Listening Comprehension – An Important Language Skill

listening comprehension is an important skill in language learning

Speaking as a part of language learning is highly overrated and I’m going to explain why. I meet a lot of people who tell me they are frustrated because they can’t speak the language as well as they would like to, so that there is frustration at not being able to speak well. I meet people who tell me that they can understand well, but they can’t speak well. Normally, in my experience, that is not the case.

English not your first language? Read this post on LingQ instead.

There are people who read well and who can’t speak, but I don’t really recollect having met many people who understand the spoken language well and are totally comfortable listening and understanding, but who have trouble speaking. I have met a lot of people who seem to be able to speak the language but don’t understand when you speak to them at a normal speed.

I believe that listening comprehension is an important skill in language learning. That is what you should drive for first of all. If you develop good listening comprehension, the other skills will come, the speaking will come, even your grammar, your accuracy. All of these things will come if you have had so much exposure to the language that you understand it when it is spoken by a native speaker.

Listening has a number of other advantages: it’s very easy to organize. I just finished doing the dishes and cleaning up the kitchen. I have two different mp3 players and I have different content in each one of them. I have a variety of earphones. I have Bluetooth earphones so that I don’t snare the wires on anything. I’ve got other ones for when I go jogging or exercise. I listen a lot. I can do it all the time.

When I’m listening it’s not just that I’m listening to the language, I’m either enjoying a novel or I’m learning about history and this is true in all languages. There are so many resources available now; podcasts in German, Czech, Russian, Italian, Portuguese, any of the languages that I’ve been dealing with. The only language I haven’t found anything I wanted really was in Korean, but there’s lots of stuff out there to listen to. I could not have hired a tutor to sit beside me in the car driving to speak to me in Italian. I can’t have someone standing by to speak to me in Italian while I’m doing the dishes.

So it’s not that I don’t speak, I do speak. I’ve been speaking probably three or four hours a week, three hours a week with our tutors at LingQ. It’s great to do that. I’m not saying one shouldn’t speak. I speak a lot better this week than I did last week. The speaking and the listening reinforce each other because when I speak I’m made aware of my problems, where my hesitations and doubts are, where I don’t know if I’m speaking Spanish or Italian. I get my corrections back from my tutor and it’s amazing how that makes me more observant of things when I’m listening and reading, especially reading.

I should say reading, in a way, is a form of listening because when we read in a foreign language we tend to subvocalize to start with. Second of all, reading, in other words the written language, is just another form of recording the spoken language. We originally had no way of recording the spoken language so everything was from memory, then we had writing to record the spoken language and nowadays we have various ways of recording the audio so that we can listen to it. I’m not a neuroscientist, but I think, to some extent, the brain is processing the language the same way and getting used to the language by this exposure to it.

I 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 so because they haven’t had enough exposure. Then they become overly sensitive to the need to produce the language correctly. They second guess themselves. They’re hesitant to speak. I would say that the emphasis should be on comprehension.

In Canada, where kids are taught French for 10 years in the English-speaking school system, not even five percent of those kids are able to speak French when they graduate. That is a colossal failure, even though those same kids pass their tests every year. As in all subjects, a few of them fail, the bulk of them pass. Theoretically, they answer grammar questions and at the end they still can’t speak. They don’t speak grammatically correctly. They have no vocabulary. They don’t understand what people are saying. In the spoken language, they probably are able to read to some extent:a colossal failure.

If, instead, the focus was entirely on helping those kids understand the language, then the emphasis would be on finding things that interest them. They could perhaps work on vocabulary, watch movies, do a lot of things that appear to be passive. Allowing kids to read in the classroom rather than taking turns reading from a book where they all mangle the language has to be more efficient. If those kids graduated with the ability to understand the language, that was the only objective, then any speaking activity is only there in order to make them more aware of certain things in the language, but not to test them on their ability to speak.

By all means, speak, I think speaking is good. It helps to stimulate the brain to notice the language better, but the objective of the speaking is not to be tested on the speaking. The speaking is just an exercise in improving your comprehension ability, and if at the end of this people graduate being able to understand the language well, if they then want to learn to speak they’ll be able to learn to speak very quickly.

If someone graduates from say French in a Canadian school and goes off to Quebec or France and they fully understand what people are saying, they will learn to speak very quickly. They’ll have much more confidence going into that. If, on the other hand, they have some vague notions about gender, have a limited vocabulary and don’t really understand, they will go to France and they will be lost and it will take them a long, long time to improve.

Of course, in language learning you have to get past that initial stage where you’re listening to silly things for beginners. Not, by the way, kiddy stories, which I find are more difficult because they use more strange vocabulary than simple stories designed for the learner. You can’t get away from it for the first month or two, but as soon as possible move into the real stuff. Try to have text available so that you can look up the words and increase your vocabulary, much as we do at LingQ, and then get on to things that are of interest. Then it just becomes so fascinating you’re hardly aware that you’re learning a language.

 

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12 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!

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