Listening a lot for language learning

I get a lot of email from people asking me questions about how to learn English better. Instead of just sending my replies to each person individually, I will post my answers publicly here so everyone can benefit. Note that I am not spending a lot of time researching or writing these answers…it’s the advice that comes to me spontaneously and off the top of my head. This first entry is from “D”.

D’s email question (verbatim):

Hello maim [sic], I am new here. I just want to increase my confidence level and English too. I hesitate alot in asking questions to my teacher and also in my group activity.what should I do. I have tried reading newspaper alot, but it don’t work. Because the newspaper contain too many difficult words, that is too difficult for me to memorise.
Can you give me some suggestions about this?
I will be very thankful to you.

My email with advice:

Hi D,
Thanks for writing. I agree with you that newspapers aren’t great for general English listening and speaking skills. Everybody is different, but all I can do is share my own language learning experience with you and hope you find it useful.

I’ve found that doing LOTS of listening works best for me, combined with studying at least some grammar and vocabulary. When I was learning to understand spoken Dutch, I found some Dutch language podcasts (for native speakers) about topics I was interested in, and would listen to them as much as I could. I listened when I was walking my dog, cleaning my house, exercising, working in the garden, driving the car, etc. I would say I spent a couple of hours almost every day with my headphones on, listening to Dutch.

I also practiced a “listen and repeat” style audio course (I think it was Pimsleur). Honestly, the course was not compelling or interesting, but I forced myself to do it — the whole thing — several times. I really focused on getting the pronunciation as good as I could when I was repeating out loud, and I really think this did a LOT to help my understanding.

I admit, sometimes all this was pretty boring. And at first it was really difficult and frustrating. But I persisted

(I am stubborn — it’s a blessing and a curse). As time went on, it got a bit easier. And then after a few weeks, I was listening to a Dutch language podcast about entrepreneurship, and I realized that I was just listening and enjoying it, not even aware that I was listening to Dutch. And it should be pointed out that I had to risk being embarrassed in public, for example, if someone saw me walking my dog and repeating silly sentences from the Pimsleur course out loud. The first few days I did that were hard, then I just didn’t care any more what people thought!

At the same time I studied some Dutch grammar, and took a few online speaking lessons with a nice teacher on italki (he was VERY patient…I could hardly say anything in the beginning). I didn’t take many lessons, maybe ten or so total. I also watched some Dutch films (with English and Dutch subtitles), and really tried to pay attention when Dutch people were talking in real life. My speaking is better now, but still not great because I simply don’t need to speak much in my everyday life. But my listening and reading is really good now. And I’m sure that if I *had to* start speaking Dutch regularly, I would improve really fast.

Oh, one thing important to note: I did a LOT of repetition in my listening. I would listen to the same podcast episode many times over a period of weeks. Most learners think they need to always be listening to new material, or they think it’s boring to repeat stuff. But it’s the only way to really know if you are improving. If you first listen and don’t understand anything, and then listen a month later and can follow along with basic understanding, then you’ve definitely improved!

In any case, I hope this advice helps you. There are no quick and easy solutions, but if you spend a couple of months really focusing on the listening, listen and repeat, and getting some speaking practice when you can, you will definitely notice a HUGE difference in your confidence.

Best of luck,