Many language learners focus a lot on speaking. They don’t spend as much effort on quietly listening.
Listening to a foreign language is difficult but this skill is vital for language learning.
Research shows that when we communicate, we spend around 40-50% of our time listening, 25-30% speaking, 11-16% reading and only 9% writing (although that last one might have changed in recent years due to the rise in social media).
That means we spend about half the time listening!
The question is: Do you spend half your language learning time on listening exercises?
You probably don’t.
The solution is to spend more time listening in our second language. However, it’s vital that we learn to listen effectively.
1. Listening Is an Active Process
Listening is a very active process, despite the fact you’re not saying anything. That’s why you’re so tired when you go home after a social event in another language.
Getting over the feeling that we are “doing nothing” is a key step towards listening effectively.
One solution is to employ active listening techniques, to remind yourself and others that you’re involved in the conversation even if you don’t speak so much.
Here are some tips to show that you are actively listening:
Make eye contact with the person who’s talking.
Lean forward slightly to show interest. If you’re actually listening this should be natural.
Nod your head slightly to show you’re understanding.
Make agreeing noises and nod your head if you agree with something they’ve said.
Don’t look distracted by fidgeting, playing with your phone or looking off into the distance.
2. The “Silent Period” Is Golden
It’s fair to say that most adults don’t go through any silent period at all. We often try to jump straight into speaking.
The problem with trying to speak from the beginning is that a period of silent listening can actually be hugely beneficial.
One big reason is that speaking can be quite a nerve-racking experience. It can be as stressful as performing on stage. As new learners, we’re thinking so much about what we should say next that we don’t fully experience what the other person has said. We suffer from “task overload.”
Allowing yourself to be silent lets you get the most from listening.
3. Your Brain Is a Foreign Language Goldfish
Would it surprise you to learn that your short-term memory is even shorter in a foreign language?
When you think about it, it makes sense. How often have you forgotten what someone has just said in your target language? Listening is a vital step in overcoming this problem.
When we listen to someone talking, our brain starts processing the information by “segmenting” it into small chunks to store in our short-term memory. It splits them up based on our knowledge of the “rules” for how the language is spoken. Instead of storing the actual words “a green goldfish,” our brain would maybe convert those words into an image of a green goldfish for storage.
In a foreign language, we aren’t familiar with the “segmentation rules” for how the language is spoken. Our short-term memory has to store all the words individually.
One reason why listening is so important in a foreign language is that it helps us become familiar with those segmentation rules.
Learning segmentation rules is usually an unconscious process, so the easiest way to learn them is to get lots of listening practice.
Here are some ways to become more familiar with a language’s segmentation rules:
Read a book while also listening along to the audio book version.
4. The Gist Is Only Half the Story (or Less)
Finally, one thing that we often neglect when listening in another language is to check exactly how much we have understood.
Beyond a certain level of language ability, we often “get the gist” of what was said. However, sometimes we haven’t understood as much as we think.
Next time you listen to something in your target language, try these six short, easy exercises
to prove to yourself that you’ve understood what was said:
Try drawing a picture of what was said.
Ask yourself some questions about it and try to answer them.
Provide a summary of what was said.
Suggest what might come next in the “story.”
Translate what was said into another language.
“Talk back” to the speaker to engage in imaginary conversation