Listening is probably the most important skill to master when learning a foreign language. If you cannot understand what someone is saying then you won’t be able to answer them, have a conversation or know what’s going on.
My experience taught me that in the beginner stages of learning a language yes of course you need to listen to slow audio to learn the basics and get a feel for how the language sounds. This is why most textbooks start with much slower audio spoken by native speakers who pronounce words slowly and clearly for learners to follow.
However, when I started living in Spain with Spanish people who spoke so incredibly fast, in fact, nothing like the speed of listening exercises I had learnt Spanish with, this was a huge shock to the system! Even though I had studied Spanish for 7 years, faced with native speakers every day I struggled to understand what they were saying and keep up with the conversation. However, I had no option but to keep trying to grasp as much as possible of what they were saying and gradually I noticed an improvement. So much so that by the end of the year, I could understand virtually everything that was being said. I never thought that would have been possible at the start of the year.
I now know that the problem was not always that I didn’t understand the words, it was often the fact that real life speaking involves lots of connected speech, colloquialisms and expressions that you just cannot learn from books. Slowly, you get to know the sounds that run together to sound like a jumble of words, you get to know the little phrases they use and so it all becomes much easier eventually.
However, once you have the basics under your belt you will want to move onto intermediate level activities and the only way to do this is by listening to more real life audio. By that I mean, authentic native resources such as TV programmes, watching the news online in the target country, foreign films with or without subtitles.
At first this will seem almost impossible, but the only way to improve is to force yourself to keep listening. If you continue pressing the “slow” button and making sure you understand every word, you are not preparing yourself for listening in real life and you will stay at your current level. The only way to improve is to listen to more difficult audio.
1. Choose audio that comes with a transcript so you can see the words that are being said.
Listen without the transcript as many times as you need to. You will pick out more each time. Then listen and read the script at the same time. You will notice the sounds and particular words that tend to run together and sound like something completely different.
2. Make sure what you are listening to is not too difficult – choose audio that is slightly above your current level.
3. Choose listening material that you are interested in and will enjoy so that you don’t end up switching it off halfway through!
4. Keep learning more vocabulary. This will put you in the best possible position to understand more of what is being said.