What Makes a Confident Speaker? (Part 2: Listen Actively)

For the last few weeks of 2015 and the first few weeks of 2016, I’ll be writing a few posts about confidently speaking a foreign language. Having learned German and gone pretty far with it myself, I often answer questions from my students about speaking more confidently. We’ll focus on one piece of advice per post, and you are invited to join the discussion and add your thoughts in the comments section below!

# 2: Listen Actively, Not JUST Passively

Imagine yourself having a conversation with a native speaker of your target language. You’re exchanging ideas quickly and easily; speaking fluently and getting your point across, but you’re also listening „fluently“ and taking what you’ve just heard and turning it into your next thought.

Listening and speaking are very closely related- you need one to have the other.

When I talk with my students about listening, they will often mention passive listening practice. They listen to BBC radio on their drive home from work or tune into CNN on their TVs while preparing dinner. Doing this, they think, will surround them with spoken English, and they will improve. Yet after a few months, they ask me why all of this extra listening doesn’t seem to help.

I tell them to imagine the same commute home from work or the same dinner prep time; this time spent listening to RBB or watching the evening news on ARD. Can they remember the news a few hours later? Probably not specific details, maybe not even the general content of the stories. This doesn’t mean that they can’t understand German; my students are almost all German native speakers.

What it does mean is that they weren’t listening actively. Active listening is listening to understand- it means we think about what or who we’re listening to and we take it apart by asking questions (if we are listening to a person), or listening to the same bit over an over again (in the case of the news) until we understand what we have heard. It might also mean applying what we have just listened to to a real-life action.

When we listen to the news while doing something else, we probably aren’t actively listening. It’s okay! It’s no problem- you probably shouldn’t be actively listening while driving home; it’s slippery outside and you should be paying attention to the traffic!


(This is not the best place to learn English!)

So this week, I’d like to make a suggestion: if you want to listen to English-language news, try doing it actively. Not in the car. Not in the kitchen. It might take you fifteen or so minutes. Let me show you what I mean.

I get most of my English-language news from NPR, the US network of public radio broadcasters. There’s a radio station in Berlin (104.1) and a wonderful website that provides lots of opportunity to listen to interesting news stories. Because NPR is mainly a radio-based news service, many of their stories are available both for reading and listening.

One short bit, called „First Mention,“ is a semi-regular series that takes a look at the first time a catchword or phrase was ever mentioned on air by NPR. The most recent one was about Wikipedia, and is  not so challenging to listen to. It clocks in at just under two minutes long, contains a few phrasal verbs that we might not be familiar with. However, the context is pretty clear- the story is about the first time the word „Wikipedia“ was mentioned on NPR. Take a look at the story here.

As you can see, there’s a transcript of the story included on the link. Try reading the transcript aloud before you listen to the story. While reading, focus on the sounds the words make, not on the meaning of the words. Read through the transcript aloud again, this time noticing which words or phrases you might not know. Phrasal verbs like „pop up,“ „dip into,“ or „float around“ might be a challenge- these are the words that you should look up. I like to use Linguee to look up phrasal verbs- try it out.

Now that you’ve read through the transcript a few times and looked up the words and phrases that were new or challenging for you, listen to the story. Listen to it again and again; feel free to pause it and repeat those words  or phrases that were new for you.

After you’ve finished listening to the story and closed the tab on your browser, take a moment to think about it again. What was it about? Who were the people you heard talking? Maybe you look up „NPR“ or „Ira Flatow“ on Wikipedia- the more you do to use the story you’ve just listened to, the better it will stay in your memory.

This might seem to take a long time, and this certainly isn’t the shortest post- but active listening is important because it allows you to „own“ the language you are trying to learn. It is a chance for you to decide what to learn, and how.

Have fun, and keep listening!