Listening Comprehension: An Important Language Skill

Listening Comprehension: An Important Language Skill

Speaking as a part of language learning is highly overrated, and before you protest, I’m going to explain why.

Of course we all want to learn to speak the language we are learning, and to speak it well. That is probably most language learners’ number one objective. The question is just how to achieve that, and how to incorporate speaking in a program of language learning. In my view, the pressure to speak, and to speak well early on, can create frustration and tension and delay achieving genuine fluency.

 

To speak well, first you must listen well.

I meet a lot of people who tell me they would like to speak the language they are learning better. Some people tell me that they can understand well, but they can’t speak well. Often, however, when I probe a little further, I find that this is not really the case.

Certainly there are people who read well and who can’t speak well. I don’t recollect, however, having met many people who understand the spoken language well, who are totally comfortable listening in most situations, but who have trouble speaking.

Many people who seem to be able to speak the language in fact don’t understand when you speak to them quickly, or don’t understand a conversation that is going on around them, or don’t understand movies. In other words, these people don’t have a high level of listening comprehension.

Listening Comprehension: An Important Language SkillI believe that listening comprehension, not speaking, is the most important skill in language learning. If you can achieve a high level in comprehension, all other skills will follow. The speaking will come. The grammar and correct usage will come. If you have had so much exposure to the language that you understand comfortably when the language is spoken around you by native speakers, and not just when they are talking directly to you, you will be able to develop an excellent speaking ability as soon as you get enough opportunity to use the language.

 

Listening provides a language companion.

Listening has a number of other advantages: it’s very easy to organize. When I’m listening I’m not just listening to the language. As I progress past the beginner stage, which consists of listening to simple stories, I move on to enjoying a novel, learning about the history of the country or following a political or historical podcast. I can have a fascinating language companion with me when I do the dishes, drive my car, exercise or go for a walk. I simply can’t arrange to have a language tutor with me when I am doing these things.

It’s not that I don’t speak, I do speak. Once I reach a certain level of comprehension, I will usually arrange online discussions with our tutors at LingQ. I can now understand a wide range of subjects and have in depth conversations. When I speak I’m made aware of my problems, where my hesitations and doubts are. I work on them in my listening and reading. If I am lucky enough I can even arrange a trip to the country where the language is spoken.

Even reading, in a way, is a form of listening because when we read in a foreign language we tend to subvocalize. In a way, we are hearing the language when we read.

Listening Comprehension: An Important Language SkillI think there’s too much emphasis on speaking at the beginning, too much emphasis on speaking correctly. There’s too much pressure on people to produce the language correctly at a stage in their learning where they’re unlikely to do be able to do so because they haven’t had enough exposure.

Unrealistic expectations are created in the mind of the learner. Learners can become overly concerned about making mistakes. They may start second guessing themselves. They can become hesitant to speak. If they have solid comprehension skills, they will speak more naturally and with more confidence.

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It is a bit of a tortoise and hare situation. It is not necessarily the person who is able to say things early on who will become the most fluent speaker of a language. Often, it will be the person who understands the language the best, who has the largest vocabulary and who has spent the most time listening.

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16 comments on “Listening Comprehension: An Important Language Skill

Vusal

I couldn’t agree more. I am of the opinion as well that listening comprehension is more important than speaking. Because if you don’t understand the question directed to you correctly, no matter how good you are, in the target language, you will end up answering incorrectly. But if you understand the speaker correctly, then you can come up with the correct reply, even if you use only simple words.

Ozzie Chen

Hello Mr. Kaufman. I really appreciate your passion and ability in learning language. I’d like to know how to do well and get my listening ability approved. My reading ability could be in the advanced level, but my listening ability never found its way out since I never cared about it. I’m thirty and learned English since I was 12. Having kept the routine of listening to the radio WNYC through ipad while lying in bed before falling into sleep for like 2 or 3 months. Maybe it’s improved but very slightly, and it sort of gets stuck. I’m desperate about my listening. Hopefully you could help me find the right way. Thank you so much.

Phil

To me, speaking doesn’t come under the term ‘learning’ at all. In my opinion you don’t learn anything except your inadequacies/gaps in your knowledge through speaking. Speaking is just the practicing of what you’ve already learned.

This is because you can’t say things without previously having learned them.

It’s a big part of why I laugh at that Irish clown who says you need to speak from ‘day 1’ when you have no words to use.

    Ashley

    I agree with Phil. And I know that the speak from day one method doesn’t work from experience.
    I remember dropping a community center class once. It was a small group, maybe only 4 or 5 other students. What was most peculiar in the class is that she wanted us to talk in only that language right away and not use English. She started with asking “how are you”? The problem with that is most of us were complete beginners and didn’t know any words or phrases. So she was translating nearly everything we said and having us try to repeat it. Not helpful and way too hard. And then the next time we met up, we had all forgotten what we had learned. Most people are not auditory learners and she should have written some things down for us. She should have started with teaching us the sounds of the language and giving us a breakdown syllable-by-syllable of common responses to how are you.

    This made me a firm believer that speaking from day one does NOT help you learn. One has to know the vocabulary to some extent before trying to string together sentences. How were we supposed to say something when we had no idea how to say it? It makes no sense. Building vocabulary, learning phrases, and listening helps me much more.

      In fact most of us need a combination of reading and listening, using the same and hopefully meaningful and interesting content.. The two reinforce each other. The reading is great for acquiring vocabulary, and the listening gives us rhythm in the language and prepares us for speaking.

Julianna

안I녕하세요! I’m currently trying to learn 한국어 too! And I’m also having trouble finding good listening content, I found one podcast “Spongemind/스펀지마인드” on soundcloud and the one you talked about in one of your videos (podbang?). Have you found any others that you could recommend to a beginner?
감사합니다!

Name *connie

Thank you for your great blog and videos. I’m brand new to language learning. I’ve always wanted to learn a second language, but didn’t know how. I took Spanish in high school and got bad grades both semesters. I only learned three or four phrases and maybe a dozen words. Obviously formal school didn’t work for me.
I ride horses. A year ago I went to specialized riding school for a week. The instructor was from Portugal and his employees were from Brazil. Never hearing Portuguese before in my life, I was smitten. I went home and was determined to learn Portuguese. I started with Duolingo, which helped me understand the basics. A month or so later I began listening in earnest to news shows and documentaries with Portuguese subtitles. I was slow to understand at first, but things started snowballing and I understood more and more. I threw myself into it 100% and even started hearing Portuguese in my dreams! I made a few language exchange friends online from Brazil. Unfortunately for me, all of them had no shyness problems with speaking english. But I was getting so frustrated with myself that I was not speaking Portuguese. There is so much pressure to speak from day one. I was afraid I’d become someone who would study for years and never talk. I returned to the riding school after 8 months and guess what, I started speaking Portuguese! Both my teacher and his employees were delighted. Even though I made lots of speaking mistakes, I was able to have decent conversations. Because I focused the hardest on listening comprehension I was able to understand most of what they said to me. I was even able to understand alot of what they said to each other. I’m feeling much more confident now that I can learn a second language. I appreciate your approach to learning. It makes sense to take the time and build a solid foundation of listening and reading before trying to speak. Thank you very much!

conycatcher

I think there is a small minority of people who are particularly gifted at listening. Those are the people who tend to have the most success at language learning. For the rest of us who are often thought of as “visual learners,” we have to be patient and devote lots of time to listening.

    Steve Post author

    I think this idea of visual learners and aural learners has been largely debunked. I need both. I don’t pick up much just listening. I need to combine the listening with reading.

Name *Darren

Hi Steve, in your book you talk about trying to imitate what you listen to and working on pronunciation from an early stage. Do you still endorse doing this? While this is not the same as speaking, it does seem to involve a focus on verbal output prior to having massive amounts of input (this is my interpretation and I may not remember correctly).

    Steve Post author

    I did a lot of reading out loud for Chinese, and even some for French. I have not done so since. I don’t know if it is necessary. There is so much more audio material available now, and the means to listen using mp3 players etc. may make that less necessary. I delay starting to speak and therefore have a better ear when I start. Then I need to speak a lot.

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