Now I know this headline sounds a bit spammy

And I’m not a fan of instantaneous wonder tricks. If I believed in that, I would have given up teaching and learning a language a long time ago.

Because I believe anything worth having in life, that transforms your life, requires time and effort. That doesn’t mean it has to be a horrible struggle. But you don’t get life-changing transformation in return for zero effort.

That said, sometimes the little things do matter and do count. And in this case, the one simple trick involves a bit of technology.

  • Is it changing the settings on YouTube videos or in your podcasting app to slow down the audio? I don’t recommend this and I’m not the only one.
  • Is it some kind of magical app? I’m still waiting for the magical language learning app that actually teaches people to interact meaningfully in a language, not just repeat random words

No, it’s none of these things. In fact it’s something simple, low cost, and you probably have 28 of them kicking around your house already.

Read on (or watch the video below) to find out what I’m talking about!

Watch the video:

Real Life Listening Vs English Listening Skills Training


I’m talking about these things: the humble pair of headphones.

Now this is not a wonder solution. It won’t fix everything overnight. But when you’re learning English or any language, you have to stack the deck in your favour.

That means you can’t watch movies like you would in your native language, just kicking back on the couch.

It means you have to enhance your sound quality by whatever means possible.

At the same time, I know that conditions will never be perfect in real life. And you need to be ready for this.

I was once criticized when doing a listening skills workshop for teachers, for using MP3 recordings.

I was showing these teachers the dictations I had made for my students on a programme and made small recordings of fast, natural sounding speech for my students to understand.

Now I was using Mp3s for the widely compatible format. And yes, the sound quality maybe isn’t as good as some other formats. But in real life, there will always be situations where sound quality won’t be optimal.

I know that when you’re still learning a language, what you listen to sounds fuzzy and unclear anyway.

And in addition to that, real life hands you all kinds of problems:

  • Poor internet connections and sound quality on conference calls
  • Conference calls round a speaker in an echoey room
  • Background music everywhere: in shops and shopping centres, bars, café
  • Street noise: cars and transport, road works,
  • Accents that you’re not used to yet
  • New people whose voice and way of speaking you’re just not used to

It’s rare that you’re in perfect conditions, like a 1:1 conversation in a quiet room with someone whose accent and voice you’re used to.

You can’t hide from these situations.But you can adapt to them.

I recently found out that I’m slightly deaf, especially in my left ear. I can’t hear certain very low pitched sounds, which is a sign that I was born with it. When you damage your hearing, you lose the capacity to hear high-pitched sounds.

It turns out I was born this way and my whole life, I’ve adapted.

And we can all adapt to less than perfect listening situations, especially if we engineer these situations by listening in less than perfect conditions: without headphones, in environments with background noise, with low quality file formats and so on.


How & Why To Create Optimal Conditions To Train Your Listening Skills


But, when you are training your listening skills – because your English listening skills don’t improve by magic – that’s when you need to put all the cards in your hand.

This is where headphones are a great idea. And yes you can use the headphones you got with your phone. You can pay for something fancy if you want, like noise-cancelling headphones.

So when you’re sitting down to actually train your listening skills, make sure you have your tools

  • A pair of headphones
  • The best file quality you can get
  • A decent sound system if possible

This is crucial, especially if you’re aiming to train your pronunciation too.

In fact, imitating fast-spoken English as closely as possible is something I get my students to do. The theory is that if you can produce what you hear, then you can catch it.

When you’re doing detailed listening work, like dictations, you’re not just trying to get the general idea. You want to try to catch everything. The goal here is to diagnose your listening problems. So that’s a situation where using headphones is a great idea.

That’s also a situation where I recommend working from a calm, quiet place like your house, rather than an environment like the street or public transport where there’s a ton of background noise.

If you’re just listening for practice or for pleasure, it matters a little less. You could do that with or without headphones. I love listening to podcasts or audiobooks when I’m in the street or on walks.

But unfortunately, as I haven’t invested in noise cancelling headphones, I constantly have to rewind and re-listen to sections. Even when I’m at home cooking dinner, the noise of the extractor fan, water boiling, meat searing in a pan, makes it hard to hear!

And I don’t want to damage my hearing by turning the volume up, especially as I already have delicate hearing. I don’t recommend that for you either.


Be Kind To Yourself As You Work On Your English Listening Skills


I remind you of all this so that you’re not too hard on yourself for not catching everything you hear. You’re still learning. And if you’re in sub-optimal conditions, like the ones with a lot of background noise, you’re going to make your job more difficult.

So stack the cards in your favour:

  • Choose your listening environment carefully.
  • Use headphones.
  • Don’t just listen: do dictation and pronunciation activities.
  • Catch the new expressions you learn and use them in your speech.
  • Don’t just content yourself with the general idea if your goal is proficiency in English.
  • Use what you listen to to enrich your English.

If you enjoyed this tip, and if the title didn’t upset you too much then I think you’re going to love my free guide which you can download below. It’ll give you more guidance on how to make your listening active with dictations and pronunciation activities, using your favourite movie or TV show.

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.

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