5 practical techniques to improve your listening skills

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Did you know that listening is our most used skill? 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. However, native speakers tend to speak very fast. Newcomers can get lost when they’re not used to hearing English spoken this way. Add idioms as well as Canadianisms in the mix and it becomes a bigger challenge.

Here are some techniques to improve your listening skills for comprehension:

  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 them. 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. For example, you can listen to a radio program in the car on your way to work. You can also try turning on closed captions when watching TV shows and read along to practise.

  4. Use audiobooks and podcasts

    These are great tools to train your ears. They work because there are no visual cues and you rely solely on your hearing. The more you listen to audiobooks and podcasts, the sharper your sense of hearing will become.

  5. Relax

    We have the tendency to listen too intently when we’re nervous. This can make it hard to understand what you’re hearing 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 October 26, 2021.

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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