocabulary was quite formal, artificial and narrow. What I did was to check a list of word frequency in Norwegian (1500 frequent words to begin) and I realized I learned words in a messy way. I knew many low frequency words but I didn't know many high frequency words.

After learning by heart the frequent words I didn't know (many of them were very very basic), my listening comprehension got better. Now I can watch TV and I understand a lot. And I began to use podcasts as well. I'm still working on my listening comprehension, but now I feel better because I see some progress.

In short, audacity and a list of the most frequent words (based on a spoken language corpus) work for me. You are right when you say that there are no shortcuts to learn a language, but to learn as many words (the frequent ones) as possible is quite useful and a god beginning. Check lists of word frequency of you target language. Save time.


When I watch The Hobbit I can't get everyhting they say because volume goes up and down depending on how far or close to the actors the camera is so I lose a lot becuse of that and that can be discouraging at times. At times I mishear words. I wonder if it is because I need more exposure to English sounds or these technical things in movies like The Hobbit also affect native English speakers...


I’ve been studying Portuguese for 4 years and 4 months and I have been to Brasil 14 times but I can’t understand or converse in Portuguese yet. I listen to movies, audios, videos and I have been speaking with a Brasilian daily for 1-3 hours for 16 months but I can usually only understand if 1-3 words are spoken. Any more and I can’t understand except for an occasional word. I have had my hearing tested and bought 9000 dollar hearing aids but they didn’t help. My high frequency hearing was just a little off. The problem is keeping me from progressing because I can’t communicate yet or use the words that I am learning and learn to form sentences. I just returned from Brasil and I had to use a translator to communicate. I can’t order food yet at restaurants because I can’t understand the waiters. All of my classes are in English because of this. It is very frustrating. Any ideas?

Patrick O'Rourke

Hello Patrick from 2018! I’m Patrick from
June 2020 and I’ve been to Brasil 3 more times but I still can’t converse so keep studying. I sill practice every day. Good luck!

"The limits of my language mean the limits of my world."
- Ludwig Wittgenstein