5 practical techniques to improve your listening skills

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Have you noticed that you can find many tips on improving your speaking, reading and writing skills but not a lot about listening skills? This is surprising because listening is our most used skill. Studies say that most of us spend about 70 to 80 percent of our waking hours in some form of communication. Of this time, we spend about nine percent writing, 16 percent reading, 30 percent speaking, and 45 percent listening.

What did you say?

The typical Canadian accent is actually not very far from the American accent so it’s not hard to figure out (especially if you’re used to American accents). What makes it difficult for non-native English speakers to understand is actually the speed of the delivery. As in any other language, native speakers tend to string words together very fast making it difficult for someone not used to the language to understand. Add Canadian idioms as well as Canadianisms (e.g. hoser, double-double, etc. See Community Resources below for more Canadianisms) to the sentence then it becomes a bigger challenge.

Some techniques to improve your listening skills:

  1. Sentence stress

    You don’t really have to dwell on each word when people talk to you. Pay closer attention to words that are said louder and longer. These are usually nouns, adjectives or verbs. Doing this will help you figure out the general idea of the sentence faster. Omit filler words like “like,” “I mean” or “you know.” They are usually placed in the sentence as a way to buy time when thinking of the next words you want to say. For example: “Do you want to go, and like, get a cup of coffee with me sometime?” If all you hear are “get” and “coffee” you will still understand the meaning of the sentence.

  2. Listen for context

    There may be words that you are not familiar with. If you hear them stressed, focus on the other words near it which may lead you to the meaning. For example: “I think I’ll get a double-double and a donut at Tim’s.” If you don’t know what double-double means, you can probably guess what it is by focusing on the words “donut” and “Tim’s” (What do you buy at Tim’s? What goes well with a donut? Answer: coffee). Also, notice the intonation so you’ll know the feeling and purpose. Is the person asking you something? Or just stating a fact?

  3. Listen to Canadian songs and radio/watch Canadian TV and movies

    Radio stations are great not only for the music but for the light conversation as well. Disc jockeys on FM radio usually engage in light (and usually funny) conversations, especially in the early morning. This is good to listen to when driving to work. Also, watch Canadian television shows regularly. Songs, shows and movies will help get you used to how Canadian English sounds. If you like, you can turn the closed captions on so that you can read along. This will help you connect the words to the sound.

  4. Use audiobooks or podcasts

    Audiobooks and podcasts are another great way to train your ears to Canadian English. Some say that because there are no visual clues (like a photos or video), you rely solely on your hearing, so you help it become sharper. Aside from this, you get the added benefit of boosting your vocabulary and grammar.

  5. Relax

    When we’re nervous, we sometimes listen too intently. The stress can make it harder to understand fully. The next time you want to really hear and understand, relax. Take the pressure off your ears. People usually repeat what they say anyway, especially if they want to stress something. So if you didn’t hear and understand a statement the first time, don’t panic. You may hear it mentioned again. Otherwise, ask the other person politely to repeat what they said.

Get out there and listen:

The best way to improve your listening skills is to get exposed to as much Canadian conversations as you can. Listen to your neighbours, attend lectures, go to parties or gatherings and get exposed to casual conversation. Actively listening at work is also a great way to learn intonation and speech patterns. If all else fails, learn to ask politely: “Sorry, I didn’t catch what you said.” Most Manitobans will be happy to oblige. Just keep on listening. You’ll get the hang of it in no time!

Sources: Listening: Our most used communication skill, Dick Lee and Delmar Hatesohl, MU Extension and Strategies to improve English listening skills, Kenneth Beare, Thought Co. Accessed October 30, 2018.

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Community Resources

Learn more Canadianisms. Read Can you Can-speak? Can you Can-speak 2 and Can you Can-speak 3.

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