Listening to speakers in another language can be challenging at first. Often, the pronunciation is different than you expect, due to differences from your native language, the dialect of the speaker, or the situation.
For example, if “r” in your language is pronounced like an English speaker’s “h”, every time you hear or pronounce an “r” in English…it will sound wrong!
Or maybe you’re unfamiliar with the speaker’s dialect or accent. A native English speaker can be from London, Sydney, Toronto, or New Orleans – and speakers from those areas pronounce words very differently. Maybe everything you’ve studied uses British speakers, which explains why when you watch a TV show with a character from the southern U.S., you might be quite confused.
In addition to that, the situation can affect how someone speaks. When I’m teaching a class or making a presentation at work, I speak slowly, clearly, and formally. But when I’m out having a cocktail with my friends, I speak very informally and more quickly.
All of this means that listening can be quite difficult! Luckily, there are a few things you can do to help you improve your listening comprehension skills.
Part One: The Subtitle Strategy
One of the simplest and least stressful ways to practice listening comprehension is to watch TV shows, movies, or videos – but in a structured way.
a) If you have the option to watch with the audio recorded over in your native language, don’t do it. This won’t help you at all!
b) Watch with the audio in English, and subtitles in your native language. You may only need to do this step once, but feel free to repeat it so that you really remember what’s happening in each scene.
c) Watch with the audio in English, and subtitles also in English. This is a step you’ll want to repeat as many times as you need to in order to feel like you recognize and understand the connection between what you’re hearing and the words on the screen.
d) Finally when you’re ready, watch with the audio in English…and no subtitles! If you still find it too difficult, start the steps over again and hang out in step c as long as you need to.
Even after all these steps, you might not understand every single word, despite watching multiple times. This is because there might be cultural references or idioms that aren’t easily translated, but for general listening comprehension improvement, that doesn’t matter. Focus on the “big picture” of what’s happening in each scene.
The subtitle strategy alone won’t give you perfect listening comprehension skills. (You’ll need more “improvised” listening and speaking practice, which we’ll get to in later steps.) Still, this method can really improve your vocabulary and even a bit of your grammar knowledge, in addition to basic listening skills.
Keep going! Read Part Two here!
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