A Guide to Listening and Speaking Skills in English
Our principal means of communicating, and the first language skills we learn by nature, are listening and speaking. They are also perhaps the most difficult skills in comparison to reading and writing. So what is the most effective way to learn and improve them? Read on to find out.
Your first experience of listening
Our experience of listening begins around four months before we are even born, when our ears develop and we can hear the voice of our mother and of others around her. Then from the first minutes of life as a baby you start to listen to sounds and voices and eventually begin to associate them to what you see. By the age of two you have already learned a lot of vocabulary by listening intently to your parents and family members, and you’ve practiced copying the sounds and can produce many words clearly. And by the age of three as your memory skills improve you can even tell simple stories using different verb tenses. If you think about it, it’s miraculous, yet every single one of us learns our native language in this way.
Listen like a child
Just as you did as a baby, try to be open to the idea of simply listening. That means hearing sounds, focusing on a conversation, without trying to analyse each element of a sentence and identifying the grammar structure. Don’t be afraid to listen to things without understanding everything. The more you listen the more you will begin to understand through natural acquisition. Base your language learning on listening first, followed by copying through speech.
Be a good listener
You may think your hearing is good and you have absolutely no trouble listening. But being a really good listener requires more effort than you perhaps think. Listening involves three steps:
- Receiving – you are ready and focused on the speaker, and you’re not distracted (thinking of other things) or doing other actions
- Waiting – while the speaker is continuing you remain completely focused and don’t start thinking about your response. You certainly don’t interrupt the other person
- Understanding – you take in what the person said, trying to understand what the speaker wanted to communicate, not only through words but also through the tone of voice and any non-verbal communication if you’re face to face
Listening teaches you how to speak
After listening, comes speaking. As we said above, you learn how to speak by hearing words and copying them. And you learn how to construct longer sentences and tell stories by hearing others and trying yourself. Learning how to speak requires lots of experimentation – trying, making mistakes, correcting your mistakes, succeeding, repeating and practicing. You can’t expect to produce a new word or a phrase perfectly the first time. And you can’t expect to remember new language without practicing it.
When you listen to new language, it will help if you also look at the speaker’s mouth and pay attention to the movements s/he makes. Your hearing will enable you to identify the sound, and your sight will help you copy the right position of your lips. This is particularly true of tricky sounds like ‘th’. Also, when you listen and copy a phrase, remember to pay attention to the speaker’s intonation and try to copy the movement of the sentence. There is a natural movement of tone in a sentence, usually going up in the middle and going down at the end, putting stress on one or two important words. You do this without thinking in your own language, and you need to learn to do this in English too.
Tips for being a good speaker
Learning to speak fluently in a second language takes time and practice, but there are some useful tricks that can help you:
- Give yourself a few seconds to think what you’ll say before you start to speak
- Try not to translate directly from your native language – it’s harder than trying to communicate your idea directly in English. Think of your idea and find a simple way to communicate it in English
- Speak reasonably slowly at first but as naturally as you can
- Remember to say words in the same way as you heard them, not how you see them written
- Feel free to join words together, as native speakers do. For example, “Have a nice day!” becomes Ha va nais dei – ‘have’ and ‘a’ are joined in this case. And use contracted forms such as I’ve, they’re, it’ll, because in spoken English they are always used by native speakers
- Use linking words like because, but, and or so. These connectors can help you create a longer sentence by linking two short phrases
How can you practice?
- Get extra practice by participating in group conversation lessons and activities that involve talking about certain topics, or acting out real-life situations like buying a train ticket, or doing a job interview.
- Speak out loud when you’re alone, especially when you’re doing some written exercises.
- Read and say what you write, then repeat it two or three times. It may sound strange but the act of saying something out loud is a great way to remember new language and to increase your confidence.
- Try recording yourself and comparing how you speak to how a native person speaks.
To help you practice you should do a course that allows you to learn naturally, as described above. At Wall Street English, every single lesson is based on this principle of natural acquisition – you listen, copy through speaking, and practice. See Our Method page to learn more about how we teach.
As you can see, these two skills of listening and speaking are closely linked and are at the heart of language learning. Follow the guidelines above and Start Learning English today in the most natural and most successful way possible!