How to Improve Your English Listening Skills (For FAST Fluency!)
Picture this – you’re at your company’s summer party. It’s an international company that employs English speakers from all over the world.
At your table is a colleague from the United Kingdom, another from Australia, one from South Africa, and someone from America.
They’re all speaking easily and fluidly, but you’re struggling to keep up with what they’re saying. While they’re all speaking English, their accents and different pronunciations make it difficult for you to understand.
When it comes time for you to speak, you freeze, because you aren’t quite sure exactly where in the conversation you are.
This is a common situation for people who have been let down by traditional language learning methods.
Students aren’t typically ready to hear real speech – it’s not what they’ve been training for. So when it comes time to speak and take part in real conversations, their brains just aren’t prepared for it. It’s too fast, the intonation is unfamiliar, and some of the words might be unknown.
The English you’ve learned in school is far from what you experience in real life, so your brain can’t really hear it to process it. It’s partially a language problem and partially a psychology problem.
So how do you get past this roadblock and improve your English listening skills?
By learning about stress and intonation and using real vocabulary in context.
Table of Contents
- Stress and Intonation
- It’s All About Context
- How to Practice Your English Listening Skills
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Stress and Intonation
As you’ve probably encountered in your native language, stress and intonation can add an extra layer of complexity to communication.
Stressing a certain vowel or raising the intonation creates different meanings from the same word or phrase.
Stress and intonation are referred to as the music of the English language. They are key to learning how to speak English fluently with good pronunciation.
Stress refers to the emphasis placed on particular syllables or words, while intonation refers to the pitch in which it is spoken.
To understand what stress is in action, you need to understand what words we typically stress.
These words can include:
- Nouns (mountain, Aaron)
- Main verbs (go, eat)
- Adjectives (curious, beautiful)
- Adverbs (early, locally)
- Negatives (negative helping verbs like “nowhere”)
- Words that express quantities (a lot, many)
Imagine this scenario:
Two friends, Peter and Alice, are at a coffee shop enjoying coffee. Alice looks at Peter and says, “I can’t believe you said that about our other friend, Carol.”
To which Peter replies, “I haven’t said anything about Carol. What are you talking about?”
Alice replies, “Yes you did. You said that she never follows through on anything.”
Peter looks at her, dismayed, and replies, “I didn’t say that. I said that she was a little forgetful sometimes.”
Now read the phrase as Peter said above, with the word “that” stressed: “I didn’t say that.”
When the stress is placed on “that” (word in italics), it changes the meaning of the phrase. In this case, Peter may be acknowledging that he had said something, but it was misinterpreted or misunderstood.
See the difference? Stress can change the dynamic of a conversation very quickly.
Intonation, on the other hand, refers to the melody or pitch changes used to convey meaning. This is particularly important when we are trying to convey emotions and attitudes in speech, similar to the way English idioms help us convey feelings.
Imagine going on out to dinner with coworkers, and after dinner, you all plan to go out without the boss. If the boss decides to tag along, uninvited, you might say “You’re coming with us?” The intonation rises at the end of the sentence to indicate a question.
If you were telling your boss to come with you, you might say “You’re coming with us.” The end of this sentence would have a falling intonation, indicating that it is a statement, rather than a question.
Stress and intonation are critical parts of everyday English that help you convey emphasis and importance in your message.
It’s All About Context
During conversations, do your best to resist fixating on every individual word said. Doing this can limit your ability to understand the context of the conversation.
You could memorize every English word and still not understand how to use the vocabulary.
That’s because you need context!
Simply put, context is the meaning that surrounds a word. It’s the experience surrounding the word which gives it greater depth and meaning.
Let’s look at an example:
Imagine a young child playing outside. He hears his brother walk out of the front door, talking on the phone.
He sounds really excited and uses phrases that the child has never heard before.
“I’m so pumped!” he shouts into the phone. “Honestly, so stoked!”
The child might know the individual words, but probably has no idea what they mean in this order as a phrase. Yet, he can tell from his brother’s tone of voice that he was feeling excited and happy.
So while we might not know the meaning of a word, we can draw an understanding of it through the context in which it is used.
How to Practice Your English Listening Skills
According to linguist Dr. Stephen Krashen, learning to understand what is being spoken is much more important than speaking when it comes to achieving fluency.
This is why listening is an essential skill for anyone who wants to become fluent in English.
It allows you to understand what people are saying and the context in which it takes place.
So to get better at listening, and by extension, understanding, try these exercises:
1. Practice Naturally Varied Review
If you want to understand native speakers and express yourself naturally, you must learn real, spoken English.
To do this, you need to be exposed to different kinds of conversations that all speak about the same topic.
One way you can practice Naturally Varied Review is by searching on YouTube for a topic that you are interested in.
Let’s use coffee as an example. You can search for the phrase “how to make coffee” and watch four or five short videos on how to make coffee.
Take some time to watch these videos closely. You might also want to watch them multiple times.
By hearing different people talk about the same topic, using different language, you’ll start to gain a deep understanding of the different phrases and words used to describe and speak about that topic in context.
When you do this enough times about various different situations, you will start to think in English instead of mentally translating every word. Thus, your fluency and confidence will improve.
2. Listen to Different English Accents and Pronunciations
While listening to English YouTube videos during your Naturally Varied Review practice, you’ll likely come across a variety of accents and pronunciations.
Someone from Texas is going to sound very different from someone in Manchester.
Listening to native English speakers with different accents will help you quickly improve your listening and pronunciation. You’ll develop your “sense of correctness” which will help you use the right grammar at the right time.
Find a diverse group of speakers from the US, the UK, Australia, Canada, and beyond. Any problems with your accent and intonation are quickly erased by steady exposure to native speaker examples.
3. Listen to Different People Talking About the Same Subject
As I wrote about above, Naturally Varied Review involves several speakers saying the same thing.
But we also want to listen to people talking about the same subject. This will help to improve your vocabulary by exposing you to different words and phrases used to describe that subject.
Listening to people speak about the same broad subject will help improve your English listening skills. Unlike traditional fluency courses, it forces you to pay attention to the way that the subject is described and spoken about.
This will ultimately help you achieve fluency faster.
4. Sign Up for a Fluency Course
Fluency develops from input – not output – and deeply understanding the context in which a conversation is taking place.
You can unlock your confidence and fluency by improving your English listening skills with the activities we’ve covered today.
If you’re ready for a fast track to fluency, sign up for my fluency course, Fluent For Life. It’s the ONLY proven roadmap for English fluency that will guarantee you reach fluency.