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English listening skills training course Hong Kong - 1-to-1 preparation with a Westerner

Develop your detail-oriented listening and your general auditory comprehension (understanding)

Here I explain how to improve your English listening skills and I describe my teaching method that I have created and refined to help my students develop essential sub-skills and techniques to gradually understand more and more and speak in a better way.

In the class you will study a short speech or conversation segment that you need to understand, practise and then present accurately. You will get immediate feedback so you can correct yourself until you can say the sentences close enough to how native English speakers do.

You can be at any level: beginner, intermediate or advanced - there is always something to learn and improve. At beginner level, this deliberate practice is the dominant and most effective learning method. As your English improves you can choose to have more and more conversation in the class and less and less detailed-oriented foundation building section.

You can take lessons individually or together with your friends.

English grammar, pronunciation, listening and speaking course

How to develop your listening skills

Spoken language processing speed, mental focus and auditory memory

How much you comprehend by listening to English speakers depends on several skills and capabilities, all of which we can help you to develop:

  • the auditory information processing speed of your brain,
  • your auditory memory capacity,
  • the attention you pay to the details of the speech,
  • your practical grammar knowledge,
  • your language pattern recognition capability,
  • your general and language intelligence to connect things together and assign realistic probability values to what people may say in that particular situation when you are not sure what you have heard,
  • your knowledge about the world and the specific situation and people.

Listening sub-skills

Understanding words correctly by hearing without seeing

The most important and most obvious listening sub-skill is recognising, understanding and remembering the sounds of words.

The brain processes auditory information at two paths at the same time. One is understanding the meaning (more accurately: your mind is creating meaning) and the other is recognising and remembering the specific words and sounds.

For example, someone says "It's only 3 o'clock" but you repeat it as "It's just 3 o'clock." What happened here? You obviously understood the meaning of "only" but you did not pay attention to the specific word they used. You just guessed when you tried to reconstruct the actual word they said from the meaning you understood.

Just spending a lot of time listening to English or watching movies passively will not improve your listening skills much. It's not enough. Without deliberate, focused listening practice and a feedback system incorporated into your learning, your improvement will be very slow and random. The ultimate feedback is provided by the teacher but you need to develop your own sense of feedback, too.

Understanding speech requires you to properly guess the meaning of the message. It is a guessing work because you understand only some parts of what has been said at such a fast speed that your mind cannot keep up with the information processing. Often you don't even know how many words they said; where one word ends and where the next starts.

So what can you do if you cannot recognise words? You can use other skills and techniques to get a better understanding.

Grammar rules

The second most important sub-skill to improve your listening is mastering grammar. In a typical speech you will not hear most of the short word like is, are, has, do, in, at, this, a, the, etc. However, you can use grammar rules to know what you should have heard or at least narrow the scope of the possible correct words.

For instance, they say "When do you usually get up?" and you don't hear the "do" but you know that it's a simple present tense question, then you know that there must be a "do" between the question word and the subject.

Another example is the use of prepositions. You cannot hear them most of the times but if you've learnt them, you know what can be there. "At noon ... on noon ... in noon" Which one? If you know the rule you know what you need to hear.

How to improve your English listening skills

General language patterns

General language patterns are two or more words, phrases, sentences that occur together with high probability in specific situations. If you pay attention to them, you can expect a particular word, phrase or sentence when you hear its pair that it usually appears together with.

For example, if you hear, "What's this?" and then "... a table." You suspect that they say, "This is a table.", "That's a table." or "It's a table." but you are not sure. All of these three can be correct but the probability of "It's a table." is much higher than the probability of the other two. People use "It's" much more often in this situation.

Another example: One says, "Thank you." In polite American conversation you can expect that the response with high probability will be "You're welcome."

You can think of grammar rules as a special case of general language patterns.

Style: Individual language pattern

Everybody has their own language style, pattern. it is the habit of using the same grammar structures, words, phrases over and over again. This can be used as a clue to understand what a particular person has just said if we know their language patterns.

For example, one can say yes, yeah, yep, sure, of course, aha. If you observed that a person often says 'yeah" but never says "sure," you can expect "Yeah" from them with much higher probability next time than "Sure."

Remember, just because you recognised and understood something before there's guarantee that you will recognise and understand the same thing from the same person next time. Listening is always about probabilities.

Contextual and situational clues

Another sub-skill to improve your listening is utilising the context of the conversation because it gives clues about what they might say. The context can be the location, the relationship between people, the situation they are in, what the topic is etc.

For instance, you hear, "I like tea." If you are aware of your own mistake patterns, you might consciously consider the possibility that they actually said, "I'd like tea." So which one? If the speaker is talking to the waiter in a restaurant, she probably said, "I'd like tea." meaning I want tea. But if the conversation is between friends and they are talking about their favourite food and drinks, they probably said, "I like tea."

Contextual and situational clues are just another form of pattern recognition and utilisation. They are patterns associated with particular events, places, relationships or situations.

Another situational clue whether it is a formal or informal conversation.

Observing behaviour and emotional signs

Body language, facial expression, gestures, physical distance between the conversation partners are also clues that influences our expectation about what we should hear.

This may help to understand the intention and attitude of the person. This can help invoke specific words in our mind that are associated with these behaviours.

Become aware of your listening and speaking mistakes

When you learn you will make certain mistakes more often than other type of mistakes. Be aware of them so you can pay more attention of those parts when you listen and consciously correct them.

For example, you may have a habit of ignoring the word "and" when you try to repeat what you have heard. So every time when you hear a listing or sentence structure repetition or connection, you can expect to hear "and."

Learn names

The common elements of conversations, speeches, presentations, stories are names. Learn as many names in English as you can but at least the most common and the locally and culturally relevant ones. Also learn abbreviations. Here are some categories of names:

Name and title Example
First names and surnames of people Susan, Smith, Watson
Continents, countries, regions, cities, districts, streets, buildings Langham Place, Oxford, Texas, Kowloon, Lan Kwai Fong {LKF}
Geographical stuff like rivers, lakes, oceans, mountains Pearl River Delta, Himalayas, The Pacific Ocean
Famous artists, sport teams, music bands, authors Manchester United, The Beatles, Madonna, Picasso, Leonardo DiCaprio
Political parties and leaders The Democratic Party, GOP, President Donald Trump
History: people, places and events Henry VIII of England, JFK, World War II
Social organisations, clubs, movements World Health Organization {WHO}, Occupy Wall Street), The United Nations {UN}
Book titles, music albums, songs, movies, film characters, comic books, magazines, newspapers South China Morning Post {SCMP}, Titanic, Yesterday, Monk, Donald Duck
Food and drinks Pepsi Cola, Big Mac, Kit Kat
Company names, brand names Prada, Mass Transit Railway {MTR}, Rolls Royce, Disney World
Softwares, hardwares, apps, machines Whatsapp, Microsoft, Xerox, Silicon Valley, Facebook

Summary: Listening strategies

In the lessons you will learn how to use your grammar knowledge, the context and the situation of the conversation, general language patterns, the speaker’s unique language style, body language, emotions and probabilistic thinking to quickly create a highly probable version of the speaker’s message out of fragmented pieces of auditory information.

Auditory comprehension is not a passive activity but an active creation process. Improving your listening skills takes long time training, directed focus, quick mental processing and memorisation. Listening development requires you to increase the capacity of your memory: the echoic, the short and long term memory. The improvement of your auditory memory and concentration skills are built-in features of our exercises.

Why is it so difficult to understand what they say?

Have you ever wondered why you can understand a written text much better than its spoken version? If you understand almost 100% of a written text, you probably understand only 10-30% of its audio version by hearing it once. Our listening exercises target narrowing this huge gap between the visual (reading) and the auditory comprehension.

Almost all words have only one spelling version so once you've learnt how to spell a word, you will probably recognise and understand it every time in the future. However, everybody speaks differently. We use different speed, accents, pronunciation, tone, pitch etc. to say the same word. You need to recognise a word hundreds and thousands of times to reach a high probability of recognition of that word when you hear it next time. Just listening to a speech which includes that specific word is not enough. You need to recognise it and be aware of it.

Students have the most difficulties to recognize by listening the short, unemphasized words such as: this, that, these, those, does, do, he, him, and, but, or, is, are, in, on, with, at, etc. It is much easier to understand the long, emphasized, slowly pronounced words.

6 ways of learning English words

The statistical view of listening improvement

Think about your listening improvement something like this: If in your whole life you have 10 times successfully recognised a word spoken by different people in random situations, you will have a 5% chance that you will understand it next time.

If you have already recognised the same word successfully 100 times, you will have a 30 percent chance that you will understand it next time.

If you have already recognised it successfully 1000 times, you will have an 80% chance.

Of course, the numbers are just for illustration of the idea.

Listening for comprehension and details

If you are at beginner level regarding to your English listening skills, comprehension means that you understand the apparent, rough meaning of what you hear.

Maybe you understand a lot of words, but you cannot reproduce correctly what you have heard because your brain is not able to process the sounds quickly enough to have time for all the details and your short-term or working memory is not fast and large enough to keep all the information.

For example, if somebody says, "Where are you from?", and you think that she said, "Where do you come from?", it means that you understood the question but did not pay attention to the details or you did not make enough effort to memorise the actual words.

The purpose of the listening exercises in the class is not only learning and recognizing new words and understanding the speakers but also developing the capacity and speed of your auditory memory and your skill to be able to focus on the details and recall them.

In the accuracy targeting part of the lesson you will be required to pay attention to what you hear, you will be tested, given feedback and get corrected until you can remember the actual words and sentences you have heard and say them correctly. This exercise will make you listen very carefully. It's not easy but useful.

How to improve my listening by myself?

When you watch TV and videos in English language, do not read the Chinese subtitle. Yes, I get that you do not understand too much but you need to get used to listening to English without any help. Reading the English or Chinese subtitle can be an exercise sometimes but your main practice should be listening without reading.

Listen to audio and watch video of which you would understand 90-100% if it was in written version. Even if you understand everything of the written script, do not be surprised or disappointed if you understand only 20% of the spoken format. It is very common and almost all English learners have the same problem. Just keep spending time for listening.

Additionally, you can choose to listen to audio that is very easy for you - so you can feel good about your improvement. More often, watch movies, news or soap operas or listen to BBC or any audio that is well above your level. Use difficult audio to train yourself to understand the main topic and the main message without being clear about the details.

Be aware that watching videos is not effective. Without feedback, testing, repeating your learning is passive and you will not improve fast. The speed is to fast to remember by watching once something.

Speed up your brain's auditory language processing

When you learn a language you actually learn two independent languages. A written one and a spoken one.

You need to spend at least 100 times more time for listening than you spend for reading to reach the same level. When you read you can choose your speed; when you listen you just follow the speaker's speed.

Your brain needs time to process the information you have just heard. If you hear a word that you haven't heard often, your mind may use 1 or 2 seconds to understand it, if at all. That is a lot of time and you miss the next words of the speaker because your mind is still processing the previous word.

If you have heard a word or expression hundreds or thousands times, the processing time can go down significantly and understanding becomes automatic. When you hear "thank you" or "sorry" you understand them immediately because you've heard them so many times that its processing has become automatic, subconscious.

Learning anything is bringing things from the conscious mind into the subconscious, automatic mind.