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Use Your Listening Skills to Improve Your Speaking and Conversation Skills in English

Today I’m going to answer a question that I get asked all the time:

How can I use my listening skills to improve my speaking skills?

You’ll learn how to strengthen your listening skills and use them more carefully in order to improve your overall communication strategies, conversation skills, and your speaking ability.

But first, I want to give you a little bit of background.

You can actually get a lot of information from listening carefully to other people talking, listening to different types of content and resources, and paying attention to the things that people do when they’re speaking naturally.

Focused listening can help you learn what native speakers say, as well as when and how to say it yourself.

In fancy linguistics terms, this is what we call the difference between input and output.

For more details, be sure to watch my video on listening to high quality English to improve your speaking. I explain how improving your input can help you improve your output.

Most of all, I encourage you to choose high quality resources in order to improve your speaking.

In this workshop, we’re going to go deeper: you’ll learn how to take in that input and do something productive with it.

I find a lot of people tell you that you need to listen to more English in order to improve your speaking, but they don’t tell you what you should be listening for.

Chances are you are already listening to high quality English – you’re here, aren’t you? 😉

You probably just want to get more out of what you’re listening to.

You’re trying to move past that intermediate level towards being an advanced, proficient, or even a fluent non-native English speaker.

As you work through these suggestions, think about how you can put this information into practice in your life.

Here’s what we’re going to talk about today:

  1. Listen for gist
  2. Listen for details
  3. Listen for style
  4. Listen for tone of voice
  5. Listen for ways to keep the other person talking
  6. Listen for language choices
  7. Listen for phrases and chunks
  8. Listen for transitions and expressions
  9. Listen for better questions

1. Listen for Gist

Let’s talk about what we mean by gist.

Gist is the overall idea that you get from listening to a particular listening “text,” piece of content, or resource.

Remember, you can listen to something that’s very brief or something that’s lengthy; it doesn’t matter!

Whether you’re listening to a five-minute video or a 15 minute documentary, you should listen for the overall idea; you want to get a general understanding from listening to people talking or describing things.

If you’re like most people, this is what you’re already doing with your listening skills: you’re probably listening to see if you can follow the storyline and decide if you understand more or less what’s going on.

The first time you listen to something, pay attention to the gist, and then go deeper on subsequent listens.

Native speakers do this too! Sometimes we’re simply looking for the key message or takeaway from what we’re listening to.

If you don’t need to pay attention to every single detail, you can just come away with the general message. Pay attention to this first.

So many non-native speakers feel stressed out when they’re trying to improve their listening skills because they’re thinking that they need to understand every single detail.

If you’re not constantly interacting with native speakers, listening for the gist can help you train your ear to pick up on the main points.

Don’t put too much pressure on yourself – just come away from this listening experience with a general understanding of what you’ve heard.

If you’re focusing too much on the details the first time you listen to a piece of content, you may feel a little bit frustrated because maybe you miss a few words or you don’t understand a certain point.

By focusing solely on the gist the first time you listen, you’ll feel more confident before listening to the resource again with a different focus.

2. Listen for Details

The next time you listen to a resource or piece of content, focus on listening for details.

These details are absolutely going to vary depending on what you’re listening to, such as an interview, live video, comedian, or a podcast.

When you listen for details, you need to be more specific about what it is you’re trying to understand.

For example, if you’re listening to a TED talk, interview, or presentation, you may listen to the arguments that the person gives, or how they make their point.

In this way, you’re moving from the broader idea (the gist), to the specific details that they use to support their point.

When you learn English in a classroom, your listening practice will often include a list of comprehension questions, such as “Where did he say he was going?” or “What time did he say he’d be back?”

These specific details are not always that important to the overall idea, but they give you more information and deepen your understanding of the story.

When you listen independently, you need to identify the details that are most relevant for you to understand, and then listen to the resource another time to look for them.

To reiterate, the first time you listen, you want to listen for gist. The second time, you want to be able to pick up certain things that you may have missed the first time or two that you listened.

3. Listen for Style: Formal or Informal? Professional or casual?

After you listen for details, you want to listen for style. Ask yourself a few questions about what you’re listening to:

  • Is the language that I’m hearing formal or informal?
  • Is this casual language or professional language?
  • Is this academic language or more relaxed?
  • Where is this language appropriate to use?
  • What kind of person uses this type of language?

By listening for style, you increase your awareness of whether the language is really formal or informal, if it’s casual or professional, if it’s used among young people, older people, or even elderly people.

(In linguistics terms, the style of language you choose is often called your register.)

If you’re not paying attention to style, you’re going to pick up things that are really formal and then try to use them in casual settings.

Or you’re going to pick up language that’s super casual and you’re going to try to use it when you should actually be trying to be more polite.

Figure out if the language is formal or informal, polite or impolite, casual or professional, academic or more relaxed. There are many different styles of language!

Beyond that, you’ll likely listen for whether the language is American English, British English, Canadian English, or regional English.

Ask yourself questions about what you’re hearing and analyze the language to figure out when you can use it.

Many non-native speakers forget to ask themselves questions about how you can use this language, the settings where it’s appropriate, and the context where the language can be used.

By paying attention to style, you’ll be able to remember and use that language more effectively when you have the opportunity to speak English in the future.

4. Listen for Tone of Voice

While tone of voice is especially important when you’re working on reducing your accent, it can also help you improve your speaking and conversation skills.

Your tone of voice affects the way you’re perceived when using idioms, slang, and expressions and can help you express yourself more effectively. (Learn more about intonation in conversations here.)

When you’re listening to two people have a conversation, an interview, or a podcast, you can pay attention to the tone of voice and start understanding how the person feels.

As you increase your awareness of tone of voice, you’ll notice that some people have a tone of voice you just don’t like. Or you may realize that you don’t like the way that they’re talking to you.

Even better, you’ll probably discover someone who has a tone of voice you do enjoy listening to!

To improve how you sound when speaking, you want to choose a voice that you actually like and then try to emulate what you hear when you talk.

But first, you have to start with this sensitivity to the tone of voice!

With time, you’ll notice when someone’s voice changes, when they’re asking questions, showing excitement, showing happiness, showing depression, showing annoyance, showing condescension, or showing frustration.

As you can see, there are so many kinds of emotions we can show through tone of voice.

When listening to your resources, think about how the tone of voice is used to express certain ideas or attitudes.

With more awareness of tone of voice, it’s going to be much easier for you to produce it later.

5. Listen for Ways to Keep the Other Person Talking

As I mentioned in my video on active listening skills, becoming a better conversationalist in English often involves keeping the other person talking!

You may feel stressed out about conversations in English because you feel like you have to provide perfect answers, or ask the most ideal question.

But there’s good news: most of what you’ll need to do in conversations is encourage the other person to continue talking and keep going with what they’re saying.

To practice this, observe two people interacting on a podcast, during an interview on a talk show, or a live video or interview series.

Listen carefully to how they keep the conversation going and pay attention to the strategies they use consistently throughout the conversation.

This enables you to understand how we use certain sounds (called rejoinders), or how we use certain short phrases to tell the person to go on and to show interest in what the other person is saying.

Beyond that, you can learn other conversation skills and understand how people use certain expressions, phrases, idioms or slang to encourage the other person to keep talking.

One of the reasons that so many non-native speakers struggle to feel confident when speaking English is that they don’t really know how to jump in and participate in the conversation like they would in their native language.

If you’re trying to improve your speaking through your listening, focus very carefully on the way people are interacting with each other, how they’re responding to each other, how they’re encouraging the person to go on, to continue speaking, how they’re interrupting the person, how they jump into the conversation, how they interject different ideas.

You can study this without having to be told exactly what is going on, but you have to be really perceptive and sensitive to the language that people are using in order to achieve these particular goals in a conversation.

As you know, I love talking about conversation skills; one of the reasons I share so many interviews is that I want you to notice how we’re interacting and how we respond to each other.

Careful observation helps you understand things people do naturally, rather than looking for a list of what exactly you need to say!

Use your listening skills to help you learn when to implement the conversation skills you’re hearing.

6. Listen for Language Choices

Of course, you can use your listening skills to focus on language choices and vocabulary that will help you sound more like a native speaker in conversation.

In this case, you’re paying specific attention to the choice of words that people make when they’re sharing their ideas.

(If you want more detailed guidance on how to improve your vocabulary using the methods I’ve used to improve my vocabulary in Spanish, I encourage you to check out my series of three workshops on improving your vocabulary naturally.)

A member of the English with Kim community recently commented that you can pick up quick expressions and phrases and other language that may be new to you during live broadcasts like this one, and this is so true!

As mentioned above, you want to identify the style of language (formal or informal, casual or professional) first, and then listen for the specific vocabulary so you know the situations where it’s appropriate to use it.

7. Listen for Phrases and Chunks

For even more effective listening, pay attention to vocabulary within phrases and chunks.

When I worked on my vocabulary in order to become fluent in Spanish, I paid attention to those short phrases and chunks of language.

“Chunks” indicate language that is consistently surrounded by other specific words to create natural-sounding phrases.

Non-native English speakers often struggle with sounding unnatural because they learn one word and another word and put it together, but these two words don’t usually flow together in English.

When you listen for chunks, pay attention to phrases that are about three or four words long.

With more awareness, you’ll start noticing that this particular language appears together in similar contexts and situations.

By putting these techniques together, you’ll be able to speak more confidently and sound more like a native speaker.

8. Listen for Transitions and Expressions

Net, let’s discuss one of my favorite topics, which is transitions and expressions.

Learning the interactional language and communication strategies that native speakers use to achieve certain conversational goals can help you soften your language.

Many non-native speakers struggle with speaking incredibly directly by stating the exact words that they need in order to express their ideas, but you’ll notice native speakers use a lot of transitions and connect ideas with certain expressions.

Sometimes they’re just one transition word, but other times it’s a long phrase that has a very clear meaning to a native English speaker.

By listening specifically for these types of expressions when you’re listening to an interview, a talk show, or people interacting, you’re going to start picking up on the language people actually use to achieve certain goals in conversation.

Once you tune your ear to listen specifically to these expressions, you’ll end up with a huge list of language that actually sounds natural.

This language is what people are saying right now, in this particular cultural moment.

Keep in mind that these expressions can change over time, which is why people often sound like a textbook when they use outdated language.

Remember, a major part of both improving and using your listening skills is knowing what to listen for!

9. Listen for Better Questions

As you know, I am all about asking better questions to have better conversations, but I can’t tell you every possible question you can use in conversation, so I’m encouraging you to listen for them yourself!

To communicate more confidently in English, I want you to listen for the questions people ask in conversation.

Pay attention to how the phrasing of the questions you hear is different from what you were taught in your typical grammar class.

If you listen carefully, you’ll notice people will ask a statement as a question by raising their tone at the end.

Or they will use tag questions.

Or they’ll turn the question around by asking, “What about you?”

If you’re trying to improve your speaking skills, I really encourage you to tune your ear to just questions.

That means listening to a short podcast and only listening to the questions – don’t pay attention to anything else!

You’ll also notice what we call rhetorical questions that people may ask themselves to keep their thoughts flowing.

They may use questions that aren’t actually being asked as a question; instead, they’re used as transitions to keep the conversation going.

By focusing on the questions that people are actually asking, you’re going to be able to have better conversations in English because you’re going to ask questions that are normal and natural-sounding to a native English speaker.

So often we focus on the answers, but better questions are often key to communicating more effectively in English.

What to Listen to So That You Can Improve Your Speaking

Here are the resources I suggest that you listen to in order to improve your listening skills.

First, I encourage you to listen to podcasts. If you’re not already listening to podcasts, you are missing out on a huge opportunity!

The reason podcasts are so wonderful for improving your listening skills is a lot of people creating the podcasts right now are not officially trained radio personalities.

Many hosts are normal people having normal conversations.

Pay special attention to podcasts that include interviews, because these are an excellent way to notice how people naturally speak so you can start emulating that kind of conversation.

Similarly, you may want to listen to interviews.

While people may prepare before the interview, the language is still more natural than it would be in a rehearsed question and answer session in a documentary.

Most interviews are spontaneous so they give you a chance to hear how people interact using natural language.

Interviews are also great if you’re trying to pay attention to more formal, more professional or more academic language because you’ll be able to notice the difference between casual interviews and interviews that are a little more serious.

The same thing goes for listening to talk shows, like Ellen as well as late night shows like Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel, and Stephen Colbert.

Even though these hosts are professional, they’re still having real conversations.

You may actually be able to understand more of what they’re saying because they’re often more articulate and speak more clearly than the average person.

Of course, I suggest you listen to live videos such as this one.

During live broadcasts, I’m thinking without planning and so you’ll hear me use some transition expressions, rephrase different things, and come up with ideas spontaneously.

While reality tv is not my favorite form of entertainment, but listening to reality TV is great for hearing people having real-life interactions.

Some reality TV programs are better than others, so be particular about the one you listen to.

Last but not least, I suggest you listen to comedians.

Because comedians have to come up with their ideas and their jokes very quickly, they don’t always prepare, especially with standup comedy or improv.

In most cases, they have to come up with ideas “on the fly” as we say, which means that they have to come up with it without preparing in advance.

How Much Time Should I Spend Listening to English Each Day?

During the live workshop, someone asked this question:

How much time do you think we should be listening to English per day? I mean, an amount time that you think is good. I understand that the more you listen is better, but an estimated time.

This is a really intelligent question. The goal of improving your speaking through listening is to actually spend the time doing it every day.

After teaching for 10 years, I get a little tired of hearing people say that their speaking or listening skills haven’t improved.

When I ask them, “What are you doing?” They say, “Well, I was too busy this week. I didn’t do anything.”

You have to understand that you won’t suddenly have tons of time to improve your speaking skills.

You have to make the time for daily practice and make it a priority in your life.

If you’re just learning English for entertainment, that’s fine, but if improving your speaking skills will help you improve your life, you need to make time for it in your schedule.

With regards to how much time you should be listening to English per day, I would say at least 15 minutes. Thirty minutes is better.

Remember, we’re talking about focused listening: listening for these specific aspects of English in order to improve your speaking skills and communication in conversations in English.

If you’re only spending 15-30 minutes per day on focused listening, you can find a short chunk of time during your day to dedicate to your goals.

You can get up 15 minutes later or go to bed 15 minutes later, spend time on listening during your lunch break or on your commute.

By committing to this short period of time every day, you’re going to make so much more progress.

If you’re going to do more passive listening, you could have an English listening resource on in the background while you cook, clean, or work on the computer. This will help you immerse yourself in English.

For focused, targeted listening as we discussed throughout this workshop, you want to commit to daily practice.

When you focus on listening to the language that native speakers are actually using and you’re enjoying yourself, it’s completely possible to improve your speaking through listening!

Your Turn

Now that you’ve learned what you should listen for in order to improve your speaking, I would love for you to comment with your favorite resources.

Tell me what you listen to in order to get high quality input that helps you improve your speaking!

After you’ve put these suggestions into practice, I would love for you to report back and share how focused listening has helped you improve how you speak English.

Want to communicate clearly and confidently in English? Head over to this series of videos and find YOUR voice in English.

6 thoughts on “Use Your Listening Skills to Improve Your Speaking and Conversation Skills in English”

  1. Some people are very quiet naturally and don’t like to speak nor speak up in a group and can feel intimidated to do so. They don’t get the chance to say what’s really on their mind. What do you suggest?

  2. Hi Kim, there are some really great, practical ideas in your list which I hadn’t thought of before. It’s hard to explain the process of listening to students!

    • Thanks for the kind words, Jade! I completely agree. There’s a lot of emphasis on deciphering the words you hear, but once you can comfortably understand what people are saying, you can focus on developing other listening skills.


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