Listening Exercises for Beginners

I suppose everyone else knows this, but for the absolute beginners, I would suggest using Audacity, or something like it, to improve your listening. For months I thought everyone was joking when they said one could learn by listening. All I heard was something akin to the static you hear when between radio stations.

Then I spent a few weeks listening to an audio book in Audacity (a free audio editing program) phrase by phrase. I spent hours staring at the text and listening to a few words at a time, about 1-2 seconds of audio, over and over as I slowly inched through the text.

Yesterday, I woke up to find that I could hear individual words in the audio, not just a blur of meaningless sounds. Now I’m starting to get why people listen to audio books.

I say all this just for the absolute beginners like myself, it is worth the time to listen word by word or phrase by phrase. In the Audacity screen you can clearly see where each phrase begins and ends. By stepping through it slowly my brain was able to tune into the words, rather than just hearing noise while listening to the entire file. I hope this helps others.


I did some calculations that might be of interest to you.

If I read\listen 10,000 words a day (of any level) after 3 months I will have read approximately 1 million words. This is the equivalent of 3 average sized books, or a book per month. This takes me at most 90 minutes a day, depending on the difficulty of the text I use. For time management purposes it’s probably better to use and abuse graded readers, but whatever floats your boat.

I loaded up a million words of French books in AntCon to see what this amounts to in exposure of common vocabulary.

  • The top 100 words appeared hundreds, even thousands times
  • The top 1000 word appeared 40+ times.
  • The top 2000 words appeared two dozen times, minimum.
  • The top 4000 words all appeared at least a dozen times
  • The top 6000 words all appeared a minimum of half a dozen times.
    That’s not going to make anyone fluent, but it is a massive amount of vocabulary that has been reinforced a massive amount of times with a small amount of work each day. 10,000 words is only 20 pages!

You can also achieve the same result with passive listening like with music although perhaps it takes longer.

I can hear each word and sound when listening to Greek and natives have informed me that i can reproduce very accurately quite complex words or phrases, this entirely from listening to huge amounts of music.

Wow, that’s awesome!

I agree that listening to relatively short sentences and phrases over and over and at a pace that is comprehensible is enormously effective at any level.

I recently discovered that LingQ on my iPhone (and I presume on an Android as well) can be adjusted in settings so that the screen displays one sentence at a time. I can then click the megaphone icon so that the translator’s voice pronounces it as many times as I want. Plus, the speed can be reduced to .75 if necessary at first (I find that if it is slower than that, the sound is distorted. Unfortunately, the .75 speed setting does not appear in the computer version of LingQ. Instead, there is only .5 which for me is too distorted to be helpful.)

For additional listening and speaking practice, I repeat the sentence out loud that I just heard without reading it if I can. This is considerably harder. If the sentence is around five words or less, this is great practice for pronunciation, fixing vocabulary as well as grammatical patterns. If the sentence is long, I break it down into meaningful phrases so that I focus on one clause within the long sentence with each repetition. If necessary, I write the clause separately and pronounce it until I can do so easily. I don’t do this with every lesson since it is intensive yet doing so with a short passage in which I know most of the words several times a week has been quite effective for improving my listening comprehension and speaking.

This is great advice. I didn’t know there was a .75 speed on the iOS/Android version. It would be great on the web version too!!

thanks again,


I completely agree. Reading before, after or during the listening does help a lot, but I also found that even if I don’t read at all I can still catch new words in context if you know the words surrounding that unknow word. The other thing I found to be of help are the Audible audiobooks that focus on what some people believe to be the core patterns of a language. Whether they are as effective as they claim to be is probably arguable – I believe Steve has a recent video on that – but learning those basic words and patterns does help a lot. What I like about audiobooks with sentences is that they will simultaneously train you to listen and speak, since you can try to guess the target sentence when you first hear it in your base language. Last, for audiobooks with sentences repetition is absolutely key as you said, over time you move from not knowing it, almost knowing it, having to think to remember it, and then to the holy grail of automatically processing the word without noticing it.

Puxa, acabei de ver que a sua lingua alvo é o português, deveria ter escrito o post inteiro em português mesmo, mas agora já foi. Muito legal, você está progredindo super bem!

I total believe that one can learn by listening and reading along, I even think it is the most effective way. I have been studying VOA Special English which is really good for beginners, and the experience has been so good. I go to (a website) on my phone. It makes the studying so easy.

1m words is more like 8-12 books.

Also, if you’re interested specifically in listening to phrases from audio at a beginner level, you might be better of using something like WordAudioBook, which is designed to chop up sentences for your language learning purposes. I haven’t used it much,. it looks very useful (and free!)

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I just started listening to Italian in December 2018. At this stage, listening requires my full concentration.

I am starting with short audios, about 1-2 minutes long, that I listen to over and over. If an audio is too long, then I edit it with Audacity to break it into 1-2 minute segments.

My first listening goal is to be able to understand what they are saying – not understanding the meaning, just understanding what words they are saying. As I become familiar with the words, then I understand the meaning of what I am listening to as well.

For a new audio, I usually need to follow the transcript the first time. Then the next few times, I usually stop the audio after each sentence or two. Then after that, I listen to the audio without stopping. I notice which parts I understand the best, and focus on the parts that I am having the most trouble with.

I usually listen to an audio for five times in a row. After that, I need to switch to a different audio or take a break, because my mind starts to tune out the audio. I am listening to five different audios (from five different series). I listen to the most difficult audio (which is at 100 words per minute) for 3-5 sessions per day, so I listen to this audio about 15-25 times a day. After about a week, I am usually ready to move to the next audio in each series.

The slowest audio I listen to is at 80 words per minute, and the fastest is at 120 words per minute. The fastest audio is not the most difficult, because it is only 20-30 seconds long.

My listening process may sound hard and tedious, but I see it as training my mind to understand Italian, to understand the sounds, the rhythm of the language, etc.

I think that at the beginning levels, you need to listen to an audio with your full attention. Before I started my active listening process, I would occasionally listen to one of the easier audios in the background while driving. After I started listening to the same audio with my full concentration, I discovered that there were many words that I was missing or misunderstanding.

I think that we have two listening comprehension levels – one level for when we are listening with full concentration, and the other level for listening in the background. When my foreground listening level is at the Intermediate level, then I will probably be able to listen to Beginner level materials in the background and understand them.

Muito obrigado, acho que sua abordagem funcionará. É preciso um esforço concentrado.