Did You Hear That?
Practicing listening skills in daily life
In my last newsletter about practicing speaking skills, I highlighted the fact that you can practice anywhere at anytime. Now, I’m going to do the same for listening skills. In fact, this is what I do all the time so I’m sharing how I hear the world all around me and yes, it can be distracting. There are two kinds of listening, listening for what was said and listening for how something was said. You can use your listening skills to improve your speaking skills. If you play the audio for this newsletter, I hope you go back and listen to it again and try to use some of the strategies described.
Listening for “what”
When you have to listen for meaning and understanding:
Don’t worry about hearing every word, just focus on the emphasized words (these words are said with higher pitch and/or longer vowel duration).
Listen for transitional words/phrases, sequencing words such as “since” and “before” to help follow the order of events.
Watch the speaker’s hands. When someone’s pitch goes up, their hands go up. This could be a small movement or a big movement, but the hands will be a clue to identifying which words they’re emphasizing.
Listening for “how”
When you can zoom out in scope and listen for how someone is speaking instead of just what they are saying, listen for:
which syllable is stressed, especially in words used in your work or field of study. Are you putting stress on the first syllable of “delete” so it sounds like “DEE-leet” or on the second (and correct) syllable so it sounds like “duh-LEET”?
how different native English speakers say the same word different ways, such as “IN-ter-es-ting” or “IN-ner-es-ting” or “IN-tres-ting.” There is often more than one correct pronunciation of a word and it’s just up to your preference. The word “data” can sound like “DAY-duh” or “DAD-uh,” which do you prefer?
how a short phrase sounded vs what it would look like in writing and how the stressed word carried most of the meaning, “what are you doing this weekend?” = “whaddaya DO-win this weekend?”
Apply your analytical skills to other people’s speech.
In some ways, it’s easier to notice differences in other people’s speech than your own. Analyzing other people’s speech is a good way to sharpen your skills to apply to your own speech.
Analyze differences in pronunciation of other non-native English speakers that you can identify, for example: “zees” instead of “this” has two differences, 1) “th” = “z” and 2) the vowel should be a “short-i” not a “long-e.”
Listen to a podcast or audio-book. It may be difficult to notice differences in real time, so listen to a recording that you can pause and repeat a word or phrase that you noticed. In the first listen, you may not know exactly why something stood out to you, but after some review you may figure it out. Did that word stand out because it was said with a higher pitch, longer vowel duration, a little louder?
Resources for listening to ordinary people speaking
Youglish - You can enter a single word or a phrase and it will find YouTube videos of people saying that word(s). Notice the difference styles of speaking between a formal presentation, an interview, and a conversation. Remember to choose “US” English.
Playphrase.me - This is similar to Youglish but it finds movie clips instead of YouTube videos. It’s not real conversation, but you can hear the same word or words spoken by multiple actors.
Dialects Archive - You can choose to listen to different dialects of US English or how people from all different native languages speak English with the influence of a foreign accent. Each example recording includes the speaker reading something and then in conversation. This makes it easy to compare different speakers pronouncing the same words in the read paragraph.
Story Corps - Ordinary people, not actors, tell stories about their lives in a conversation. Some of these have animation added to them, some are only audio.
Listen on Two Levels
There are two kinds of listening, listening for what was said and listening for how something was said.
Start with single words that you notice then short phrases before you try whole sentences, build up to it.
Use recordings that you can rewind, pause, and play at a slower speed before you try catching these things in real time.
When you are ready to try these listening skills in real time, start by overhearing other people talk because then you don’t have to do both at once, you’re just practicing listening for how something was said.
When you are ready to try listening for both the what and the how in a conversation, just notice one thing and try to store it in your memory as you keep listening to what is said. You don’t want to miss out on what the other person is telling you.
With practice, you’ll get better at listening at two levels and can switch between them or do both at the same time. These are some of the ways you can use listening skills to improve your speaking skills. Try listening to the audio recording of this newsletter and try using some of these strategies as you listen to me speak.