English Conversation Skill 8

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Learn to Listen to Natural-Speed English

I know you want to learn to speak English better. Do you want to know the very best way to improve your speaking? LISTEN! Yes, that's right, listen! You should listen to English at least a little bit every, single day. I give this advice to all of my students, and when they are smart and decide to follow my advice, they make very steady progress. Some students' speaking skills improve dramatically in a very short time, ONLY by listening to English every day.

How does listening help speaking? We learn best by example. You learned Chinese by listening to your parents, neighbors, teachers and friends speak. You listened as a baby, and tried your best to repeat, even though you couldn't at first. You kept trying though, and you finally were able to speak fluently. Without good examples, you can't know how to speak smoothly, correctly, and effectively. With good examples, you learn how to say exactly what you want to say, in a way that everyone can understand. It takes some time, but if you begin today and keep with it, you will see a big difference in your speaking ability.

My students often ask me, "what should we listen to?". In today's world there are so many things you can listen to. Most textbooks today come with a cassette player or CD. I like cassettes better because they are easier to rewind when you want to hear just one word or sentence again. Besides textbook materials, you can listen to songs or DVDs in English. Those are great ways to improve not only your speaking ability, but to learn about other cultures at the same time. If you live in a big city, you can watch TV or listen to the radio in English too.

The next question my students ask me is "HOW should we listen?". This seems like a simple question, but in reality, it's not. There are two general approaches to listening. One is called "intensive listening" and the other is called "extensive listening". The first one, "intensive listening", is what students usually learn in the classroom. The teacher plays a cassette or says a sentence and the students must try to understand 100% of what they hear. After listening, student can repeat what they heard, either speaking out loud or speaking quietly to themselves. Sometimes students write the sentence (a dictation) or write a response. With "intensive listening", you can learn to say the sentences very precisely. The problem with "intensive listening" is that it takes a lot of time just to learn a few sentences. It can also be very boring if you do too much at one time.

Students need to do a lot of listening in order to really learn well. The way to listen to a lot of English is to do "extensive listening". When you do "extensive listening", you do NOT have to understand 100%. You only have to try to understand MORE than you did at the beginning. So, if you understand 20% the first time, and then understand 25% after listening a few times, then you have succeeded. Or if you understand 90% at the beginning, then 93% after studying is good. Students sometimes feel uncomfortable if they don't understand 100%, but this kind of listening is very valuable.

"Extensive listening" is not only more interesting than "intensive listening", but it gives you the opportunity to hear so many different voices, so many different styles. It also helps you get used to the natural speed of spoken English. As you listen to more and more videos and songs, you will see that the most important words and sentence structures come up again and again. You will be able to learn them naturally. On the negative side, students who do only "extensive listening" sometimes get lazy when they speak and make too many mistakes. That is why students must do BOTH "intensive listening" and "extensive listening".

I think students know how to do "intensive listening" quite well, because you have done it in your classrooms. Basically, you just listen, repeat, listen, repeat, listen, repeat! However, students are not so used to doing "extensive listening", so here are some tips to help you:

1. Find something you enjoy, and just enjoy! Because you it, you will probably listen many times, which will effortlessly improve your English.

2. If you are using a DVD or VCD, use the subtitles to help you see which words or sounds are difficult for you.

3. After you have advanced a bit, turn the subtitles off (or cover them) to really test your listening ability.

4. When something seems very fast to you, just focus on the rhythm of English, then worry about the individual sounds later.

5. Try "shadow practice" as you listen. That means you should try to move your lips as you listen. In this way, you can do speaking practice and listening practice at the same time.

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