Why is listening in English so hard?

For beginning students of English, the main reason listening comprehension is difficult is that there are simply too many new and unfamiliar words. However, this isn't the only problem foreign students of English face, and often it isn't the main one. Even students who have studied for years - and who know hundreds or thousands of English words - often still find listening comprehension quite difficult. Why?

For foreign students, the problem is often that "knowing" words means they recognize them when they read them, or can remember what they mean - if they have enough time to think. The problem with listening comprehension is that when you listen to an English speaker, you not only have to recognize words by hearing them instead of by reading them, you also have to recognize the words very quickly. Unlike reading, where you can pause to think about what a word means, listening usually doesn't allow you to pause at all. You must be able to recognize and understand words very quickly because, if you pause to think, the English speaker will keep right on going and you will miss much of what he/she says.

So it is very important to build "listening fluency," in other words, the ability to recognize and understand English words and phrases very quickly when you hear them - without pausing to try to remember. Obviously, this is a skill that is built mainly through practice - lots and lots of practice.

What is the best kind of listening practice? There are many good ways to practice - listening to the radio, to tapes, to native English speakers, and even to non-native speakers of English. The most important thing is to find listening practice material that has the right level of difficulty. If you listen to something that is very easy to understand, it will not challenge your listening skills to improve, and you will probably also become bored. But if you listen to material that is too difficult, you will not be able to understand it even if you listen many times, and you will become discouraged or frustrated.

Here are two suggestions for choosing material for listening practice:

- Choose material you can understand at least part of, but which also challenges you to listen hard. For example, if you practice by using English language tapes, try to find tapes that you can understand partly even the first time you listen. They should be easy enough that you can get the main ideas after listening two or three times.
- If you can't find material that is at just the right level of difficulty, it is usually better to choose material that is a little bit too easy rather than too hard - but not so easy that you can't learn anything new from it.

Word and phrase list:
listening comprehension: the skill of listening and understanding. Ex: Xiao Wang's English listening comprehension is very good.
to face a problem: to need to deal with a problem. Ex: Students with poor listening comprehension face many problems in using English.
to find (something) difficult: to feel that something is difficult. Ex: Xiao Wang finds speaking English very difficult.
doesn't allow you to: doesn't give you opportunity to. Ex: His busy schedule doesn't allow him to relax very often.
to keep right on going: to continue without stopping. Ex: I waved at the taxi, but the driver kept right on going, he didn't even slow down.
in other words: (This phrase is used to introduce another way of saying the same thing.) Ex: He's a loafer; in other words, he's someone who is lazy.
to build (something) through (something): to improve (something) by doing (something). Ex The best way to build listening skills is through practice.
to challenge (something): to make something difficult for. Ex: This difficult problem challenged her creativity.
to become bored: to get bored. Ex: If you sit in class too long, it is easy to become bored.
to get the main idea: to understand the most important idea. Ex: I didn't understand everything in this article, but I got the main idea.

By: Don Snow, Learning English: A Textbook for English Teachers

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