Updated: Mar 6
#1 Best Practice For Learning to Speak English – and how to do it!
When you were learning your first language, you spent at least a year just doing one thing. Listening. Everyday you were listening. It paid off and you moved right along, began to imitate what you heard, and became fluent in just a few years – without even trying. There were no textbooks and no grammar lessons. Listening gave you rapid, stress-free language acquisition (the getting of something).
The practice of listening will bring you the same results in a new language – like English!
This blog will tell you what to listen for and what to listen to. I have also included some resources, tips and great websites to help you along and make listening fun.
1. What to listen for
Native English speakers often talk very fast and mush their words together. It’s difficult to understand what they are saying. With practice and good listening skills you will begin to understand more and more. Here is what you should be listening for:
Words and Phrases
Listen for new words and phrases to add to the list in your notebook. If you are listening to a podcast or YouTube video, play it again and again to become comfortable with the new vocabulary and how it is used.
Listen for the rise and fall of pitch in a sentence. The rise is when the voice goes a bit higher and the fall is when it goes a bit lower. Can you hear the difference in the intonation of a question and a statement?
The stressed syllable in a word is the loudest or strongest syllable. Sometimes two words that are spelled the same have different meanings depending on which syllable is stressed. An example is the word contract. A CONtract is something you sign. To conTRACT is to get smaller.
It’s difficult to hear the sounds of a new language because our brains are tuned in to the sounds of our native language. New sounds are tuned out because they are not what we are expecting. Listen for these new sounds, like the English th or v or w. Then begin to imitate them. Repeat these new sounds. This takes time and practice, but you'll get better as you go.
Listen to the same podcast, movie or audio book over and over. You have to be able to tolerate missing a lot of things. I know it’s a bit frustrating, but relax, because that’s a part of learning a new language. Just keep moving forward. Your ear will adjust, and you’ll find that you understand more each time and listening will be easier.
2. What to listen to
Whatever you listen to, listen to it a lot! Repetition works wonders, so listening to the same thing over and over again will get results. Here are some things to listen to:
Something you like!
You need to choose something you enjoy. Whether it is about dogs, or dance or astronomy or football or global warming – pick something that really interests you. It can be something you want to learn about or something that makes you laugh – or cry. It must be something you really want to hear about. Your interest will keep you curious and motivated to “crack the code.”
Certainly, listening to native English speakers will give you the best experience with speed, rhythm, intonation and pronunciation. If you are able to speak face to face with a native speaker you can always ask them to slow down a bit and repeat when you don’t catch what they are saying. Don’t be shy about this. It is a compliment to let someone know that you are interested in what they are saying, and you want to learn their language.
“I don’t understand. Could you speak a little slower please?” “Could you please repeat that?”
Say these often and with a smile.
Listening to lots of conversations is the best way to learn how to, well… converse! You learn how to hold an English conversation by listening to conversations. It will automatically improve your own English speaking. You can learn grammar without ever cracking a textbook or learning the grammar rules. It’s the way you learned the grammar of your first language. If you ask a native English speaker why we say, “The big, old, red barn” instead of “the red, old, big barn” they won’t even know! I know this is true because I’ve asked them! They will say that it just “sounds right.” They don’t know there is a rule about adjective order. They don’t need to. Trust me, the grammar will come. Just keep listening. You will soon know what “sounds right.”
If you aren’t able to talk to someone in person there are many kinds of broadcasts to use. Talk shows, soaps, and reality TV are excellent sources of everyday speech. If you are studying for an English exam you might want to listen to news programs, documentaries or debates to hear examples of more formal speech.
The right level
Don’t frustrate yourself by trying to comprehend English language that is way above your level. That may leave you feeling very discouraged.
If you are an intermediate student or above (B1 or higher in the CEFR framework) then listening to podcasts, audio books, YouTube videos, and TV programs for native speakers is fine. You’ll be able to get most of the important stuff. If you’re watching English films, that is harder. Don’t be discouraged. It’s normal to miss some of the language – even for those who are proficient in English.
If you are a beginner be sure to pick podcasts, TV programming, YouTube videos that are specifically for English learners or beginners. Children’s audio books and TV programming are great places to hear simple English.
3. Tips and Resources
You can practice your listening skills using podcasts, TV programs, movies, or audio books. Recorded material is great because you can stop and repeat sections that you didn’t catch.
Here are a couple of tips for YouTube listening:
1. Press the space bar to play and pause
2. Press the back arrow key to skip back 5 seconds
Use the subtitles that are in English. Then, know when to turn the subtitles off and just rely on your listening.
Listen to English every day.
If you are super busy (and who isn’t?) you can incorporate listening into your routine without taking much extra time. You just need some headphones and a smart phone.
You might start with a news podcast while you eat breakfast. Then listen to an audio book on your commute. You can listen to a podcast while you are doing home chores like cleaning the bathroom, doing dishes, folding clothes and things like that. Then watch a TV series every night.
If you listen to the same podcast every day for a week – perhaps while you’re driving, riding the train, or doing dishes - you will be able to understand and pronounce the phrases that were so difficult at the beginning.
Then begin to imitate.
Pick out words and phrases you like, hit the pause button as many times as you want, and SAY THEM OUT LOUD. Learning English doesn’t just happen in the head. It happens in the mouth and lungs. So, get your speech out on the airways.
Great websites for listening to English.
This site has lots of podcasts where the speech is much slower than normal speech. It’s a great place for beginners to start. It will help you get clear on some vocabulary and grammar. Just don’t become addicted (dependent on something habit-forming) to the slow speed. You will need to move on to sites with more normal speech.
This is a YouTube channel with episodes kind of like “Friends” for English learners. The acting is probably not the best and some of the jokes are a little corny. But, it’s still pretty fun. It is a sitcom about Bridget and Annie, Hector and Nick, who are four attractive 19–22 year-olds. Laugh and learn!
This YouTube channel has a series of short video clips from all kinds of English movies. There is everything from Mary Poppins to Titanic. It plays through each clip four times and includes subtitles and a section on “key words.” My students have really enjoyed these.
This features interesting interviews and chats with people on the streets in different locations. Many of the people who are speaking are using English as their second, third or fourth(!) language. It’s authentic English with subtitles. Hundreds of thousands of people subscribe to this YouTube channel.
Practice means progress. If you persevere in improving your listening skill you will learn English much faster. Listeners learn language!