3 Ways To Relax When You Listen To English
Updated March 2022. Listen to this article as a blogcast or continue scrolling to read it.
When someone tells you to just relax when you listen to English, do you get more stressed?
When I was learning to drive, I used to sit hunched over the steering wheel, my hands holding onto it so tight you could see the whites of my knuckles.
I probably looked a bit like this guy. But worse.
I was terrified. Being in control of a ton of moving metal scared me (and still does to be honest).
I was lucky to (eventually) have the most pedagogical and patient instructor. She understood me. She understood driving. We didn’t just practise: she taught me how to drive.
And most importantly, she got me to relax in our driving lessons.
She didn’t just say something trite like: “Cara, you need to relax.”
No, she told me how to sit so I would be relaxed. She got me to put my elbows on my thighs. To lower my shoulders. To grip the wheel less hard.
She made me adopt a position so that I would chill out. She knew full well that if she told me to relax, I would just grip the wheel harder and panic even more.
Maybe you’ve heard that you need to relax when you’re listening to English. And as you try to do that you feel your whole body tensing up even more and the words flying by your ears as you fail to catch them.
So how can you relax into listening like I did with driving?
Picture the scene. You’re ready do some listening work in English. You’re at your desk. You’ve switched on your computer. You’ve got out your notepad. Your dictionary is next to you. You’ve opened up a website with some listening activities and a comprehension quiz.
Then suddenly you feel the overwhelming urge to make a cup of coffee. Or to start dusting your desk. Or tidying out a drawer. Or even making that important phone call you’ve been putting off.
You want to improve, but when you sit down to do the work, you talk yourself out of it. You procrastinate by going off and doing other things. So what’s going on?
We all feel this resistance. It’s normal to be afraid of failure. And that’s made even worse by the way most listening activities are organised. Which, by the way, isn’t your fault.
You see for years we’ve been testing students instead of teaching them listening. I used to think comprehension quizzes were a bit of harmless fun. And that they helped students focus while listening and give them a structure.
I mean it’s not like you’re going to catch everything anyway so we may as well make it easy for you right?
But comprehension quizzes or questions are tests. Who wants to take a test? Tests remind you of school. Of success or failure boiled down into one hour of answering questions on a piece of paper.
Not only are they tests, they don’t teach you anything. Testing is a surefire way to send you into procrastination mode.
So how can you stop procrastinating and start having fun?
#1 Turn Listening To English Into A Game
Games are fun, not scary or stressful, right?
So how can you make a game out of any listening resource?
Do a dictation. A dictation is a game, not torture. It’s a fun puzzle to try to solve. And if you can’t solve it, don’t worry.
Failure is part of the game – it’s the goal.
When you don’t catch a word. Or you mishear it and then you see it in writing, you’ll have a lightbulb moment. You’ll learn how it sounds when it’s spoken. You can’t get that kind of insight from a comprehension question or from just passively listening.
Doing dictations will take you from – “Oh well I understood 50% of that. I guess I’ll just have to keep practising” to “wow, I can now catch the words I used to miss – I understand the details”.
The easiest way to build dications into your listening is to choose resources that come with a text of some sort. This could be my blogcast, a YouTube video with closed captions or a podcast with a transcript.
Your basic gamification recipe with dictations
- Listen to the audio in the normal way all the way through.
- Choose a 5-10 second section you found difficult.
- Listen to it a couple of times and write down what you hear.
- Compare it with the text and have an “ah-ha moment” – so that’s what I heard!?
- Repeat for a couple of other tricky bits.
If you can get off your computer, even better. Listening and doing these tasks on your smartphone is less stressful and more fun. Sitting at a desk in front of a laptop reminds you of work or serious study.
You can do my audio course, “Movies on the Run” on your smartphone or tablet. Or any device you want. You learn how to understand fast-talking native speakers thanks to movie quotes and useful, conversational expressions.
#2 Make Listening To English A Habit
How often are you listening to English?
Are you trying and failing to watch a film without subtitles once a week? No wonder you’re not motivated and not progressing. You’re making listening much bigger and scarier than it needs to be.
No matter where you’re starting from, focus on getting a bit better every day.
- Set yourself a small daily goal that you can’t fail to achieve.
- Make a plan for your week.
- Make sure you have all the tools you need at your disposal.
Your toolkit for building the listening habit:
- An app on your phone to download or stream podcasts. I use Soundcloud, but you could also use Stitcher. Or iTunes if you’ve got an iPhone.
- The YouTube app on your phone.
- Some kind of app for note taking. You could use Evernote or just the memo or note app that comes with your phone. You can use this to write your dictations. Or you could just use a notebook and pen. Whatever’s easiest for you.
Track your progress by making a note of what you do every day. Tick off the tasks you accomplish and feel good about them. Celebrate your small wins every day. They’re gradually taking you to a place where you can achieve your ultimate goal to understand spoken English.
If you haven’t been doing much up to now, start really small. Your goal, (5 minutes over 5 days) could be to:
- Listen to a short podcast (2-5 minutes)
- Do 3 dictations
- Learn 5 new words
- Review the words by catching them in the episode
- Re-listen to the podcast and review your progress
To learn more about building a listening habit, check out this guest post I wrote for English with Kirsty on how to make listening a habit.
#3 Compare You To You
Want to raise your anxiety levels so they go through the roof? Want to instantly make yourself unhappy?
Then make sure you compare yourself to other people. That’s right. Look at what they have and what you don’t. Put native speakers on a pedestal and decide now that unless you can emulate them perfectly, you’re a failure.
Are you already feeling bad?
Comparison is your one-way ticket to unhappiness. Once you’ve fallen into the comparison trap it’s hard to get out.
Trust me on this one. I teach online. I’ve gone from comparing myself to the English teachers in my city to comparing myself to thousands of teachers from all over the world. On sites like iTalki, I can even compare my students’ reviews of me to their reviews of other teachers.
Result: I feel crap about myself.
I can look at the thousands of Instagram or Facebook followers of my peers and wonder why I’m so far behind. I can look at the hundreds of comments on popular blogs and wonder why no-one is reading mine. I can feel my blood pressure rising as I write.
Then I remember what life was like in July 2016 when I just started writing on this blog. When I had 6 newsletter subscribers. And I realise that I’ve made huge progress.
The easiest way to a happy life is to compare you with you. Especially in language learning. The easiest way to compare yourself with yourself is to track and measure YOUR progress.
Listening is a receptive skill, not a productive one. It’s all about the inputs. So the best thing to do is to create output. Do something with your listening. But make sure it’s the right thing. Answering a comprehension question reveals nothing about what you understood.
Doing a dictation or fixing bad subtitles gives you an insight. And some output for comparison a few months down the line. You can come back to dictations you used to struggle with. When you listen again, can you catch them more easily? Do you still have the same struggles that you had a few months ago?
Track, measure, reflect. Then rinse and repeat. Even noticing tiny things “I caught that version of ‘to’ more easily this time” means you’re progressing and learning.
You’ll relax into your listening much more easily when you realise you’re in competition with yourself, not others.
So the next time someone tells you to just relax when you listen to English and you find yourself getting tense, do one of these things:
1.Turn your listening into a game.
Games are fun. There are no winners and losers when you play against yourself. And every mistake is precious learning insight that will teach you how to understand spoken English.
2.Make listening part of your routine.
Forget the 1 or 2 hour cram sessions on a Sunday night. Take it easy and do a bit every day. If you can work from your smartphone, even better. You’ll have no excuse not to do something. Get organised, plan and track what you do to accomplish your small goals and make progress.
3.Feel better instantly by comparing you with you, not other people.
We all add unnecessary stress to our lives by falling into the comparison trap. We decide that we’re not good enough by looking at what other people have achieved.
You have to start where you are and compare yourself to yourself. You can do this by tracking and measuring your progress on a regular basis. That way you can focus on where you were, and where you’re at now rather than wishing you were someone else.
Subscribe To My Newsletter To Get Your Free Guide
Want to use your favourite movie or TV show to understand native English speakers when they talk fast? Download your free guide, Understand Movies in English.