How To Improve Your Language Listening Comprehension

A few weeks ago, I was able to take a trip to Berlin and put my mid-year German skills to a test, in order to get a sense of my progress. It was also a perfect opportunity to identify my weak areas, so I can focus my attention on them for the remainder of the year.

It came as no surprise to me that my weakest area was listening comprehension. This is always the area where I struggle the most, for two reasons: first, unfortunately I have persistent tinitis so listening is something for which I have to work harder than most, and second, because I live in the United States where very few other people speak German and there are few reasources for me to practice. There is little I can do about my hearing problems, but fortunately there are still many ways that I can work to resolve my lack of German input!

Recently I received the following email, which I found quite timely:

_I would like to know your take on how to improve listening skills, because it seems to be a controversial issue. Some people believe we only should listen to something we understand, say 90 to 95%, what it is said. Otherwise, would be a waste of time. Others, however, say we should listen to virtually everything, even not understanding much, just to get acquainted with the intonation and rhythm of the language, as long as the subject is interesting to the listener. The thing is, how to find something in between: nothing so easy that gets us bored, but nothing so difficult that leaves us with the feeling we don’t know anything?

— Sergio_

Apparently I've been lucky enough to miss the controversy on this issue. But it only takes me about 5 seconds time to form a pretty strong opinion, which is this: If you're only listening to things you already understand, what are you learning?

Incremental challenge

I've mentioned game theory in the past, and I see it as very relevant here. You learn the best when you're given some things that you already know, along with a few small challenges.

For example, if you feel comfortable with 85-90% of what you hear, but there are a handful of new words, that gives you the best chance to learn those words. The portion you already know is positively reinforced, and it also serves as context for figuring out the portion you don't know. Sometimes that may be pronunciation. Sometimes it's a word or two that you've never heard before. And sometimes it's learning to recognize when that wasn't a word at all, but a name of a person or place.

If you have access to a teacher, a friend, or a conversation partner who is aware of your skill level, this is probably the best way to slowly improve your listening comprehension, because this person can tailor the things they say toward the things that you know.

But if you don't have this kind of excellent practice partner, there are still other ways to improve your comprehension...

Slowly building

Whenever I first try to watch a movie in a new language, I find myself constantly fighting the tendency to just zone out. There are so many new sounds coming at me so fast, I can just switch off my brain and fail to understand any of it. But slowly, over time, it starts to make a little bit of sense.

I've searched the foreign films section of Netflix and added several German films to my queue. Early on, I watch them with the subtitles on, and usually end up spending most of my time reading the subtitles just to keep up. But often, even over the course of a single movie, I'll find myself starting to get comfortable with the voices, accents, and intonations of the main actors, and by the end of the film I'm starting to understand short phrases and sentences without having to read the subtitles. This can seem frustrating and slow at times, but usually near the end of each film, I find myself feeling more encouraged and positive about my progress.

But the next part is even better: After I've found a few films that I like, I watch them again. The second time through, I don't have to pay such close attention to the subtitles because I already know what's going on. Now, I can try to just listen to the dialog, try to understand what was said, and then peek down at the subtitles to see how close I was. Sure, there will still be a lot of vocabulary I don't know, and there will be a lot of things I should know but that I will miss. But each time I re-watch a movie I've seen, I recognize phrases — even start to predict them coming — which is exactly what we do in our native language!


In my opinion, transcription is one of most effective means of improving your comprehension, and especially helpful for highly phonetic languages. This can be done with a teacher or friend, or you can do it alone if you can find audio recordings that also have transcriptions. Music videos are often a good source for this.

You start by playing a little bit of audio: one sentence, or the beginning of a sentence, or even just a few words. Play it over and over until you feel like you know what's being said, and write that down. Then continue. Do this until you've finished your audio sample.

When you're done, pull up the actual transcription and compare what was said to what you thought you heard. The first few times it will likely be terribly off-base, often comical in how wrong it was. But who cares? You're learning! Now, take a break, and then try it again with the same audio. This time, having seen the right words, how much better is your ability to write down what you hear? Usually quite a bit better! Do that a few times and you'll be amazed at how quickly your comprehension improves!

Build your vocabulary

Finally, an important part of building comprehension skill is building our vocabulary. Each word is a pattern, a set of sounds, and when you know more patterns you'll recognize more words. This is where frequency lists become one of your most valuable tools.

Native speakers of a language often have a vocabulary of anywhere from 20,000-30,000 words, even to upwards of 60,000 words, and I guarantee it takes many years to reach that. But if you don't want to be disheartened, you can easily learn the most commonly used 2,000-3,000 words in a year or less, and quicky propel your comprehension to that 80-90% range. (In my Russian year, I found time to learn almost 5,000 words, which was a key to my ability to reach a useful skill level in just one year's time!)

So while it may not seem immediately obvious, one really great way to improve your listening comprehension is simply by... reading! Get some dual-language readers, or spend some time on blogs, news sites, or whatever else interests you, and get to work on building that vocabulary, in order to reduce the number of sound combinations you don't recognize. I like to read to myself aloud, so that I'm associating some sound with each word, and it doubles as pronunciation practice!

Train your ears for a foreign language

When you're learning a new language, one important and difficult task is learning to correctly hear and identify the sounds of that language. Their s doesn't sound like your s, their r rolls differently than yours, and their accent and intonation make it difficult to understand what you hear.

When learning a new language, I spend a lot of time and attention on training my ears. Basically, this means listening to the language being spoken, and then making sure that what I heard is the same as what was said. There are a few exercises I use to do this.

Perhaps the most useful exercise, especially in the beginning, is to look in a dictionary and find the meanings of words you hear. Simply keep a dictionary at hand (for me, that's an app on my iPod), and as you're listening to music, or podcasts, or watching a movie, listen for words you don't know, and look them up!

Not only does this help you to improve your vocabulary, but it helps you to notice phonics, intonation, and stress patterns, it gets you to pay attention to subtle sounds, glides, elision, and more.

Another exercise that can help with this is to watch movies or videos in the target language, with subtitles. As you listen along, try to reason out what you hear, and then glance at the words on screen to see if you were correct.

And finally, after your vocabulary improves, transcription is an excellent way to improve your hearing. Listen to a short bit of speech (like those I share in my guest readings and try to write down everything that you hear. If you have the original text, you can compare when it's done. If not, try using Google Translate to see how close you were.

All of these exercises will help you to be a better speaker and listener. And, the more time you spend practicing, testing, and improving your comprehension, the better you will be when you encounter speakers with strange accents, odd voices, or speech impediments.

Other ideas?

What other tricks do you know? I have no doubt that there are some other people out there with some excellent comprehension exercises that I've never even thought of. Take a moment to leave some comments below!

Want to see my favorite language resources and courses?
I listed them here.

Author: Yearlyglot
I'll lead you through a 12 month journey from knowing absolutely nothing about a language to having professional fluency.

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  • Randy Yearlyglot

    Hello, could you tell your full name, please? I am writing a reflection on one of your articles and our teacher asked to mention the author of the article that we have chosen. Thank you in advance. A very useful information about improving our listening))

  • Randy Yearlyglot

    Randy Hunt

  • Randy Yearlyglot

    Thanks a lot :)

  • Randy Yearlyglot

    There are lots of ways as well as tactics to make the comprehensions better to write along with try to grab it in smoother way. No matter how hard the situations are the entire way out is the functional along with contemporary course of actions to make the mark worth in each possible case. Therefore this is an ample action for all to take it to next level.

  • Randy Yearlyglot

    i've found that slow audio... usually with the news, works the best for building up listening skills
    have used this for french/spanish etc and achieved excellent results
    then your listening will build from there based on your daily conversations etc

    note: this slow audio method hasn't worked so well with polish, so i'l let you know how i do with that

  • Randy Yearlyglot

    Sorry but how can someone with poor listening comprehension give advice on listening comprehension ? Weak.

  • Randy Yearlyglot

    Randy, for transcripted texts on your level of a popular language you can go to Rhinospike, Lingt or - more recently, one I like - BliuBliu!

  • Randy Yearlyglot

    I've been playing with BliuBliu for a few days now, and I think it's a neat idea, but I can't help seeing it as a terribly inefficient learning tool, perhaps only a small step up from flashcards.The amount of contextual learning and memory that I get from reading a chapter in a book is exponentially higher than what I get from these little word and phrase tools.

  • Randy Yearlyglot

    When I work on building comprehension skill, I go about it in two ways. These are pretty simple, but they worked for me three times already.First, there is intentional practice, where I sit down and watch or re-watch some of my favourite movies or shows. I watch without subtitles first, in order to exercise the brain. With the content you already know and like, there is no issue of not understanding something. You probably know it by heart or at least well enough.While doing the first run, I mark on a piece of paper segments of the timeline where I had some problems (couldn't comprehend the phrase or didn't know the word's meaning) or simply had found a useful expression which I might work on later, add to an Anki deck and so on. When the first run is over, I attach subtitles and review all the issues I've marked.And then there is simply constant listening just for the sake of immersion. I strongly believe that one needs to spend hours exposing his or her brain to the speech in L2 in order to get accustomed to it. That's why I am constantly listening to music or podcasts even if I am not paying attention at times (e.g., I am at work). As your skill grows, you eventually hear more and understand more. I don't have much time to do intentional practice as described above, so this allows me not to stress about not making fast progress. It all adds up eventually.PS: Randy, the "share on Twitter" button isn't working. Is this intentional?

  • Randy Yearlyglot

    man i saw your video in which you speak italian that's pretty cool , sure you sound a little weird but i think that's normal. Keep up the work.

  • Randy Yearlyglot

    Internet radio helps my listening comprehension. I especially like those raucous talk shows where there are three or more people talking and interrupting one another, and shouting, telling stories and joking. It's been the closest thing to being in the company of a group of foreign language speakers that I've been able to find, without actually being there. Call-in talk shows are good too, where there is a question and people are calling in to answer, because you get all different kinds of answers, and they keep repeating the question.I'm using Tune In radio for that. It can take a while to find some good stations, but it's worth the effort.Now I want to start watching some detective shows in German on ZDF. But the radio is good for times when I am not in front of a screen, such as when I'm on the bus.I hope this helps somebody. My ability in any language has always improved by listening. It's great for learning intonation and accent. And no, you don't have to know much of the language to start enjoying it. Don't feel you need to have a big vocabulary to get started.And there are so many other great tips. This is one of mine.

  • Randy Yearlyglot

    Roman, I totally agree with you on your comments about constant listening for immersion.

  • Randy Yearlyglot

    Lots of great advice here! I also love to watch foreign movies, usually at first with subtitles. I think it tremendously helps to not only acquire better listening skills, but also to pick up a lot of expressions that natives use.As far as books are concerned, I think in the early stages audiobooks are the best, since you get to read AND listen at the same time.

  • Randy Yearlyglot

    If learning Spanish, there is a really good resource called Nulu, on the internet. It has Spanish audio stories every day of the current news, but also with the text beneath in Spanish. However, if you hover your mouse over each sentence, it gives you an English translation. So, first I listen to the audio without reading the text, to see how much I understand, and then I listen again while reading. That sorts my comprehension. Then I hover over any new words I don't know. I really hope they bring this out for more languages soon, it is so good!

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