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General Articles

How to Improve Listening Skills in a Foreign Language

By: Isabel McKay Fri Jan 12 2024

A big part of becoming fluent in a foreign language is being able to understand what you listen to. But how can you improve your listening skills? The basic answer is, you’ll have to spend some time practicing by listening to how people speak your target language in the real world. Even better, listen to how people talk about different topics, at different speeds, in different dialects, and in different registers (levels of formality).

A young woman listening to music while walking down the street

But not all listening practice is created equal. In this article, we’ll give you some tips about some of the best things that you can do to practice listening and improve your ability to understand others. Then we’ll answer some common questions that language learners ask about how to practice their listening skills. Ready? Let’s jump in!

1. Listen to what you like

Listening to the same things you usually like to listen to, but in your target language, is one of the best ways to build your listening skills. You’re more likely to stay invested in your learning if you listen to something you find interesting. You’ll also build the types of skills most relevant to the things you personally care about. 

For example, if you really want to be able to understand Spanish-language sportscasts, you should watch or listen to a game. But if you’d rather understand what they’re saying on your favorite telenovela, you should watch those instead. You’ll build general listening skills by doing either, but the activity you choose can help you gain knowledge specific to your interest!

Two young women talking in front of two microphones while sipping on coffee

You might even try listening to a recording of something you’ve already read, heard, or watched in English. This way, you’ll already know the “big picture” of what is going on. That brings us to our next tip…

2. Concentrate on the big picture, not the small details

Concentrating on the big picture of what you’re hearing is a good way to practice your listening skills. When you first listen to something, try figuring out what someone is talking about in general. Then, listen again, and use what you’ve understood the first time through to help you catch the finer details the second time around. 

When you focus on the big picture, you adopt what is called a top-down approach to listening. In a top-down approach, you start at the top, the broad meaning, and work your way down to understanding individual words.

For example, imagine you were practicing your English listening skills and you heard the sentence below. The first time through, you might only pick up on the words in bold:

The tiger had been planning to catch a mouse for dinner, but after it saw the squirrel it changed its mind.

From just the words in bold, what would you guess the sentence was about?

Once you know what the sentence is about, you’re more likely to be able to guess at what some of the smaller or more difficult words might have been on your second time through.

Picture of a tiger in the jungle

Sometimes you can take a shortcut to quickly understanding the big picture. Some of the methods below will discuss how to do that!

3. Listen and re-listen at various speeds

Listening and re-listening to the same recording at various speeds is a great way to build your foreign language listening skills. Most apps for podcasts and audiobooks (and even some video platforms like YouTube) allow you to slow down or speed up playback. Why not challenge yourself by listening to faster speech? Or, take it easy by listening at a slower pace!

A smart phone with a pair of headphones next to it

Here’s how this fits in with different listening approaches. If you want to take a top-down approach, listen at normal speed the first time through to build a “big picture” understanding of what you’ve heard. Then, slow it down and try to pick out smaller details.

If you prefer a bottom-up approach to listening, do the reverse! Try listening very slowly until you’ve got all the details, then gradually speed it up until you can hear and understand each of the details that go by.

Listening to a slowed-down recording can also help highlight some of the shortcuts native speakers take when speaking quickly!

Studying a language with Mango? Every word in each course is recorded twice, once more quickly, within a natural sentence, and once more slowly on its own (in “articulated” speech). Because both pronunciations are recorded by a native speaker, you can listen to the differences that arise when native speakers speed up or slow down!

4. Take notes to actively listen and learn

Taking notes while listening is a form of active learning that can help you to check your understanding of the “big picture.” Here are a few ways you might use the notes you take to help you learn:

  • If you’re listening to a French interview podcast, download each episode without looking at the description and try to figure out who they’re interviewing (and why). Write that information down, then go to the description and check to see if you got it correct.

A young girl sitting on a couch wearing a pair of headphones and writing on a notebook.
  • If you’re listening to a German sportscast, take note of all the big plays in the game. Who were the athletes involved and what happened? Go back later and compare that to an English news report about the game, and see if your understanding was correct.

  • If you’re watching a movie in Hungarian, try to write down what you think the characters talked about, then listen again more slowly to see if your first understanding was correct.

If you write things down as you listen, it’s easier to hold yourself accountable for really understanding it all, and it’s also easier to go back and study later. You can even sometimes compare your notes to a transcript later on as a sort of test!

5. Change up your listening routine

Changing up your normal listening routine will eventually be an important step in your listening practice. If you want to build a broadly useful skill (understanding all sorts of speech) you’ll have to practice that in a broad environment (listening to all sorts of speech in all sorts of environments)!

For example, you only practice listening by watching movies, you might find that you won’t be as good at understanding without visuals. However, if you only practice listening to newscasts, you might find that you’re not as good at following conversations between several people.

You should try changing up not just what you listen to, but also how you listen to it. Here are some ways to change up your routine:

  • Try out a new active listening strategy

  • Turn on simulated background noise (like a coffee shop ambiance) while you listen, and see if you can still understand

  • Change the playback speed

Four books (yellow, gray, green, and blue) bound together by a pair of headphones

Changing up what you listen to can help make sure you build the kinds of skills needed to get by in the “real world.” So it’s an important part of the learning process!

6. Use visuals to make a bigger impact

Practicing your listening with visuals can help your listening skills develop faster, particularly in the early stages. Looking at images or videos can help give you the “big picture” understanding of what you’re listening to (remember, we talked about this before!) You can use what you know about the “big picture” to start working more quickly down to the smaller details of what someone is saying on a recording.

Man sitting down in a living room selecting a film to watch on his TV

This is why watching movies is a particularly excellent way to practice listening. Because you can see what is happening on the screen, you will have some basic idea of what people are talking about. You can then focus on listening for specific information. For example, if the characters are out shopping, you could try and figure out what they’re buying!

Studying a language with Mango? Go to the “Explore” tab to see if there are any Mango Movies for your language. The Mango Premier feature is specifically designed to help language learners get the most out of viewing movies in their target language!

Remember, when you use a language in the real world, you will rarely have to figure out what someone else is saying completely without context. So giving yourself a little visual hint is good practice for the real world!

7. Read what you listen to

Reading a transcript after (or while) listening is a good way to check that you have correctly understood all the words and grammar.

Here’s an activity you can try: While you listen to a passage, write down the exact words you think you heard. Then, after listening, compare what you’ve written to what was actually said. This can help you identify your strengths and weaknesses and give you an idea of how you can improve.

Studying a language with Mango? You’ll be presented with new conversations to use to practice your listening skills each chapter. If you want a challenge, try to listen to it for the first time with your eyes closed and write down what you think you hear, then check it against the transcript. For some languages, we even provide additional listening focused activities, which hide the text while you take a quiz on the content. Then, once you’ve finished, you can open up the transcript to check your understanding

This sort of activity is easiest to do when you’re listening to someone reading something that was originally written, like an audiobook. However, you can find transcripts of a lot of other materials online. Many podcasts and news reports will publish transcripts. If you’re studying a movie, you can compare what you hear to what you see written in the closed captions or to a movie script you find online.

An open book with a pair of headphones laid on top of it.

Why is listening an important skill for language learning?

Listening is an important skill for language learners to master because it is central to most real-world language use. This may seem obvious, but it is easy to forget to practice your listening skills if you are studying a language in a very structured classroom environment. 

Just because you know how to read a language fluently doesn’t mean that you will be able to understand what a group of people who all share the same cultural background are saying when speaking casually or quickly. If you want to be able to use a language day-to-day, you’re going to need to practice your listening skills.

Building your listening skills will also give you access to all sorts of materials for learning more about the language and its culture. Once you understand what people are saying, you can easily make the most of TV shows, YouTube videos, music, or whatever you prefer to listen to!

What are some common problems when it comes to listening?

Some of the factors that can commonly cause problems for students practicing their listening skills are: recording quality, accents, vocabulary, cultural differences, speed, and recording length. Let’s talk about how you can avoid some of these problems, or turn them into learning opportunities!

Young man wearing a red shirt cupping his left ear to hear better
  • Recording quality. Try to choose recordings that are very clear, especially when you’re starting out. Use a good set of headphones or speakers. Leave the fuzzy recordings to challenge yourself with later.

  • Accents. Learning to understand different accents is important, but it’s okay to start out listening only to one type of accent until you’ve got a handle on the basics.

  • Vocabulary. Sometimes it’s the words you don’t know that make listening challenging, not a lack of listening ability! Make sure you keep up your vocabulary practice if you are having problems listening!

  • Cultural Differences. Sometimes you miss something because there’s underlying cultural knowledge you’re missing (like an idiom you don’t know, or a cultural tradition that is referenced casually in conversation). These can be great learning opportunities. Talk to some locals or native speakers and try to learn as much as you can!

  • Speed. Sometimes the speech you’re listening to is just too fast. If you’re having trouble with this, try practicing with slowed-down recordings for a while! If you’re studying with Mango, try going through and listening to the slower word-by-word pronunciations.

  • Length. Sometimes the length of a passage can cause listening difficulties. It can actually be better to practice your listening skills with a very short passage which you can study until you fully understand. The Mango app is ideal for this. It starts with short conversations, and features reading and listening activities that get longer as you progress through the course. Consider working your way up to longer podcasts, movies, or passages if you find yourself getting overwhelmed.

What activities are good for improving listening skills?

Podcasts, newscasts, audiobooks, and sports radio are all good activities for improving your listening skills. You can also watch things in your target language like movies, TV shows, YouTube videos, or live streams! Even better, try having conversations with native speakers.

To get the most out of your listening practice, try using some active listening strategies. For example:

  • Write down what you hear

  • Repeat what you hear out loud

  • Test yourself on your comprehension by looking up a transcript after it’s over

  • Take note of new words or phrases you hear

  • Plan to pay attention to particular linguistic features (ex: find all the past tense verbs)

  • Listen to one sentence at a time and make sure you understand each sentence fully before moving on!

What apps are good for listening skills?

Apps that teach language using conversations, videos, or other sorts of audio recording materials (like Mango!) are good for building basic listening skills. If you want to continue improving your listening ability, stick with apps that are audio-focused and feature conversations and videos, and avoid those that focus on written language.

However, although apps are designed to help you learn the basics of a language quickly, they can only take you so far! Some general apps that can help you improve your foreign language listening skills include:

A person holding a smartphone in front of an orange background
  • YouTube. Find TV shows, movies, or just a YouTuber in your target language (free!)

  • Podcast apps. Use apps like Pocket Casts (Android) or Apple Podcasts (iOS) to find great podcasts in the language you’re learning (free!)

  • Twitch TV. Find a streamer posting in the language you’re trying to learn (free!)

  • Streaming apps. Apps like Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Disney+ not only host foreign language movies, but can also let you change the audio of lots of English movies to another language.

Summing it all up!

Learning to listen and understand in a new language is a big job. But if you follow the strategies we outlined above, it can be one of the most enjoyable and rewarding parts of language learning. By building your listening skills, you’ll give yourself access to a whole new world of language and culture, through movies, news media, podcasts, and – most importantly – conversations with native speakers of the language you’re trying to learn. So pull out your headphones and your notebook and get cracking! Good luck!


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