The Untold Truth About Listening Comprehension

By OptiLingo

Why Learning to Listen Might be the Most Important Foreign Language Skill

People often rush to look for the best way to speak German or any other language right away. Others feel that reading is a safer option compared to speaking. However, contrary to the practices in many language classrooms, reading and speaking are not the most important aspects when learning a foreign language. Listening is.

It seems counterintuitive, after all, most foreign language class begin with speaking. From the alphabet to basic introductions, many people nervously suffer through these trails with the hopes of stumbling upon a quick way to learn German or another language easily. However, it turns out that developing your listening comprehension is a far more effective use of your time.

How We Learn Language

Image a young child trying to learn a language. How does he begin? Is it through endless drilling on morphology? How about by reading complex texts and answering comprehension questions? No. It’s through listening.

Young children go through set stages of language acquisition on their way towards fluency. Only after having a basic grasp of listening do children begin to mimic those around them in an attempt to learn the language. And after that, it is still some time before they delve into speaking, reading, or writing.

Then why do we learn a language through speaking first? Much of it has to do with the failure of foreign language classrooms throughout the nation. Luckily, by redirecting your focus to learning how to listen and understand, you can see drastic gains towards fluency during your time in any language program and long afterwards.

How You Develop Listening Comprehension

Your brain is programmed to filter out white noise. Take a walk outside and try to take in all the sights, smells, and sounds. If you slow down your sensory perception and focus on your immediate environment, your brain process more of it. But that information is always there.

Typically, you move through your life every day ignoring most of the input you receive because it has nothing to do with your needs. The same is true when you first start begin a foreign language learning program. Your brain doesn’t realize that information is important and instead filters it out. Listening comprehension typically follows a pattern.

  1. Garbled Sounds: The target language sounds like an incoherent jumble of words.
  2. Sound Familiarity: You’re able to discern the sounds and start to notice the form behind the words.
  3. Word recognition: You’re able to recognize words and the pauses between them.
  4. Sentence and Phrase Recognition: You pick up certain common phrases and sentences and can understand them with some difficulty.
  5. Conversational Comprehension: You’re able to listen and respond during a conversation with ease. However, you may struggle with more complex vocabulary and topics.
  6. Grasping Figurative Language: You’ve reached the highest level of listening comprehension and can recognizing puns, sarcasm, metaphors, etc.

The first two steps you can accomplish without much instruction or practice. However, as you work towards understanding your target language, you will need context to build up your listening skills. If you’re learning a language like German for instance, then a German language book or some other kind of guide would help you build up skills to support your listening.

By using these types of resources for support, you’ll be able lean on them while further decoding more and more complex messages. The additional knowledge you acquire supports your attempts to use context clues to enhance your comprehension.

Why You Should Prioritize Listening Comprehension

If you’re focused on learning a foreign language so that you become a fluent speaker, then you need to focus on listening comprehension first and foremost. These are the reasons why listening comprehension matters:

  • You Can Learn Constantly: While it’s great to sit down and read a book in a foreign language, translate a text, or attempt a conversation with a native speaker, listening is the one skill you can work on continuously. Listening to an audiobook, podcast, or even music in your target language while you go about your day means you can always be learning.
  • It’s a Skill That Compounds: The more you listen, the more you understand. And the more you understand, the more you listen. Exposure is key to learning another language. If you prioritize listening, you’ll be able to create a positive feedback loop that will have you continuously building your fluency.
  • You’ll Speak Faster: If you want to speak the language, you need to be able to understand it. While studying through reading and writing is great, it more or less improves those skills. Listening improves your ability to speak.

Do NOT Fall Victim to Passive Listening

On the other side of this argument is the idea that you can learn a language listening passively. Playing a movie in the background or going to a German restaurant and tuning out “the noise” will not help you develop your listening comprehension. You need to focus while listening. Active listening is the only way to improve your listening comprehension.

You don’t need to be fluent or even have a grasp of the language to immerse yourself in what you’re hearing, but you do need to pay attention. Otherwise, your brain will filter it out as excess noise.

And again, it would be a mistake to think you could walk into a college-level German class and listen to the conversation and gain fluency. It’s about balance. Exposure is always great, but you need comprehensible input to make progress. Pick content you’re familiar with and understand so you can develop your target language around it.

What Are Some Strategies for Developing Listening Comprehension?

Finding resources to help you develop your listening comprehension is relatively straightforward. The internet has plenty of platforms and programs for you. You’ll want to stay away from most language apps. They’re an excellent resource for vocabulary drilling, but they focus more on reading comprehension rather than listening. Try these options out instead:

  1. Listen Every Day: Remember that listening comprehension is a skill that needs daily practice. However, because you can listen while you do other things, it can be much easier to fit into your schedule than flashcards or reading.
  2. Listen to Movies/News/TV Shows with Subtitles: Make sure you choose media that has professional subtitles that accurately reflect the language you’re hearing.
  3. Mix Your Input: Listen to dialogue that you understand and occasionally throw in more challenging sources to increase your skills.
  4. Converse with Native Speakers: This one is harder if you’re not confident in your abilities, but finding someone who is patient and can speak slowly with you can be a great way to work on developing your listening comprehension actively.

Listening Comprehension Supports Fluency

If you want to achieve fluency, it’s best to make sure you’re studying the four main aspects of any language: reading, writing, listening, and speaking. By developing all of these attributes, you will see your fluency rapidly develop. However, if you need to prioritize one, make sure it’s listening. By improving your ability to listen and understand your target language, you’ll be able to communicate fluently with other native speakers faster.