How good is your English? How do you measure your skill? Do you talk about how well you speak, how well you can write a letter? How well you understand what other people are saying? Learning a language is made of many different skills including listening, speaking, reading and writing but also grammatical structure, vocabulary and general communication skill. Dividing these into the productive and the receptive skills helps us to understand what we can do in order to really take our English to the next level.
Listening is the key
The receptive skills are the skills that people don’t usually work on intentionally but spend most of their time using. They say that 45% of the communication that we experience is listening (compared with 30% speaking) and 16% of our communication is reading (compared with 9% writing). So, the receptive skills are, at least on average, more common than their productive counterparts.
But how much time do you spend drilling your listening? Yet we need to listen at the speed of thought to keep up in conversation.
Think about it this way, when you were a child, how did you learn to speak your first language? Did you read a grammar book? Did someone train you to speak in a classroom? Chances are, you learned your first language by listening to your parents. Listening and understanding are the key to fluent production.
So, how do we improve our listening?
First we need to decide what to listen to. The material that we learn the most from is close to where our level is now. If you are a beginner, listening to the BBC World News is probably not going to very helpful. Choose something that is near your level but still includes words, phrases and structures that are new to you to ensure that you will learn from it.
Listen to something that you can repeat again and again. DVDs with subtitles, music (get the lyrics from the Internet), videos on YouTube are all useful as they can be repeated a couple of times. When you get stuck, you can check the written version to help you. It is important that you do not develop a dependency on hearing everything repeatedly so be sure to keep in mind that the goal is to be able to understand the input at natural speed the first time you hear it.
To improve your listening, try some of these activities:
- Listen and repeat. Listen line by line and repeat back what the characters say. Try to imitate the intonation when you do this.
- Play the role of one of the characters. You need to listen to the speaker and respond, then compare your response with the real responses.
- Dictation. Listen to the conversation and write down what they say. Then check it against the subtitles or find the script/lyrics on the Internet.
- Catching the gist. Listen to a YouTube video and explain what the article was about and then listen again and add more detail to your explanation.