Chris: Hi everybody, this is Chris and I'm here with David. For this podcast we’re going to have a bit of a conversation about a topic which I think is really important when you're learning English, which is: What is the best way to improve your listening and speaking in English.
I think a lot of people are able to read a lot of English texts and maybe have a little more difficulty in understanding what people are saying and speaking. So obviously I think you need to listen to a lot of English and you need to also get some practice speaking but maybe David if I can get your opinion on this first of all, because I know you've got a lot of students who you’re teaching English and who are learning with you. If somebody asked you how they could, first of all, improve their English listening, what would you say to them?
David: I think that what’s really important, of course, is to listen to a lot of English and so this means having contact with the English language every single day. I think, for a minimum of 20 minutes a day, or something along these lines. But then after you get the amount of time in on listening with English, I think it is also important to choose the material carefully.
A lot of students want to listen to the news, or watch TV series, or something along those lines, but I always say that as you are getting started with the language, it is important to listen to native speakers who are speaking at a slightly slow speed. This usually means using learning material because the teachers or the people who have recorded the audio would have slowed down the speed and they would have chosen vocabulary that is going to be helpful for learners. This would be my general piece of advice. Make sure that you are listening to the language every single day, but then make sure that you are using material that has been prepared for English learners, because it’s not a good idea to listen to a lot of English if you are not able to understand.
Chris: I agree with you. A lot of people say that they have a goal to maybe understand what people are saying on the radio or on the TV, but they actually find that it's very difficult to understand English radio or English TV shows at the beginning because they are often speaking very quickly and it is difficult to understand what they're saying. I think I would agree that you need to find some kind of audio that's designed for learners. Maybe an English textbook with some audio or maybe something like we’re doing now, a podcast that's designed for people learning English. That would be ideal.
You mentioned that it's best to use learner material, because I think that obviously you don't want something that you don’t want something that’s going to be too difficult for you or too easy.
David: Exactly, and of course if you are listening to learner material then often what this means is that you're going to get some sort of written transcripts or some sort of help in a written form to help you understand what’s going on. I think this is very important because it's easy, especially with a language like English, to confuse words. You might not understand exactly how the word is written, so you might not know how to look this word up, or you simply can't understand what the speaker is saying because of their accent or the speed. Having in a written form what is being said I think is very important for learning new vocabulary and also for analysing the structure of the language a bit if this is something you like to do.
Chris: Great, and another thing you said that I think is really important is to not spend too much time listening to English at once, because if you're just going to turn on the TV and listen for hours, you might get a bit frustrated because you can't understand and you’ve really spent too long doing it. Is that what you're trying to say as well?
David: Absolutely. What usually happens is that if you are listening to a language or anything, and you are not able to understand or it is very difficult for you, you start to lose concentration.
It's actually very difficult to have a long period of concentrating when you are under extreme stress. I think that it's important to listen to learner material that is designed to be easier to listen to, but that is also recorded in short segments - maybe 10 minutes, 15 minutes, 20 minutes, something like this, something that you were able to listen to again and again.
Learning new vocabulary and getting used to particular structures means that you need to repeat things often and it's a bit difficult to repeat things if the material you are using is very long.
Chris: Yeah, I agree. More is not always better. Also you can think about quality rather than just quantity all the time.
David: So Chris I have a question for you then. Are there any specific techniques that we can use to improve our listening skills when learning a language?
I heard a lot of advice given to students that says: “You need to listen. You need to listen a lot.” But, I find that there is very little advice out there that explains to students how to listen, how they can make the most of the time when they are listening to English.
Chris: Yeah, that's a good question. I think I agree with you that you need to choose materials that are not too long - maybe 15 or 20 minutes. One thing that you can do that I think a lot of people don't do is listen to the recordings more than once. The first time you can maybe listen to try to understand roughly what the speakers are saying and what they're talking about and maybe you can note down some new words or some vocabulary that you're not sure and try to look those words up. Then, you can a second time to really try to concentrate on what the people are saying and understand more than the first time. And then, if you can keep it up you can even listen a third time. By listening to the same text a couple or maybe even three times you really can understand more and more of what they're saying and I think you are going to get more out of it as well, rather than listening to a long, long broadcast a long, long passage of English and not really understanding anything.
David: And I think it's very very important to improve our listening skills, but what’s interesting is that I find that most learners, when I ask them what do they think is the skill that they most need to improve or is the most important, most learners tell me that it's their speaking. I often reply that one of the best ways to improve your speaking is to first improve your comprehension.
Of course, you need to practice speaking to improve your speaking, but if you are unable to understand what someone is saying to you then you're definitely not going to know how to respond.
I think that if you ever find yourself in a situation with a lot of native speakers, it may be difficult to interject and become part of the conversation but you will feel under even more stress if you are unable to understand what everyone is saying. So even if you're unable to take part in the discussion in the way that you would like, if you're able to understand then you will feel a lot more relaxed, because at least then you are getting something out of the interaction. When you have something that you feel you can add, you can jump into the conversation. Would you agree with that Chris?
Chris: Yeah and I think that in order to be a good communicator, to communicate well with other people, you also need to be a good listener. Even native speakers of a language, when they’re talking, sometimes they don’t listen to what the other person’s saying. Maybe they can understand, but they're not really listening and you’re not really having a proper conversation, right? You're just, almost like talking to yourself. You really do have to listen to what the other person is saying and understand in order to be able to take part.
I think you also need to be confident about your English to a certain extent in order to speak to other people. I think that having the confidence to speak to other native speakers of English is really important. That's something that a lot of learners have to get over. Do you have any experience of that, speaking a foreign language?
David: Yeah absolutely. I am able to speak Spanish and Italian. What what I have learned during this learning process is that the best way to improve your speaking is to speak. This is very simple advice but it's not necessarily easy to follow. The advice that I usually give to students or learners of English is to create an environment that makes them feel comfortable and relaxed. This usually means one of a few things. You could either practise speaking to yourself, or you can prepare small speeches or small dialogues that you can use in specific situations so you can fall back on these dialogues, which would then allow you to always have something to say. The next thing you could do is practise speaking in English to a friend or someone who you are going to work with in the long term.
What is usually the problem is that people feel embarrassed about making mistakes or they feel under pressure to not be able to express certain ideas to a complete stranger, but once you have built a relationship with someone with someone. With time, this worry slowly disappears. You can practise speaking with yourself or practice speaking with a select few people who you can develop your trust with. This would be the general advice I would give to people who want to get over their fear of speaking.
Chris: I think that's really good advice there. And actually when I've learned foreign languages in the past I've also practised speaking on my own. Even just, although it sounds crazy, just while I’m walking along the road, thinking of conversations in English to try to get my brain thinking in English as much as possible.
As you said it can be a very nervous experience when you're speaking to a native speaker and things don't seem so easy. Definitely getting practice in, what you said, a more comfortable environment, before you put yourself in very stressful situations is very helpful.
A lot of people say that you really need to be in a country where they speak English or the language that you are learning in order to improve. I know that a lot of people don't really have English-speaking friends or people around them when they’re learning English. Do you have any suggestions of what people can do when they don't have a lot of English speakers around them? How can they practise?
David: Absolutely, because actually I learnt both Spanish and Italian mostly outside of these countries. I was in England when I learned most of my Spanish and I was in Spain when I learned most of my Italian. The way I did this was by communicating with people over the Internet. When I started learning Spanish I made a lot of friends on Skype using websites where you can find conversation partners and we spoke every single day. I had maybe about 10 or 7 people and I rotated through these people. I was able to speak Spanish every single day even though I lived in in England.
I did something similar with Italian, but this was speaking to my girlfriend. You don't necessarily have to go out there and find a girlfriend or boyfriend, but the idea here is that you can make contact with people from other countries online and if you can't find a conversation partner then you can simply pay for online tutor or a teacher that you can practice with. There are no excuses. There are lots and lots of options to speak with a native speaker if you have an Internet connection, which I think most people have today.
Chris: Definitely. I think, as you said, it's very easy or there are a lot of different websites where you can find native speakers to practice with and you can even find apps now for your phone where you can find native speakers to practice English with or you can even just speak to a friend from your own country who may be able to speak English or who is learning English as well. That's another way that you can practise.
I think we've covered a couple of the important issues here and you've given us quite a lot of advice as well. Another thing that we might build to talk about finally is if you do feel very anxious when you have to speak to native speakers in the language, is there anything that you can think of that might be able to help you to calm yourself down and become more confident when speaking to native speakers?
David: In terms of feeling calm, for me, what I try to remember is how I feel about people speaking to me in English, so foreigners of course.
When a foreigner is speaking to me in English I never think: “Oh my gosh, this person is speaking really bad English. They sound stupid. I don't think anything negative. I'm actually happy that this person is trying to learn my native language and so I think that a lot of people, when they are learning a foreign language, in this case English, are worried that the other person is judging them or is thinking something negative about them. I think that a way of relaxing yourself is remembering that when people speak your native language that you indeed don't judge them. You just want to help them. At least, I hope you all do!
Chris: I think that's true. People always think that the other person may be judging them or thinking that they’re bad in the language or not very confident, but actually the person you're talking to is probably not thinking about that at all. They’re probably just thinking about the conversation, right?
David: Absolutely, and so I think that most of the problems that people have when they are learning a language are all in their minds. What they need to do is relax and get out of the way and speak the language. Most people are really friendly and really helpful
Chris: Yeah and I think that should be something that people listening to this can really take on board. You don't need to be nervous or worried about speaking to a native speaker in English because they're properly going to be very happy that you're able to talk to them and we’re all human at the end of the day, right? Language is just a way that we communicate with other people and we make friends and we establish connections. If you're able to do that in English and you're able to communicate even a basic way, then you're not going to have to worry about getting everything right.
David: I think that we’ve spoke quite a bit about how to develop your listening skills, how to develop your speaking skills and the relationship between the two skills. So, for those of you listening, our advice is to listen to this episode of the podcast repeatedly and this would be one of the best ways you can improve your listening. You can use the accompanying transcript to help you understand anything that was unclear.
Chris: Ok, great! I think we've covered some of the most important points about listening and improving your speaking in English and I really hope that this has been helpful for everybody who’s listening. I look forward to having another conversation with you very soon David.
David: You too, Chris. Take care!
The Daily English Podcast 1 – The Best Way to Improve Your Listening & Speaking in English