I struggled with listening comprehension when I was first learning French.
My brain could not match the sounds I was hearing to the words I was seeing on the page. I’d listen to my teacher speak and watch subtitled YouTube videos and…nothing.
And I was 13. The age where I was supposed to soak up language the best.
Fast forward to now? I can watch French television without subtitles at all.
The biggest thing I did? I kept French in my ear. All the time.
I listened to SO MUCH French.
And in this post, I’ll show you the strategies and tricks that I used to help me.
The 3 types of listening
I can hear you now: back up, Jake. Listening is listening is listening, isn’t it?!
Well, the truth is, some forms of listening are more equal than others.
You’ve tuned stuff out before, right? And you’ve also been a deliberate listener. And sometimes you put podcasts and videos on 2x speed because people talk so. damn. slow.
Those are all different kinds of listening. And knowing when to use each one is super important.
Active Listening is when you’re engaging with the audio. You’re shooting for 100% comprehension. Active listening is what we do most of the time: in conversations, in classroom settings, or even when watching a show or movie that’s really gripped us.
Binge Listening is when we just want to hear as much as we can as quickly as possible. It’s like skimming—if you get 60% of what’s being said and can walk away with the main ideas, that’s perfect. But Binge Listening can also just be about quantity. We want to keep the audio in our ears for as long as possible and we want the session to be unbroken.
Passive Listening is background noise. It’s the chatter in a busy café or the television show in the background we’re not paying attention to.
Let’s talk about how to use each one.
Active listening is a well-documented tool. You’re familiar with it, too. Whenever you took notes in class, you were practicing active listening.
Much like how active reading requires you to interact with a text (“mark up those margins!” my teachers always said, much to my horror because books are sacred), active listening requires you to engage with the audio.
Active listening is, I think, the best way to learn. You’re actively grappling with the language and engaging with each sound you hear. You leave no stone unturned.
Here’s how to practice it:
Active Listening Strategy #1: Transcription
In a transcription exercise, you listen to some audio and then you write down what you heard. Then you check it. If you got it wrong, go back and listen and try again.
I take this sentence-by-sentence.
…how long should you wait to try again after getting it wrong?
It depends. Some people think it’s cheap to go back immediately and listen again—because you know the correct answer, so now you’re really doing it properly.
But I disagree. I think it’s valuable to hear to make the correct connection between the visual and the audio. That’s how I learn, personally—I’m a visual learner.
Transcription is a valuable exercise because it’s useful at every level of the language-learning process. You can use easier (and slower) audio if you’re a beginner, you can turn on the news if you’re intermediate, and you can tune into some shows if you’re an advanced student.
Active Listening Strategy #2: Call-and-Response
In a call-and-response exercise, you’re a parrot: instead of writing what you heard, you repeat it. Then you check if what you said is actually what you originally heard.
This adds an extra level on top of your transcription exercise because now you have to remember what you heard and also form those words on your lips. This is a lot of work, especially when you’re new!
Call-and-response is less valuable for intermediate and advanced students (unless you’re learning a specific grammar pattern or difficult verb conjugation) because at that level you’re used to having the language on your lips.
But this is still a good tool, especially if you want to learn vocabulary/grammar in context or you want to test your ability to reproduce unfamiliar words. (Which, by the way, is harder than it sounds!)
Active Listening Strategy #3: Mock Conversation
You need a special kind of audio for this, but in a mock conversation, you are, essentially, having a conversation with a recording.
Of course, if you have a language practice partner (preferably one with a native speaker accent), this is a good partner activity as well.
It’s super simple. All you have to do is listen to a sentence in the recording and respond.
This is a good strategy if you’re just starting out and need to learn basic conversations, like how to respond to the wait staff at a restaurant or how to pay for something at a register.
Just remember that a mock conversation is not a substitute for real conversations. You want to focus on understanding the words, not on memorizing the sounds in the recording. That’s an important distinction!
The mock conversion is the next level beyond the call and response. Now you’re listening, understanding, and forming your own, original responses. You’re actively using the language on all levels.
That’s HUGE and it’s a good set of training wheels if you’re still struggling with real conversations.
Binge Listening is when you try to listen to as much of the language as possible in an unbroken period of time. The good news is that if you’re already consuming a lot of foreign-language content with English subtitles (say, you’re learning Japanese and you watch a lot of anime), you’re already practicing this strategy.
The key to binge listening is that it’s unbroken. You’re binging, not snacking. And you’re not pausing for 100% comprehension. You’re more relaxed and less deliberate.
So if Netflix just released a new German-language drama, grab some snacks, put the phone away, and get comfy.
Binge Listening Strategy #1: Watch videos with subtitles
With this strategy, you want to pair your foreign-language audio with subtitles that you can quickly understand.
You do this because you want to pair the audio with instant understanding.
And then you just watch…for a while. An hour. Two hours. Seven hours. I don’t judge.
Meanwhile—and this is the hardest part—you want to minimize any other distractions. Put your phone out of reach. Close the other tabs on your web browser and turn off your push notifications.
This is a great strategy for all levels because you can scale it for difficulty.
If you’re a beginner, English-language subtitles are fine. But intermediate and advanced students should use foreign-language subtitles. If you’re studying a language that isn’t alphabetical, like Mandarin, subtitles with the pīnyīn (or whatever phonetic system that language has) are good for intermediate students and with characters for intermediate or advanced students.
But if you’re advanced, try going without the subtitles. There’s a chance foreign-language subtitles don’t really help your listening comprehension because they’re too big a crutch. (They create “lexical interference.”) I would watch an episode of a television show without subtitles and see how much you understand. You might be farther ahead than you think!
Binge Listening Strategy #2: Podcast while exercising
If you’ve downloaded my free cheatsheet (5 language-learning hacks to systematize & automate your language practice so that you NEVER fall off again), you know that exercise gives you a massive cognition boost.
In fact, you learned that studying with an elevated heart rate dramatically improves language retention.
(Don’t have that cheatsheet? Grab it here.)
Well, guess what? There’s also evidence that exercise improves listening comprehension. (This study was done with a small sample size and with children aged 10-12, but in light of what we know about exercise improving your cognitive abilities, the conclusions make sense to me.)
…why exercise? And what kind?
If you know me, you know I recently started Crossfitting. This is high-intensity stuff. I do not recommend putting a foreign language podcast in your ears while Crossfitting. Focus on your workout.
But if you’re just going for a brisk walk, you’re hopping on the bike, or even if you’re lifting and you’re elevating your heart rate, this is a great strategy for you.
Especially if you’re doing those activities for long periods of time. I’m known to go on walks for hours when it’s warm outside.
If you know me, you also know I love listening to podcasts on walks and on the bike. But you don’t have to listen to podcasts specifically. You can listen to recordings, comedy, or even nonfiction audiobooks.
Binge Listening Strategy #3: Dive deep with audio fiction
Okay, so this is cheating a little because it’s actually a blend of active and binge listening strategies, but it’s too good not to share.
With an audiobook or narrative podcast, not only are you binge listening—because you want the story!—but you’re also actively listening because you need to understand everything that’s being said in order for the story to make sense.
I like to combine this with exercise. Hop on the stationary bike or the elliptical—something you can do for a while that’ll keep you occupied—and put all your attention on the story.
You’ll reap the physical benefits of exercising but also the cognitive benefits of active listening…all while enjoying a great story and practicing your foreign language skills. Win/win/win, am I right?
(And then you have an excuse to eat carbs, which I always cash in on.)
Passive listening is when you have the language audio on in the background but you’re not actively paying attention to it.
Sometimes you’ll understand a bit and it’ll grab your attention, but it’s not your primary focus.
But there are a few reasons I like to include passive listening:
Passive listening mimics an immersion environment
When you go abroad and go to an airport, a restaurant, a museum, a shop, or a show, you’re going to be surrounded by this foreign language. Of course you are! If you go to Buenos Aires and hear English all the time, you’re missing a huge part of Buenos Aires.
Mimicking an immersion environment is important for a couple of reasons:
1. You normalize the experience of not understanding everything. If you’ve never been immersed before, it can be jarring. And frustrating. But feelings of shock and frustration won’t help you navigate your new surroundings. If you have any sort of anxiety, this is a good exercise to get you a little more acclimated to that unfamiliar situations.
2. You’re always listening passively, anyway. You know how you can be somewhere public, on your phone or walking along, and you hear something that catches your attention? I don’t have any scientific research to support this, but I’m willing to throw out the hypothesis that passive listening is a different skill from active listening in the same way that seeing is different from those spot-the-difference puzzles. You want to train your brain to recognize this language, even on autopilot.
While I definitely wouldn’t tell you to spend all of your time on passive listening…
…I do see it as a valuable tool and I think it’s worth including in your routine.
Passive listening is easy to include in your life
Listen to music while you work? Include songs in your target language. Boom. Passive listening.
Like to have white noise on in the background while you cook or clean? Throw on something in your target language like a sports game or cooking video.
Can’t fall asleep unless there’s noise (or need something to drown out the sounds of cars on the street below)? Passive listening. (And no, you can’t learn a language in your sleep like this.)
Passive listening is not a substitute for active listening
I know it’s tempting to just throw the language on in the background and go about your life—it’s certainly easier—but you’re not going to get results like that.
Passive listening is not a substitute for dedicated practice, okay?
Learn and listen
Now you’ve learned tons of different listening strategies to grow your listening comprehension.
What did you think? Are you going to add any of these to your language study routine?
Let me know in the comments below.
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