Back to the blog

Language Tip #3: How to Listen and communicate effectively 

Matt Kaplan is currently a Music Intern in Spain.  This is the third in a series of blog posts he’s written for us while there.  Be sure to check out Language Tips #1 and #2.  See the rest of his posts listed here.

It is assumed that the more that you immerse yourself in your target language and experience how it sounds, the more you will pick it up, correct?  I’d say that is true to a certain extent but sometimes just being present in the mix of it all isn’t quite enough.  One concept that has helped me out a ton is the idea of knowing how to listen.  It sounds like we are jumping back in time to when we were kids learning how to be good listeners, but when learning a new language as an adult sometimes we need to unlearn what we think we know in order to relearn a new skill set.

Let’s start by breaking down the concept of active listening in order to better understand how to get something out of whatever we are listening to.   Sometimes we forget how the actions of listening and hearing differ.  Today in our fast-paced 21st century lives this is even more relevant. We “listen” to music on the train, while we work out, or while we are with friends.  We keep an ear out for a variety of different things while we drive for our safety (probably with a radio on in the background or chatting with the person in the front seat).  We might have the TV on in the background while we cook up our dinner or finish up some late night work.  The list goes on, but it’s important to remember that in each of these cases maybe 50% -80% of ourselves is actually focused on the act of listening alone.  This is true especially when we try to multi-task.  In this case we are walking the line between passively hearing sometime going on and being aware of its presence versus actively listening in order to fulfill some sort of objective.  I can’t stress how important it is to understand that difference enough.


Even as I write this post I am listening to some music, commuting on a train on the way to the airport to Madrid. I’m guilty too. The truth is that our average attention span is dwindling due to all of our 21st century conveniences, whether we like it or not. While learning a new language is an adventure, learning to recognize how to separate listening from hearing and enjoyment from seeking understanding is an essential skill.   It’s learning how to re-center and focus in.

One of the biggest hurdles to overcome with listening is not to get overwhelmed when you try to throw yourself in a group of native speakers for the first time.  You can’t expect to sit in and understand every word, phrase, and construction the first time (or even a year after your first time).  We take how much we know from the languages we grew up with for granted; albeit some might not have the best grammar or complex vocabulary but hey we know more than we realize. We know common phrases, a ton of vocabulary, inflections, local accents, body language, slang, and even sayings that are local to our specific area.  However, at this point in our lives all of that is absolutely automatic!  Think about it.  When you listen to someone, exchange a hello in passing, or go out with a group of friends, your ability to hear your own language has become so good that thinking about those specifics doesn’t even come to mind!  All we do is sit back, enjoy the conversation, and listen for content to understand and contribute.

When sitting down with a native speaker for the first time or attempting to watch some television in a new language, here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Use context clues to help you figure out meanings.  For example, if someone is telling a story, keep an eye out for different past tense conjugations.
  • Never! hesitate to politely ask someone to repeat something or to slow down a bit.  This was a big hurdle for me because it’s easier said than done in the heat of a conversation.  You will get much more out of the experience.
  • Keep an active ear out for known vocab and constructions.  Know how to ask follow up questions to keep a conversation going.  The who/where/what/when/how are important when trying to follow along; if at any point you are missing one of the details you might as well speak up and ask again for clarification.
  • Sometimes you will come to a standstill of misunderstanding.  What do you do if you’re trying to understand someone who doesn’t know any English? For example, in Spanish, a common phrase new learners use would be “¿Como se dice ______ en Español?”  Take it to the next level and learn how to describe what you need to know without the aid of English words.  Kind of like the game Charades in real life.  The next time you hear someone else use the word you were looking for it will be easily recognizable due to the amount of work you put in to learn it!

That level of comfort in a new language takes time.  One thing I that helped me a lot with listening was downloading Podcasts.  You can download whatever show interests you in your target language, or even shows on how to learn whatever language it is that you are learning.  I like to download episodes of music and listen to them while I run and focus in on the Spanish commentary. The more you follow these steps the more you will feel like a speaker and less like a really quick translator. Again, in our current lives filled with technology and conveniences for semi-automatic instant gratification we need to remind ourselves that working up a new skill like this takes time and patience.  I still think I’m really bad at coming to grips with that idea, but I’m working on it day by day.  I hope that these suggestions and ideas have been of some use to you in your journey of language learning.  I am by no means perfect at English or Spanish but hey, fake it ’till you make it!

Best of luck,

Apply Now