Marcin's Blog

Language skills and the importance of listening

Language is a skill, which means that when we want to learn a language, it will be more similar to learning to swim or learning to ride a bike, than to learning about science in the field of biology or astrophysics. When we want to learn biology, we have to read lots of books talking about this subject and acquire the knowledge from those books. However, if we want to learn a language, it’s not enough to read a couple of grammar books. We have to listen to the language, make an effort to understand it, and finally – try to reproduce it. This is more similar to what we have to do when we want to learn to swim. In this case, we have to observe someone who already can do it, make an effort to understand what he is doing, and try to do it ourselves.

Language is a fairly complex skill, and because of that, it was divided into four basic sub-skills – listening, speaking, reading, writing. If we want to learn a language well, we have to practice all of them. But, first, we don’t have to develop all of those skills at once, second, it will be more beneficial for us, if we start with the most important skill.

Here I wanted to stress the importance of the first skill I’ve mentioned – listening, which is also, in my opinion, the most important one of all four. This is also the one, on which we should concentrate from the very beginning. The reason for this is that we can’t have a conversation, if we don’t understand what the other person is saying to us. We also can’t read, because we don’t, how we are supposed to pronounce the written text. Not to mention, that this is also the skill, which we develop as the first one in our mother tongue. Babies hear what their parents are saying a long time before they are born.

How to develop and improve listening comprehension?

Our brain needs two things. The first one is repetition. Listening causes your brain to get used to the language. We should listen to the same thing over and over again, each time trying to understand more. It helps a lot if in addition to the audio recording, we also have a bilingual text with some basic grammar explanations.

I’ve written that our brain needs two things – the second one is novelty. The problem with listening to the same thing over and over again is that after some time, we tend to ignore things which we still don’t understand. Our brain gets bored. And this is a good moment to add a new audio material.

All the details like, how many times should we listen to the audio recording, or when should we proceed to the next one, depending on how good we already know the language which we are learning. At the beginner level, it’s best to take a self-study book with audio recordings or buy a course with texts and recordings. At this level lessons are very short, so we can listen to the recording five times, paying attention to the translation, grammar notes, sentence structure. Next day, we should listen to the previous lesson a few times, take the next lesson, and listen to the new recording five times. The most important thing is consistency, so this should be repeated every day.

When we are already at the intermediate or advanced level, it’s not that easy to repeat five times, because the recordings which we have are much longer. Let’s say that we want to learn from a Youtube video. We should take a video with subtitles in the language that we are learning (it’s better to take a video shorter than ten minutes). First we should listen to this video once in order to see how much we already understand. The second time, we should listen to it more carefully. We should pause the video if we don’t understand, check the meaning of unknown words. If possible, it’s a good idea to listen to the same video once more, without stopping.
After working for a couple of months like this, you can be sure to build a good foundation and to improve quicker also the other language skills. If you are already more advanced, you will improve your listening comprehension, but also, it will be easier to improve the other skills.