Spotlight on Language Skills: Listening

Foreign language hacking ideas to raise your listening game

We’re constantly listening and processing speech in our first language without giving it much thought, so to reach the same level of ease in another language takes some practice! Listening is a receptive skill and there are two main types of listening activities; extensive and intensive.

Intensive listening focuses more on the form of the language such as grammar, pronunciation and vocabulary and is often for shorter bursts of time. Extensive is when you might listen for longer and not need to understand 100% of what is being said because the focus is on overall understanding.

Whether you’re learning for academic purposes or simply for fun, it’s also important to mix up your listening practice to give you exposure to varied language and keep things fresh. So, when selecting listening sources, ask yourself if you’re getting a range of the following:

  • Intensive listening activities – shorter pieces to focus on form
  • Extensive listening activities – longer pieces to focus on overall meaning
  • Formal speech in contexts and conversations such as work, law or professional presentations
  • Informal speech in contexts and conversations such as family or friendship based interactions

Below are some sources that I use to keep my listening skills up in French and Russian and to keep things varied:

Alarm clock radios – waking up to a Russian radio chat show while I lived in Russia was a great way to start the day and get the cogs turning in Russian.

Background radio when getting ready in the morning – most of us will have around 30 minutes to an hour getting ready as part of our daily routine – try putting the radio on in the background to soak up the language while you’re getting dressed.

Podcasts on the move – how about using your commute or travel time to listen to a podcast in the language you’re learning? I use SBS radio for a range of podcasts in Russian and French because they cover a range of topics such as culture, politics and economics. Find SBS podcasts in 20 languages.

Dictations – I’ll be honest, I hated these traditional exercises or ‘dictées’ in French at school, but now I’m learning independently, I find them a great way to practise listening and spelling skills and also check in on grammar points as well. They help me to scrutinise what I’m hearing to make sure I focus on accuracy as well as listening fluency.

Watching hobby-related videos – I find this is a great way to learn vocabulary for hobbies by watching ‘how to’ videos in the language you’re learning. I often watch French cooking videos on Facebook, Instagram or YouTube to pick up jargon and vocabulary for things that interest me.

Watch a film – it’s a fun and relaxed way to discover new vocabulary and hear the language being spoken by a diverse range of speakers. I like to watch award-winning films or films showcasing the country where the language is spoken. There are regional independent cinemas and for our UK-based readers, regular film festivals in London. The French Insititute regularly screens French films in the Cine Lumière in French and there is a Russian film festival once a year in London as well.

Watch a TV series on Netflix – I’ve enjoyed discovering foreign language programmes on Netflix and have recently binged on two drama-detective style series ‘Le Chalet’ in French and ‘Метод’ in Russian. I usually watch with subtitles on in the language, but you can often select subtitles in English to make it easier to follow the dialogue. I try to watch with a notepad to capture any interesting phrases and will often rewind to catch pronunciation or new vocabulary. It can be fun to discover new actors, genres and informal vocabulary in different settings that you wouldn’t come across in everyday life.

Audible audio books – these can be great when traveling for longer journeys and serve as a great way to practice some extensive listening. Discover the Audible range of foreign language books online.

Listening to music and learning the lyrics – whatever your level, there will be songs out there to enjoy as part of your listening practice! Whether it’s children’s songs or more complex rapping or fast-paced pop, find something fun that you like to listen to as part of your extensive listening practice.

We hope you found these suggestions useful – let us know how you got on trying them out in the Lingua Centra Language Lovers Facebook Group!

Spotlight on Language Skills: Speaking

There’s something so satisfying about being able to speak confidently and making yourself understood in a range of settings using the language(s) you’re learning. You might need to request something in a shop (without having to resort to wild hand gestures), or hold your own in a heated debate at a more advanced level.

These spontaneous interactions in another language can be exhilarating, but it can also be a bit nerve-wracking to be put on the spot! So, how can you practise expressing yourself verbally in a way that improves your confidence and fluency? Below are some tricks I’ve used over the years to work on my speaking skills, even in situations where I’ve felt out of my depth. Try them out and let us know how you get on in the comments below!

Before you begin, it’s worth remembering that to be considered fluent in a language, you don’t have to speak it perfectly or without any mistakes (even native speakers can’t always manage that!) but the main focus should be on being understood in a variety of contexts, as per the Common European Framework Levels definition at C2 or ‘proficient user’ level.

1. Learn to sing a song in the language you speak – this will make learning the pronunciation much more fun and allow you to practice wrapping your tongue around the sounds without anyone listening in (depending on how loudly you sing along of course..!) Set up a playlist for the language(s) you speak and focus on basic nursery rhymes or chart topping hits depending on what level you’re at and what genre of music you’re into. It’s also a great way to discover more about the culture and will give you lots to talk about in conversations with native speakers!

2. Ask a native speaker or teacher to help with pronunciation snags – I found this very useful when struggling with the French pronunciation of the sounds ‘boule’ and ‘bulle.’ A French friend of mine spend a good half an hour coaching me how to say it properly and eventually I got it!

3. Write down some regular phrases and practice them aloud – these might be common phrases when ordering food in a restaurant, or even phrases about yourself that might come up when meeting people such as where you work, why you’re learning the language etc… Practising them like a script will help you sound more natural as you won’t be struggling to recall words or phrases, so will improve your conversational flow.

4. Use online apps and tools to practise on your ownDuolingo has incorporated speaking practice for certain sentences and this is a good way to practice and improve confidence without an audience.

5. Use online apps and tools to practice with other people – I use Lingora which is a free platform where you can record and upload clips of you speaking and native speakers offer constructive feedback within 48 hours. Discover Lingora through our recent blog post. I also use the paid platform italki for live conversations with qualified language teachers and informal discussions with native speaking language partners.

6. Speechling – this is a great website for practising speech, recording pre-set phrases and then getting feedback. You can monitor your progress and re-record as many times as you want until you feel happy with your pronunciation and intonation. Use the code ‘LINGUA’ to sign up and receive a 10% discount!

7. Attend Mundolingo or meet up groups for face to face speaking practice – Mundolingo is an informal gathering where learners of any language can meet to speak and attendees wear stickers to show which languages they speak. Discover more in our blog post on Mundolingo. There are also plenty of Meet Up Groups that focus on a specific language. Some that we’ve tried in London include a Russian pub social meet up and a French board games meet up. You’ll be sure to find like-minded people and lots of opportunities to practice!

8. Practice describing things – this may sound quite simple, but the chances are that in some circumstances you may not know the word for the item or concept you want to talk about, so you will need to find another way to convey it. For example, you might want to say ‘elephant’ but you don’t know the word in the language, so you would need to describe it as ‘an animal that is large and grey with four legs and large ears and long nose’ hopefully at this point a native speaker will step in and provide the word you need. This is a great way to strengthen your language-learning muscles as it forces you to think outside the box and use what vocabulary you do have to convey the idea you want to express. Chances are, you’re more likely to remember the word next time too!

9. Have a translation app open on your phone or laptop when conversing – when practising online with conversation partners, I often have Google Translate open on my screen so that I can quickly translate any key words I need and can’t describe. In face to face situations I have the Word Reference app open on my phone just in case there is a word that causes a stumbling block in the conversation.

10. Keep Calm and Carry On!  Being put on the spot to speak a language can be an anxious experience and it is well documented that stress can raise cortisol levels and affect memory and recall. If you’re going to be put on the spot speaking a language, the best thing you can do is prepare using the steps above and remember that most native speakers are very patient and understanding when they know someone is learning their language.

Good luck practising your speaking skills and let us know how you get on in the comments below or on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram !