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Strategies to Become a Better Listener

  1. Distinguish separate words from a blur of sounds
    1. Increase your exposure to the language. For example, tape what someone says to you and play the tape over a few times or go on the Web and listen to radio or voice segments in the target language.
    2. Have a friend say a sentence slowly, then quickly. Count the number of words you can identify in each sentence. Try to separate out more words each time you practice.
    3. Visualize. When you hear something said, see in your mind the chunks of language it consists of, perhaps looking for the subject and the verb.
  2. Comprehend the message without understanding every word
    1. Listen for key words. These are sometimes signaled by stress or by a pause.
    2. Practice "skim listening." Tap into the key topics, and pay particular attention to these while ignoring others.
    3. Play the game of probabilities, inference, and educated guessing. You can guess what is most likely being said, given the following:
      1. The topic and your prior knowledge.
      2. The context.
      3. Who is speaking.
      4. The speaker's tone of voice and body language.
      5. Cues from prior spoken words or phrases.
    4. Try to predict what the speaker will say. If you know something about the topic of conversation, take an educated guess depending on the context and the environment.
    5. Listen for words that are borrowed from English. Words like "computer" and brand names like "Coca-Cola" are quite common.
    6. Use both top-down and bottom-up listening strategies. Bottom-up processing involves taking the items heard and putting them together to create meaning. So, for example, you hear: "Yesterday…earthquake…kill 273 people…Kobe," and you conclude that there was an earthquake yesterday in Kobe that killed 273 people. It is because of the adverb "yesterday" that you assign past tense to the verb. In bottom-up listening, you are finding clues by examining the words themselves as fully as you can.

    Top-down processing is a more holistic approach where you look for clues to meaning beyond the specific words you hear. You draw on your knowledge of the world and events. For example, you overhear two people talking. One person says the word "earthquake" and you also hear the word "Kobe". From your background knowledge, you know that they are talking about the earthquake that just happened in Kobe.

    1. The advantage of the top-down approach is it allows you to stay actively involved, especially early in the your language learning; whereas the bottom-up approach enables you to modify your interpretation as you collect more information.
    2. Identify which style you tend to use while watching a movie, attending class, or overhearing a conversation. Pay attention to how you determine the meaning of the conversation. Once you've identified the strategy you use, try to see if you can also use the other.
  3. Understand the entire message
    1. Put yourself in a frame of mind to understand the target language. Put aside other thoughts, including what you might want to say in reply, and focus only on what the speaker is saying.
    2. Accept some ambiguity in what you hear, and practice listening. Remember that it is perfectly normal to encounter speech that you don't completely understand. One hundred percent comprehension, even in your own language, is unrealistic. You might be able to get the main idea of what is said, but you probably can't repeat it back word for word.
  4. Decipher fast speech
    1. Reduce your expectations. You may need to be exposed to the language for awhile before you will start to understand fast speech.
    2. Try to stay in the conversation. Don't tune out when you feel the conversation is over your head.
    3. Ask questions. The number one piece of advice: Ask questions! If you don't understand what you just heard:
      1. Ask for clarification.
      2. Ask for the statement to be repeated.
      3. Try to paraphrase and see if you are correct.
    4. Figure out the intention of the speaker(s)
      1. Use tone of voice to guess the meaning or intention of what was said. Remember the meanings of tone can vary across cultures, so your guess might not be completely accurate. How will you know if someone is using an angry or agitated tone, a serious tone, a playful tone, or a sarcastic tone? Anger, for example, may be marked by an increase in volume or intensity. It may help to ask locals how they know if a native speaker is using one tone or another.
      2. Make yourself aware of nonverbal cues. Look at facial expressions, body language, and hand movements. Again, try to guess their meaning, keeping in mind you may be inaccurate in your interpretation.
      3. Understand the use of stress. Depending on the language, stressed words may often be more important to the meaning of the sentence than words that are not stressed; therefore stress may signal the key words that can help you understand the speaker, especially in skim listening.
      4. Understand intonations. Intonation refers to pitch variation or the rising and falling of the speaker's voice. For example, in English, when the speaker wants to ask a question, the listener will generally hear a rising intonation at the end of the sentence. Emotion is also often expressed through one's intonation.
    5. Listen to a conversation between two or more people
      1. Eavesdrop. Expose yourself to a variety of conversations among native speakers. Eavesdropping is easy and generally acceptable on a bus, while waiting in line, on the subway or train, etc. Try to get a global understanding of the message.
      2. Recognize different types of speech according to the speaker or setting
        • This may call for getting more involved in the culture so you can be exposed to a variety of speakers (e.g. age, status, relationship) and settings (e.g. at dinner, at a nightclub). The number one goal for the majority of study abroad students is to increase their language competence. The number one regret expressed by students is that they did not do so enough.

Taken from "Strategies to Become a Better Listener" (p. 167-173) in Maximizing Study Abroad: A Student's Guide to Strategies for Language and Culture Learning and Use as cited in – Read the Article on How to Become a Better Listener


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