Language learners all agree: one of the most difficult aspects of learning a new language is understanding what people say.

That is true if you are learning any non-native language, be it Mandarin, Russian or English.

The key to understanding spoken language better is not learning more vocabulary and grammar rules; what you need to do is train your ear.

Even though some languages sound a lot alike, every language has its rhythm – a music, that native speakers automatically recognise.

To understand English, you have to recognise the tone and inflexion used to give English words and phrases, and even whole sentences meaning.

There are rules for syllable stress in English; they are simple and easy to learn. However, when it comes to which words are stressed to give a sentence meaning, the guidelines are not as clear.

Your Superprof wants to help you understand the importance to tone and stress in English, how it is used and how you can train your ear to pick up on the true meaning of the spoken English you hear.

We’ll even give you some tips on how you can fit listening practice into your day no matter how busy you are.

Outlining the Rules

For absolute beginners learning any language including English, hearing it is just a collection of sounds that cannot be made sense of. Only later, once ESL students have memorised lists of commonly-used words that they can start picking them out when they hear them in conversation.

Hearing and identifying words like ‘you’, ‘what’, ‘like’, and ‘how’ is a good start to building your listening skills.

Intense focus on syllable and word stress is important
For beginners, focusing on how words and sentences are stressed in spoken English is critical Image by Wokandapix from Pixabay

How is a beginner English learner supposed to tell the difference between ‘ADvocate’ – the noun and ‘advoCAte’ the completely different-sounding verb?

The first step to building listening skills quickly and effectively knowing all of the rules regarding syllable stress.

Syllable stress doesn’t matter when you’re reading and writing in English but stressing words correctly is very important when you speak the language and it is critical to understanding what native English speakers say.

However, if you wanted to get some extra writing practice, you could mark your sentences with stresses…

Understanding Sentence Stress and Tone

Many of the world’s languages do not use sentence stress to give their speech different or greater meaning; they rely instead on nouns and verbs, adjectives and adverbs to give meaning. French is such a language.

By contrast, the English language relies on intonation and sentence stress to give meaning.

The pretty girl ran home.

This sentence, spoken with a stress on ‘girl’ and ‘home’ means exactly that: there was a girl, she was pretty and she went home quickly.

However, the same sentence spoken with different stresses - say, on 'pretty' and 'ran', means something very different: that there must have been more than one girl but only the pretty one ran home while the others walked.

Understanding how words and sentences are stressed is a very important part of becoming fluent in English but it would be almost impossible to understand spoken English if you didn’t also understand how stress and tone give the language meaning.

Learn more about how to use stress and tone in our Improving Your English Speaking Fluency article.

What to Listen to

If you live in the UK or any other English-speaking country, you have no lack of listening material to choose from but you should choose wisely.

Be sure that your listening materials are suitable to your level, otherwise, you might lose focus on listening because the speaker talks too fast or uses too many words you don’t yet know.

If you live in your native country, it is easier to choose which English programmes you will listen to because you are not surrounded by spoken English.

You would only be half right to think that you are more at a disadvantage than an international student already living in an English-speaking country; here’s why:

  • You get to pick and choose the type of English you listen to
  • You may record, pause and play back English programmes
  • You can focus more on the English you hear
  • You don’t need to worry about dialects or accents
    • The type of English played over the radio, on the television and via the internet is considered accent-neutral.

There are differences between American English and British English or Australian English but these programmes usually do not feature, say, a Cockney dialect (UK) or a Creole dialect (US).

Once you know which English you need to focus on – British English for your IELTS exam, for example, or American English for your TOEFL you can choose which broadcasts to listen to.

Immersion can be overwhelming if you don't understand English
Being surrounded by native English speakers can be stressful if you don't understand English Image by Ch AFleks from Pixabay

The Pros and Cons of Immersion

Immersion is the best way to learn a new language quickly because you are forced to use the language skills you have, at whatever level, to live your life.

In an English-speaking country, you have to speak the language to do everything from buying food to renting a flat.

From that perspective, immersion is great. However, for beginner English speakers – and those who are between beginner and intermediate, hearing a language you don’t know can add to the stress of living in a new environment.

In either case, whether you live in your home country or an English-speaking one, having English broadcasts on in the background of your daily life is a great way to get used to the rhythm of the language.

Otherwise, here are some great resources to get good at listening to English.

Podcasts

These nuggets of English speaking can last up to one hour but most are only 30 minutes or less.

You can download them and play them when you’re ready to focus on listening, ‘rewind’ them to listen again to a part you didn’t understand and play them over and over.

The British Council has a whole series of podcasts for ESL students or you can download some that talk about your favourite subjects, from fashion to fitness.

Just be sure that what you listen to is right for your level of English!

Audiobooks

Books that you listen to are often overlooked in favour of more popular listening material like podcasts and music but they are a fantastic resource for you to improve your listening comprehension, especially if you buy the printed book to follow along in while you listen.

What a great way to boost your reading comprehension!

Librivox, Audio and Loyalbooks are all outlets with free audiobooks.

If you are at intermediate-level or below, you might choose audiobooks for kids or pre-teens rather than dive into the classics.

Radio

The BBC started broadcasting internationally before the Second World War and the Voice of America went live eight years later.

Today, the VOA and BBC transmit 24-hour programming around the world and they are joined by a host of other radio stations that you can tune into via the internet.

You can find radio channels that talk about sports and entertainment as well as politics and current events.

Two things to keep in mind when listening to people speak English on the radio: they might talk very fast and they might speak with an accent.

If you are an advanced-level English speaker, listening to the radio is a great way to learn more about the language and culture of English-speaking countries.

If you have beginner or intermediate English language skills, keeping the radio on while you cook or clean your house is a fine way to get used to the language’s speech patterns.

Sharpen your listening skills by talking with native English speakers
Talking with a native English speaker will improve your conversational English and sharpen your listening skills Image by jamesoladujoye from Pixabay

Ideal Conditions for Listening Practice

Most people accept listening as an everyday thing, not the gift that it is. So negligent are we about our ability to hear that business courses now teach students how to listen.

Listening to English radio while you’re busy with other things is not the same as listening practice.

To practise listening to English speakers, you should be in a quiet place where you’re won’t be disturbed. Remove all distractions – turn off the telly and your phone, and ask people to leave you alone.

It would help if you eat something before practice so that you don’t suddenly get too hungry to focus, and you should have something to drink nearby.

You should also have a notebook and a few pens or pencils to write down words you know and/or words you don’t know and, if you have a print copy of what you plan to listen to, you should have that, too.

You should schedule listening practice just as you would schedule your English lessons: how many days each week, what time and for how long.

How to Exercise Your Listening Skills

Even if you’re a very busy person, you probably still take some time to relax – at lunch, at the end of the day or before your day starts.

If your day includes ESL classes or other ways of learning English as a second language – say, with a private tutor, you should find time to sit quietly to focus on spoken English.

The key is to focus – to listen instead of just hearing English.

English learning is probably very important to you so you should give the time, attention and work needed to learn it well.

Listen to podcasts or songs in English while going to school, talk with native speakers as much as possible, actively participate in your ESL lessons and make time for independent learning – including quiet time to listen to native speakers of English.

Such a no-fail strategy will get you closer to fluent English faster than you might have thought possible!

Now, we need your opinion: how many of these listening tips will also help you maximise your English vocabulary?

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Jess