Let’s rewind to some 10 years ago.
The year is 2008. I had just reached an intermediate level in Russian, a language I was very passionate about.
One of my main goals at the time was to improve my listening comprehension.
To accomplish this, I listened to lots and lots of Russian audio.
I downloaded podcasts, watched movies, and listened to Russian news whenever I made my lunch.
After months of practice, my listening comprehension did improve, but not as I expected. This left me sad and frustrated.
I was listening to a lot of audio, but I was retaining little of what I heard. It was as if Russian was going in one ear and out the other.
“What am I doing wrong?” I wondered to myself.
The answer came to me after reading a study on memorization; specifically, a study about the benefits of handwritten note-taking vs. laptop-based note-taking.
The study found that writing notes by hand is a more efficient and effective way for retaining information learned in university lectures.
When listening to Russian (an activity that is very similar to attending a lecture), I had been taking no notes at all, and so had been learning very little.
I realized then that I needed to employ a more proactive listening strategy to help make the most of my foreign language listening sessions. One of the things I did was to start taking handwritten notes, and start using those notes to better process what I was listening to.
The listening strategy I developed is a technique I call "active listening," and today I will share the seven simple steps you'll need to follow to work it into your own learning routine.
Your active listening routine won't work if the audio material puts you to sleep. That being said, you'll need to regularly spend time collecting audio resources that align with your personal goals, interests, and hobbies.
If you're a beginner learner, this will be harder than it sounds. Since you're just starting out, you'll be restricted to a small set of low-level materials, most of which deal with the same (often boring) topics: personal identification, travel, shopping, food, etc.
For beginner-level active listening, I simply recommend avoiding any listening material that you find really boring. If the material is just a little boring, that's okay. Just stick with it until you've got the skills to branch out into more interesting topics.
For intermediate- and advanced-level active listening, the opportunities get much more exciting.
Focus on collecting as much content on these topics as you can. And don't just do it once! Constantly stay on the lookout for interesting audio content that you can work into your active listening routine over the long term.
To listen effectively to any audio content, you must stay focused. To make that happen, it's best to plan out the time and the place you'll need for quiet, distraction-free listening.
Regarding time, you should always practice active listening when you are alert, and have the most mental energy. This will allow you to mentally process the material most effectively, while avoiding the possibility of falling asleep.
Regarding place, you should always practice active listening in an area where you are unlikely to be interrupted or otherwise distracted. Ideally, this means finding a spot away from people, ringing phones, chiming messages, or anything else that can break your focus.
Personally, I like to work on active listening at my desk, at a time of day when my housemates aren't around. For in-depth listening sessions, I'll even turn off my phone (or leave it in another room) to protect against untimely interruptions.
When you've found a good time and place, try to use it whenever you decide to work on your listening skills. Make it your regular "active listening" location, and you'll find that your active listening habit will develop quite quickly!
Assuming you've already built a small collection of interesting audio content (as recommended in Step 1), all you need to prepare for any active listening session is:
- A pen or pencil
- Blank or lined paper (either loose or in a notebook)
- Your preferred media-playing device (phone, laptop, mp3 player) with easily-accessible stop, play, pause and rewind controls.
That's it! Any combination of the above three tools and resources will be enough to get the job done.
With these supplies in hand, it's time to head over to your preferred study location.
If you did, you might be interested in learning that these people weren't just trying to annoy you—the truth is, proper posture really does benefit your health in some powerful ways.
Those benefits are not only physical, but mental, too. In particular, if you practice good posture, studies have shown that you will be more able to retain and recall information. Furthermore, you will place less stress on your back, neck, and joints, allowing you to avoid fatigue and remain more alert.
After reading the last section, you already know that staying focused and alert are essential for your active listening practice. That is why I also suggest that when you sit down to work on active listening, you practice proper posture, as well.
To obtain proper posture for active listening, you should:
- Sit upright, in a chair
- Keep your back straight
- Keep your legs uncrossed, with your feet flat on the floor
- Write on a surface that is slightly lower than chest height.
Doing these things will help give you the mental and physical edge needed to concentrate well on the "active" part of "active listening".
Start by making sure that your blank sheets of paper are placed in front of you, in a position where you can write on them comfortably without losing your good posture.
On your media-playing device, choose the audio track you want to listen to for this session. Press play when you're ready. Then, as the audio starts, make sure to have your pen or pencil in hand so you can immediately start taking notes.
For this step, you are going to listen to the audio all the way through one single time.
As you are listening, I want you to write down notes about the "big picture" or "gist" of the audio content. This includes top-level information like:
- Who? Who is speaking? If the audio content is a story (fiction or non-fiction), who are the main characters?
- What? What is being described? What are the major points of discussion, or the major events that are taking place?
- When? When is the conversation taking place? When did the major events happen?
- Where? Where is the conversation taking place? Where did the major events happen?
- Why? For what reasons did the conversation take place? What were the causes and/or reasons for the major events.
By the end of this step, you should have something similar to an outline, just like you would write for a book, essay, or university lecture.
It should not contain full sentences, but rather words and phrases that describe, in general, the major points of the audio.
Be sure to also leave lots of space between these points, so you can fill in the details in the next step.
After your first listen, you should have understood enough to create a short, rough outline of the "big picture" information contained in the audio you listened to.
At this point, I want you to listen one more time, and fill in your outline even more.
Since you already have the main points written down, I want you to try to be more descriptive, and use phrases and sentences instead of single words.
Think of it like a short essay. The information you wrote down in the last step describes what each "section" will be about. Now you just need to actually write the paragraphs.
There's no need to go crazy here—a sentence or two under each point is fine. Just try to put everything you understand down into a short, cohesive summary.
For our last step, I'm going to ask you to put your pen and pencil down, and listen to the audio one last time.
By now, you've listened to the audio two times, and you've written a short summary of everything you can currently understand at your skill level.
On the third listen, you should notice that the audio now feels very different to you; it's no longer new, and completely foreign. You already understand part of it, so now different details should jump out at you.
Specifically, you should notice:
- Details you previously missed
- Words or phrases that you misheard or misinterpreted
- Words that you didn't know before, but can now understand due to context
- Points, ideas, or concepts that you forgot to write down in your summary.
The third listen allows you to ignore what you already know (since you've already written all that down in your notes) and pick out smaller, finer details that eluded you in the first and second listens. Since you've already "processed" the audio a couple of times, your brain is much more attuned to the parts of the audio you don't understand, and it will work harder to make those details clear to you.
Turn Active Listening into a Habit
Like many of the methods I teach, active listening is a technique that is meant to be a regular part of your language learning routine.
This method transforms listening from a passive, hard-to-develop skill to an active skill that can be developed in a progressive, goal oriented way.
By continually shifting your focus from the "big picture" to the small details of any audio, you are training your ability to quickly identify the main points of any bits of spoken language you may hear.
This is an essential skill for any language learner, as it helps you avoid feeling lost in the flow of any conversation.