Listening is a major component of effective communication. Learning to listen sounds easy but it requires a great deal of mental energy and skill. For a person whose first language is not English, listening can be very difficult. Speaking skills are developed to a great degree by listening to language and being able to imitate and reproduce the sounds one hears. Listening is like a muscle in your brain that can be developed with proper practice.
Selecting a Source
Select the source of comprehensible input you will listen to in English. During the course of a day, practice with many different sources and media. Both electronic and personal sources are important for learning to listen. Radio, CDs, video, television, and personal conversations will all help build your listening skills. Maximize the time you listen to English by having a pair of earphones available with an iPod, portable radio, or laptop computer for those idle minutes in the day when you are waiting for other appointments.
When you listen, focus on the central topic of the communication source. Be aware and anticipate the content. If you are listening to a baseball game broadcast on radio you have a frame of reference in which to understand the vocabulary you hear. Terms like "pop up" in the baseball game mean something different than a "pop up" on your computer. Look up the words "pop up" in the dictionary and you will not necessarily find the appropriate definition. At a concert you hear the announcer speak of fans "rushing the stage;" this has a different meaning than "rushing for a first down" in football or "rushing to the supermarket."
While you listen visualize what the speaker is saying. Picture the objects and actions. Then let the speaker color the objects in with adjectives and bring the action to life with adverbs. Keep your imagination flexible. Fill in the blanks with images you hear. Focus on concepts instead of specific words so your mind will assimilate the meanings faster and store the content in your memory better.
Do not allow words that you find unfamiliar distract from the overall meaning of the message. Pretend that a loud sound interrupted your hearing and you must go with the part you heard and understood. Then go back and fill in the blanks. It may or may not be necessary to know what the word was to understand the message as a whole. If you must, replay the conversation, or ask a question about what you heard if the source is live.
Jot down new words, phrases, and definitions into your Word Bank vocabulary notebook. Periodically review words you acquired from past conversations and include them in new situations. You will be impressed with how easy it is to listen and learn English when you have a strategy for understanding what you hear. If your source is totally unfamiliar to you, select a topic for which you have a greater level of prior knowledge and work your way up to the more difficult passages as your vocabulary increases.
Stephen Saylor is a bilingual educator and translator who has been writing since 2005. He has contributed articles to websites such as rockeros.net and XtremeMusic. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in Spanish from Michigan State University and a Master of Arts in education from San Diego State University.