Language-learning tips: How to get better at listening

Listening in a second language is a difficult skill to master, but it is one of the most important.  Listening is the communication skill most of us use most often.  Studies point out that humans spend around 80% of their waking hours involved in some form of communication.  Of that time, we spend about 9 percent writing, 16 percent reading, 30 percent speaking, and 45 percent listening.  Studies also confirm that we are poor listeners in our first language, meaning that mastering the art of listening well in English is doubly difficult!


There are many reasons as to why we are inefficient listeners, even in our native language.  Although listening is the communication skill we use most frequently, it is the skill in which we have received the least formal training.  At school we are taught to read and write, and to improve our speaking skills through class presentations, but no-one really teaches us how to listen.  We also think faster than someone else can speak, meaning that when someone is talking to us our minds tend to wander.  I’m sure all students have experienced this in lessons or lectures when the teacher is addressing the class.  To listen well, we really need to make an effort to concentrate on what is being said to us.  Therefore, the first step to becoming a better listener is to listen actively and make sure you are paying attention.  If you notice your mind wandering, stop and actively re-focus on the person speaking to you.


If you book onto a Bucksmore course in summer 2014, you will hear English spoken all around you in the UK.  You will hear English spoken by your teachers, the staff in the college canteen and when you are outside the school on your excursions.  As we have a high nationality mix of students, you will also hear English spoken by your classmates, with English becoming the language of communication in the camp.  You should take advantage of this, and really listen to what people are saying to each other.  Of course, if you are listening in on other people’s conversations, try not to make it too obvious, but you can learn a lot about how British people use English by taking advantage of this situation while you are in the UK.  You may hear people use the new words you learned in your lesson that morning, and this will help you to remember them.


Listening will be very important for you at Bucksmore when your centre managers are telling you about the day’s schedule, or giving you information about your lessons or activities.  You need to understand this information so you know what to do.  This is a time for listening carefully and making sure that you give all of your attention to the person speaking.  You can’t always understand every word, so just listen for the main idea.  Our staff will always check your understanding by asking you questions, so try to answer these questions to show that you got the point.


The key to listening well in English, is not understanding every single word.  Of course, this helps, but even native speakers miss words when people are taking to them.  You need to get the main idea, or the gist of what a person is saying.  It’s impossible for you to remember what someone said word for word, but it is possible for you to remember a summary.  So, when you are listening in English, either in your home country or at your Bucksmore centre in the summer, try the following tips to help you improve in this area:

  • Make summaries as you listen – If possible, do this by making notes.  This helps you concentrate as it gives you something to do to stop your mind from wandering.  However, it is not always possible to make written notes.  In this case, you can make mental summaries.  Good listeners take advantage of pauses to quickly sum up what has just been said.  Do this as often as you can in English, and you will notice a great improvement in your ability to remember what has been said to you.
  • Focus on the main idea – If you hear a word you don’t know, don’t worry.  Many learners of English will hear an unknown word and immediately their mind wanders as to the meaning of it.  They stop listening, trying to figure out the meaning of this one word.  This makes you miss the main idea, which is the whole point of listening in the first place.  Just listen to get the gist.  If you hear an unknown word you can always look it up later.
  • Avoid translation – To get better at listening in English, you have to listen in English.  The more you translate, the more your brain has to do.  Try to understand the message in English rather than making sense of it in your own language.  This will also help you access the English in your brain much quicker, improving in your speaking, reading and writing as well as your listening.
  • Anticipate the speaker’s next point – Try to guess what the speaker is going to say next.  If you get it right, you are listening well and you understand the main point.  If you get it wrong, this could mean that you are missing the main point.  This is a good way to assess your listening skills for yourself.


As with anything in language, the best way to improve is to practise, practise, practise.  Take advantage of being surrounded by English when you study with Bucksmore.  Take out your headphones and listen to the English around you.  This will help you improve your understanding and be a better user of English overall.  You can also watch English television programmes in your home country to help you improve your listening when you get home.  Good luck!