There are four main skills that a language learner is trying to master: speaking, listening, reading, and writing. For most people, speaking is the main focus. They try to connect with native speakers, so they could practice what they've learned. They read because they want to learn more words, so they could speak. They write because they want to get more confident in grammar and word use, so they could speak better. As for the listening and comprehension part, that's when things get messy.
Not paying enough attention to listening is a vital mistake that language learners are making.
When they decide to travel and get really immersed in the natural environment of the language they've been learning, that's when the troubles start. They think they know the language. Yes; they know its grammar and their vocabulary may be great. They can speak quite well. When natives talk, however, they cannot comprehend.
The solution? Study less, comprehend more!
Why Listening and Comprehension Deserve Your Attention
Don't get this wrong. Speaking, writing, and reading is still very important. Listening and comprehension, however, should become the highlight of your language learning journey. Here are few reasons why listening is so important for mastering any foreign language:
1. Listening Forces You to Observe
When you're a beginner and you don't know many words in the foreign language, you may think it's too early for the listening practice. It's not. There's a so-called "silent period" of learning when you simply pay attention and say nothing. You can do this by watching movies or YouTube videos in the foreign language, or by listening to its music. This practice puts you in direct contact with the language. You get used to the sounds, just like babies do before they start speaking.
When you get used to those sounds, speaking will come more naturally to you. Allow yourself to be silent at the beginning. Yes; it's great if you can repeat the words and phrases you hear. However, it's not necessary to jump to real communication right at the beginning of this journey.
2. Listening Makes You an Active Language Learner
Listening is a very active process. You have to mobilize your full attention to understand what people are saying, even if you're not taking part in the conversation.
If you're in a real situation communicating with a native speaker, you can become a more active listener if you show your interest, ask some questions, or simply use your body language. You should never appear distracted and you should never engage with your phone when you're in such a situation, even if the conversation is not directly addressed to you. Just listen. Actively. That helps you learn the language.
3. A Teacher Is Not Enough for an Active Listening Practice
How is listening being approached in traditional language learning? Easy: you listen to the teacher. However, the teacher is only one representative of the language. If this is not a native speaker, you're not getting all the hints that only natives can give. The teacher is focused on proper grammar, so you're hardly getting the natural feel of the language.
Language lessons also involve listening to recordings. These may be native speakers, but they are still focused on the proper language. If your listening practice is limited to them, you won't even understand the native speakers when you get into real communication.
Yes; it's important to practice such listening in the classroom. If you're taking a traditional course, do listen to the teacher and pay attention to those recordings. However, you should also make an effort to be an active listener.
Why not see a theater play in the foreign language? How about a podcast? How about meeting native speakers and hanging out with them? If you practice this kind of listening, your comprehension will dramatically improve.
4. Your Mind Is a Sponge for New Words and Rules
When you're trying to learn new words in the traditional way, it's easy to forget many of the ones you just went through. It appears that your memory cannot handle all that information, no matter what techniques and associations you use. Listening helps you overcome that struggle in the process.
When you listen to someone speaking, your mind processes the information and you intuitively understand some of the words. Although it doesn't define the rules of the language, it gets used to them.
Warren Fowler, ESL teacher and a part-time writer at UK BestEssays, recollects his mind on how he learned Spanish: "When I started, I was mainly focused on written grammar and vocabulary. It was numerous hours of hard work and dedication. At the same time, I was continuously listening to different podcasts I found mainly on iTunes. It served as a great help for me as I was significantly improving my listening skills, not even fully understanding the whole conversation at that point."
Understanding how native speakers construct sentences is an important aspect of the language learning process. You can get there if you watch films or videos, or listen to the radio in your target language.
5. Your Real Language Level Is Evident through Comprehension
The problem with listening and comprehension is particularly present with French learners. Some of them believe they know the language pretty well when they decide to move to France. There, they face an absolute nightmare. Natives talk too fast, and the dialects are so versatile that they seem nothing like the French they were learning.
At that point, you start thinking: "Maybe I don't know the language as well as I thought I did."
Yes; you may be able to say lots of things in your target foreign language. But can you understand and respond as soon as a native speaker talks to you? That's when you'll know if you're fluent enough.
Your primary goal in language learner shouldn't be limited to be understood. To understand is just as important.
You Simply Cannot Skip Comprehension
This is an aspect of language learning you shouldn't mess with. There are no shortcuts to this; you have to listen and pay attention. The key to successful language learning is exposure to real dialogue. Even if you don't understand much at first, stay strong. Your comprehension levels will most certainly improve.