Are You Making These 3 English Listening Mistakes?
Updated Feb 2023
Nobody likes making mistakes, especially English listening mistakes when you’re trying to figure out how to understand native speakers.
And yet, when it comes to listening, teachers and learners are making plenty of them.
In this post, I’m sharing 3 English listening mistakes you need to stop making if you want to understand spoken English. You don’t need to worry about not understanding or not catching English – you’re learning, so it’s normal to not get 100%. I’m talking about English listening mistakes you make when you worry about the wrong things. Or do activities that aren’t useful for your listening.
Time to find out: are you making the vocab mistake, the mindset mistake or the practice mistake? Or all three?
By the way if you want to avoid these English listening mistakes and understand native speakers fast, I recommend Movies on the Run which will teach you 10 listening secrets to understand fast, spoken English with movie quotes.
Continue scrolling to read this blog post or click to listen to it as a blogcast. Or read and listen at the same time!
3 English Listening Mistakes
#1 The Vocab Mistake
You assume that you don’t understand because you don’t know enough words
If I got a euro for every time I hear you say “I can’t understand because of slang/phrasal verbs/idioms” or something to that effect, I’d be a wealthy woman.
The thing is, we don’t use a huge variety of words in spoken English. In conversation, we mostly talk about the same boring topics. That’s why with 2000-3000 words you can have a conversational level in English. In fact, 7000 words are enough for a decent level of fluency in English.
You’ll see various estimates of the number of words in English. I’ve heard over a million, with a typical educated adult having a vocabulary of 20 to 30 thousand words. In speech we use about 5000 words, but 10 000 in writing.
Think about that for a second.
That means you’re much more likely to encounter new words and expressions when reading rather than when you listen.
It’s rare for me to ask my partner to explain a new word to me when we’re watching TV or chatting to people. But when I read in French, especially fiction books, I know I’m going to come across plenty of new words. And I accept that I won’t have time to look them all up in the dictionary.
You’re a reader. I mean you’re reading this rather than watching a teacher on YouTube. So you already have a decent vocabulary in English.
The problem you’re facing with listening is
- You know lots of words, but only in the written form. So you don’t recognize them when you hear them.
- You mishear words and expressions you already know because of the way native speakers link words together when they speak fast.
You need to stop assuming you’re hearing words you don’t know and focus instead on learning how the words you already know sound. And on listening to fast speech where the words you already know tend to change.
#2 The Mindset Mistake
When you can’t catch something, you panic.
As much as I’d like to be a laid back, relaxed chick, I’m a panicker in life. I’m not someone who keeps a cool head. I worry about everything.
The thing is, when you miss something, you’re probably panicking for no reason.
Confession: I don’t catch everything when I listen to a series or even when I chat to someone. And I’m a native speaker.
I know you get frustrated when you don’t catch a word or expression, but you don’t need to panic. It might not be that important to the plot as a whole.
I worked with a client on understanding the TV series Gilmore Girls at the moment. I love this series. But the episodes were full of cultural references that I couldn’t catch because a lot of them were American (sports personalities, actors, films) and not recent (from the 1950s or 60s).
It didn’t spoil my enjoyment of the show though.
If you’re worried about missing references or idioms or proverbs, you can copy and paste the subtitles or transcript into a wordcloud generator. You can then see the words that’ll come up in the episode. Below you can see an example from a clip from a Gilmore Girls episode.
You can check any new or unusual words in the dictionary before you listen. This is also a great way to check if you’ll hear any proper nouns such as place names, people’s names or brand names.
If you think a section is important to the plot or the development of a character you can rewind and re-listen and check with the subtitles if you have them. Just don’t go too crazy with the rewinding and re-listening.
Here’s what my current client told me after we worked on not panicking:
“What we’ve been working on is easy to understand now of course. But I also watched another movie and I found myself not panicking that much when I didn’t understand. Before, I always used to rewind it and listen repeatedly (it usually didn’t help), this time, I did it only once (that part seemed interesting and important).”
#3 The Practice Mistake
You’re just practising your listening (and therefore not solving problems 1 and 2).
When people think of listening skills in English (I hate that expression by the way – bleh!), they think about resources for practising.
Most websites about listening are indeed practice websites of some sort where you can do listening. What’s rarer (although I’d love to discover more) are websites where you actually learn how to understand spoken English. Like this one!
Because everyone’s mind is doing the same equation:
Improving listening = listening to more English.
Listening gets reduced to practice and practice only. We have trouble seeing it as something to learn in the way you learn grammar rules, or spelling rules or how to write an essay.
But you can learn how to listen.
You can learn how the words you already know really sound.
And you can learn about how words connect in English.
The best way to do that is to forget the comprehension questions and do something useful like:
- read along with the text while you listen to notice how the words you already know sound.
- listen first and then go back to listen with a text and highlight the parts you found difficult to catch.
- pronounce what you hear. Listen to podcasts and repeat lines. Record them and compare them with the original.
- shadow a native speaker, trying to keep up with their rhythm.
English Listening Mistakes: Let Me Leave You With This
Making mistakes is a normal part of learning. In fact, mistakes are the proof that you’re learning.
That’s why there’s nothing wrong with listening to a dictation and not catching certain words or mishearing them.
When you listen back with the text, you’ll realise what you missed and you’ll hear how it really sounds.
The English listening mistakes I talked about are different: they’re strategy or mindset mistakes. They’re based on false assumptions about listening. And if you believe them you’ll slow your progress.
If you need a bit of help to stop making these mistakes, I’ve got something for you…
Fed up of watching movies with subtitles?
Feel nervous before you talk to a native speaker in case you don’t understand them?
“Movies on the Run” is an audio course that teaches you 10 English listening secrets that will help you understand native speakers when they talk fast.
Plus, you discover famous movies and the quotes that have become part of everyday speech and culture so you can fit in better. Find out more about Movies on the Run.
In my experience (15 years now) it’s the panic that gets a lot of people–and the panic alone. I want to also say that often my students (and my husband who is French) want to understand everything when they watch tv, listen to the radio etc. The thing is, as a native speaker, you don’t understand everything you hear. You piece it all together from the parts you do get. Great post Cara.
Hi Trisha. Thanks for stopping by to comment. I agree, panic is a big issue. When I work with people, I get them to take a step back and reflect on how much they’ve understood as a percentage. It’s not a perfect measurement by any means, but it lets me know where they’re at comprehension-wise. I also get them to highlight the bits of a transcript that are still causing problems. This helps us to pinpoint the issues and decide if the missing parts are important or not. At the same time, I do encourage learners to go beyond just catching keywords – it’s a strategy that helps in the beginning, but after you do need to get the hard to catch grammatical words – otherwise you can’t extract meaning, even with the help of context and non-verbal clues. But not panicking is a good place to start – hence my article on relaxing. After all, listening is probably the most stressful skill to develop when you’re learning a language!