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 for 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 not complicated so it’s not hard to understand. What makes it difficult for newcomers is the speed of the delivery. Native speakers tend to string words together very fast. You can get lost when you’re not used to hearing English spoken this way. Add idioms as well as Canadianisms (see Community Resources below for more Canadianisms) in the mix and it becomes a bigger challenge.

Some techniques to improve your listening skills:

  1. Sentence stress

    You don’t have to dwell on each word a person says. Pay closer attention to words that are said louder and longer. Doing this will help you figure out the general idea of the sentence faster. Omit filler words like “like,” “I mean” or “you know.” 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. 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 radio/watch Canadian TV and movies

    Listening to the radio and watching Canadian shows will help you get used to the way Canadians speak. You can listen to a radio program in the car on your way to work. Turn on closed captions when watching shows and read along to practise.

  4. Use audiobooks or podcasts

    Audiobooks and podcasts are great tools to train your ears. Studies show that because there are no visual cues, you rely solely on your hearing and help it become sharper.

  5. Relax

    We have the tendency to listen too intently when we’re nervous. Stress can make it hard for you to understand fully. Take the pressure off your ears and relax. Don’t worry too much if you don’t hear something the first time. People usually repeat what they say anyway.

Get out there and listen:

Be exposed to as much Canadian English as you can. Listen to your neighbours, attend lectures, go to parties or gatherings and participate in casual conversations. Actively listening at work is also a great way to learn intonation and speech patterns. Just keep on listening. You’ll get the hang of it in no time!
Article updated May 1, 2020.

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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