Listening comprehension

Anyone seen Steve’s new video “listening comprehension, the core language skill” yet? Listening Comprehension - The Core Language Skill - YouTube

I don’t care how silly I sound saying so, but this video is a game-changer for me. More motivating than his “snowball” video. Talk about an eye-opener. I sat there stunned, gob-smacked, amazed - because in a moment of truth I saw that what I’ve been focussing on up to now has largely been stunting my language growth.

And then I considered personal changes I can make to prioritise listening comprehension.

Please share your reactions to the video, and your views on listening comprehension as a core skill.

I’ve just watched the video. It didn’t have the same extraordinary effect on me as on you, Julz but I agree with Steve’s points of view. I’m sure my Czech would be pretty more advanced if I had focused on listening comprehension earlier. Instead I started with a textbook where I just read the texts and did the grammar exercises. I did listen to the texts, too but only once or twice and there were only 15 texts altogether. After I had finished the book I could barely say “hello” and “how are you” and understood absolutely nothing when I was in the Czech Republic. So last year I started to take lessons with a teacher. We used another textbook, the teacher spoke very clear and slow Czech, so I understood her when she said simple sentences. Doing grammar exercises wasn’t much of a problem but it was a boring activity. I tried to practice speaking with another teacher but hardly understood what he said and when he noticed it, he switched to English, so I found myself once again in the situation that I mainly did grammar exercises and spoke a lot of English during the lessons. This summer I spent 10 days in the Czech Republic and this exposure to Czech pushed me one small step forward. Soon afterwards I found another teacher who I feel very comfortable with and I started to use LingQ. So after about 5 weeks of using LingQ regularly, my listening comprehension has improved significantly. I also asked my first teacher to stop using the textbook and we have conversational lessons now. My spoken Czech is still terrible but when I feel comfortable with someone, I don’t mind making mistakes.

Languages learning at school … well, I learned English well at school and I enjoyed learning it. However, I was a big Elvis Presley fan in my teens and transcribed a lot of his song texts (no internet yet and no cd booklets which included the texts). And I started pen-palling at the age of 11 and wrote almost exclusively in English. When I came home from work yesterday, my daughter had left a note from school at the table, her French teacher wants the parents to purchase an additional exercise book. I almost winced but eventually signed the paper and will buy the book for my daughter.


I certainly think that listening comprehension is the core skill. I also think that it is the most difficult skill to develop.

Back in April, I wrote something about my own experience in Austria that I think is relevant to this discussion on the following thread:

The following is what I wrote

"It has been my experience moving to Austria without knowing any German that with some hard work, one can quickly learn to speak well enough to get by in standard situations, but one cannot learn comprehension quickly enough to actually function easily in these situations. Every single problem I have ever had with my level of German in the 10 months that I have lived in Austria have been related to comprehension.

I remember being 10 weeks into learning German and having to go to some horrible government building in the middle of Vienna to register my permanent presence in Austria. If anybody at this place spoke any English, they did their best to make sure I did not know about it. At the front desk, where I had to interact with some angry young woman, who shouted at me for reasons I will never know, I was given a ticket and was able to ask what the ticket was for and where I should go in broken but perfectly understandable German, and didn’t understand a word of the reply. I worked out where to go because the ticket had ‘6. Stock’ written on it, and I quickly looked up ‘Stock’ in a dictionary. Later on, when I was actually doing the registration stuff, the woman who was doing it for me spoke some long sentences that would have been completely incomprehensible to me, except for the fact that they included the words ‘e-card’ and ‘kopieren’. Having gotten lucky by the fact that two English words happened to be in the sentence, I guessed that I was meant to photocopy some stuff and bring it back. I was able to clearly ask what I should photocopy, but did not understand a word of the reply (except for ‘e-card’ again), so I photocopied everything and let the woman select the stuff that she needed. Because I did not understand the instructions on the photocopier, I stood next to it and watched two other groups use it first.

My point is that after 10 weeks of intensive learning of German (2.5 hours a day, 5 days a week, in a language school, before I went to work!!!), I was able to speak in a way that was somewhat functional, but my comprehension was no better than it would have been 10 weeks earlier."


Thanks for that Colin, an interesting read.

I have to agree. My french has been good enough to pass exams and be semi comfortable in fabricated speaking situations, however in my limited experience of real scenarios whilst in France comprehension whilst listening has always been the hardest thing. It’s one thing to go into an exam room and know that you won’t be asked anything you haven’t been asked before but another to go to the country and actually test these skills.
It’s amazing how the idea of attaining fluency is completley rejected/not attempted (or at least not at all effectively) in a 7 year high school system (speaking for UK).

Even though my experience in Mexico years ago was similar to Colin’s, I don’t think that means it would have been better if I had focused on listening comprehension more. I think people (not necessarily Colin) have a tendency to assume that a disappointing experience like that means you did something wrong or at least that you could have prepared for it better. If I had tried to force myself to focus more than a small percentage of my study time on listening comprehension, I know I would have given up language learning all together.

For me so far, focusing almost exclusively on reading/lingqing for quite some time seems to be the only sustainable way to approach a new language . Reading or lingqing while skimming I can do for hours, day after day, no matter my level in a language. I remember trying to listen when I was beginning in Spanish and then later in Portuguese. Trying to listen and comprehend something that I don’t understand at all is about the most discouraging thing ever. You can look up the words before listening, but real conversations don’t have scripts you can pick apart beforehand. Listening is about finding out what the person is saying. My mind stops paying attention if I have the information already. And if you know the information, are you really practicing listening comprehension? Not in my opinion.

Whether listening or reading or speaking is core for an individual isn’t so important in my opinion. I agree that listening comprehension is the most difficult part for most people (including me), but that doesn’t make it core so much or mean that we should focus more on it earlier. I would suggest that people keep in mind that listening comprehension is a long term obstacle and that they try to get listening comprehension practice in whatever dose is sustainable for them. But then that’s what I’d suggest for reading comprehension, speaking, writing, flashcarding, etc. I think that singling listening comprehension out as a core skill is a little misleading whether you mean core (central) or core (foundational).

Yes, the idea of children becoming fluent after 7 years of studying a language is way beyond anything anybody would consider.

I have never taken a language exam, but I know that sitting in a classroom and understanding the teacher who is very experienced with learners, and the other learners who use a small vocabulary, is very different to sitting with a group of native speakers and understanding what they say. I have been in many situations where I have been with a group of native German speakers. My experience is that it is almost impossible for them to consistently speak slowly and clearly in such situations if I am the only non-native speaker there. Very quickly they forget to speak slowly and clearly and just go back to normal speed. They will sometimes remember that I am there and switch to speaking really slowly and clearly, but this will usually last approximately 30 seconds. I was similarly never able to speak slow and clear English before moving to Austria even though I worked with lots of non-native speakers back in Scotland.

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@ kcb

When I say listening comprehension is the core skill, I just mean it is the most important.

“Yes, the idea of children becoming fluent after 7 years of studying a language is way beyond anything anybody would consider”

Which is sad. 7 years should get anyone of any age up to fluency in any language. Hopefully some day the majority will realise that the current language education system isn’t working. Or perhaps that is an unfair statement - it depends on your definition of ‘working’.

@Colin Ok. To me core is ambiguous and has a different connotation.

Just listened to Steve’s “Listening Comprehension” video. It’s what I needed to hear. My experience was similar to nuriayasimin’s where I did grammar exercises in a text book and listened to the dull textbook scripts. I definitely did not listen enough to the language. Somehow I thought the classroom experience was going to teach me the language. It will come as no surprise to you experienced language learners that that did not happen. So now I am focusing on listening, listening, listening…even to, dare I say it, children’s cartoons.

Julz, what is the “snowball” video??? Thanks!

Children’s cartoons can be perfect for learning, unless its a cartoon about fairies and goblins - where the vocabulary isn’t all that useful :stuck_out_tongue:

@Kyleleitch, :slight_smile: Nope, no fairies and goblins in the cartoons I’m listening to (and sometimes watching). I’m certainly getting more exposure to the everyday language via cartoons than I ever received in the classroom/textbook.


“Input based language learning: a powerful snowball”

Filed in my fave “Obi wan kanobi” group, hehe. For those who missed it, here’s my doctored up pic of Steve:

I concur with a viewer’s sentiment about the “snowball” video: “You make me believe that I can”.

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I don’t think there is a problem with watching cartoons about fairies and goblins. Most of the vocabulary in such cartoons will be the normal important stuff and if you happen to learn a bit of vocabulary that is not useful, it’s not such a problem. I only think that one should avoid useless vocabulary if they are trying to memorise words from lists or flashcards, otherwise, just let rip and learn what you learn.


@Julz - Thanks for the snowball link, and got quite a chuckle out of the Obi Wan Kanobi photo. :slight_smile:

@Colin - good distinction between actually trying to memorize low utility vocab vs just hearing it.

I don’t know if listening comprehension is just the “core skill”, but it’s sure a fundamental skill in language learning. Yet it also depends on the goals that you have with the language. When I was at the university most of us used foreign languages for reading books, hence listening comprehension was not the core for us. But if you really want to master a language, you have to listen a lot, and if you are going to communicate with native speakers, you’ll eventually need to speak a lot. I agree with Steve about the order first listening-then speaking. It seems to be a logical sequence. Yet if you have a special need to speak at a basic level as soon as possible, the method may be changed a little. In order to improve listening comprehension there are two different problems:

  1. Listening comprehension of the words we already know. Here the goal is to be able to recognize the audio of the words we know and get it with different accents and different speeds of speech. To accomplish it the only secret is a lot of listening. This is a significant lack of current foreign language learning. My daughter has just had her first year of learning French at school and I estimate that the total amount of time she’s spent listening to native French speakers is not far from a few hours.
  2. Learning new words. A major reason for not understanding what we listen to is the amount of words we don’t know yet. To achieve this goal we have to substantially increase our vocabulary. Then the new known words go to step 1.
    Speaking is a different thing because we have to internalize the vocabulary and the main patterns of the language (that weird thing called “grammar”) and use them spontaneously. For this task if you have previously had a lot of listening and reading, you’ll presumably have a lot of unconscious knowledge that will be very helpful. Personally a lot of listening (hundreds of hours) has been a major boost in my foreign language skills. And the best of all, without having to spend time for that, not a minute. It just goes together with my daily chores (and a headset).

I want to point out that the difference between “a fundamental/core skill” and “the fundamental/core skill” is huge. I still think they are both too ambiguous and have misleading connotations, though.

@josemaria I agree with most of what you say, but what do you mean by fundamental? It seems to imply that there is this basically separate thing that has a beginning and builds up. But is there such a thing? Take an absolute beginner. Let’s say I try to learn Hungarian. If the only thing I do is listen to 10 hours of podcasts, am I improving my listening by much? I may come to learn something about the rhythm of the language and such, but what else? I can’t imagine suddenly learning lots of words this way. At best I can guess at a few of the most common.Then if I keep on listening, even to thousands of hours, will I start to be able to understand much of anything? It seems clear that I won’t. But did I build up a listening skill that is just waiting for the other fundamental skills to catch up to? If I then read and LingQ tons of words for a few weeks, without doing any more listening, will I now be able to listen to a podcast and understand tons because of all the practice listening I did before? I’m not saying there aren’t benefits to tons of listening when not understanding, but are there enough to call listening fundamental in any way? I think that reading, listening, speaking are far more interconnected than some people suggest. Calling one or all fundamental seems bizarre.

This example is a little out there I admit, but imagine if someone were deaf for their first 15 years of their life and had a high reading level for a 15 year old. Now suddenly they can hear. Would they need anywhere near 15 years to build up listening skill to the same level as their reading skill? I just can’t imagine it taking very long at all, more like a couple of years. But then wouldn’t that make reading fundamental? I would contend that no, not even this does. In the Hungarian example I didn’t have a way to learn the words. An analogous situation could be conceived in which someone teaches me Hungarian through speaking to me while pointing at things. If you do this for long enough you can certainly learn a language this way (though you wouldn’t be able to read). I think this shows that if anything is fundamental it is learning words, one way or another, through whatever medium or combination of mediums (media?): listening, reading, etc, you must learn what the words mean. To me this is the only fundamental part of language learning.

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I agree with the sentiment that “the” core skill is rather provocative. There are four skills, and saying that one in particular is core can only be true relative to the particular needs of the learner. It may, therefore, be true that listening is the core skill for a lot of learners in the early stages of learning a language, but only in so much as it tends to get neglected and therefore warrants more attention! If you have any ambitions of being an advanced, rounded user of a language you need to pay equal attention to all four skills. And that includes writing - while it’s true that writing is less of a necessity even among native speakers, it’s also true that those who write regularly become significantly more articulate in their mother tongue.

Having said all of that, I am prioritising listening at the moment, as I’m in the early stages of learning Cantonese. As a spoken language with very little written material, you’re left with little choice but to listen to get enough input (no sign of Cantonese on LingQ?). I’m posting progress videos on my site, if you’re interested.

@all - really interesting responses!

@Olly - I like your blog; was fun to see you speak in 7 langs.

My renewed interest in listening comprehension was relative to my own needs, as my reading & writing skills are way ahead of my listening ability ie. could ace University written exams (albeit lower levels), but hated/endured oral exams in Japanese & Mandarin (even if I still got a good mark). The experience is always very unpleasant.

Also, for the part of the exam where we have to memorise a dialogue & do conversations with a fellow student, I found that I have difficulty remembering an English dialogue off by heart, let alone in L2! I always feel under great pressure, worrying if I’ll also stuff up the other student’s contribution.

But I already knew all that when I joined LingQ 6 months ago. I’ve experimented, tried various stuff, & poked a stick at various languages, and that’s okay.

The clincher for me whilst listening to Steve, was that I was spending too much time on unhelpful (in my case) stuff like typing up scripts, instead of working on my weakest point: listening. I was spending too much time writing answers to exercises by hand et cetera. I wasn’t in the habit of listening before whilst I walked everywhere (no car) or did endless chores. I wasn’t exposing myself to enough material; I was unconsciously trying to ‘master’ material before moving on. I was reluctant to mark words as known unless I could write them by hand off by heart, et cetera.

But last night I had a wonderful time listening to Mandarin & Japanese during chores, and it was incredible what I noticed. Also, I’m now making rapid progress in Japanese on this site.

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I know how much you enjoy hearing me stump for grammar. :slight_smile: But, I strongly believe that every other area of language learning is helped by grammar. I think that discouraging grammar study does people a disservice. The fault of scholastic language learning is not that it includes grammar, but that it gives a one-size-fits-all experiential aspect.

The better your grasp of grammar, the more you will comprehend of what you hear. No doubt about it. But sure, listen to language while driving, doing chores, etc.