English Listening: Why It’s So Hard

Why is Listening to English So Hard?

Developing English listening skills might be the hardest part of learning the language. There are several reasons why students say listening is the hardest skill to improve.

Talking Speed

Researchers have tried to measure the speed of native English speakers talking. Many people believe the average talking speed is about 150 to 180 words per minute.  A report in the Harvard Business Review suggest the average speed speech for American is 125 words per minute.

For students learning a language, those speeds seem fast. It is hard to hear the sounds and understand the meaning at the same time.

Native speakers seem to feel comfortable when listening to a text that is 150 to 160 words per minute. According to some research, that is a target speed for people who record books on tape. Some evidence suggest people can understand words when the speaking rate is 210 words per minute but that not be comfortable for a long period of time.

Just to make a nice comparison, people can read faster than the speak or hear. The average reading speed for adults is 250 words per minute. With a little speed reading training, these speeds can go up to 600 to 800 words per minute.

Making Word Sounds

Speed is one part of the problem for language learners. There are four factors that can affect the student’s ability to hear well. These are related to how the speaker changes word sounds.

Contractions: Combine two words sound to make one word. For example: she is. That might sound like: she’s.

Assimilation: Word sounds join together to make a new sound. For example: Would you like some coffee? That might sound like: “Wud ch’ya like some coffee?

Reduced Forms: these are words that are used in speaking but are not used in writing. For example, Do you want to see a movie? It might sound like: Do ya wanna see a movie?

Dialect: English is spoken as a native language in many countries, but not everyone one makes the same word sounds. The sound is English in Scotland is very different from the sound of spoken English in British Columbia in Canada, for example.

Reading While Listening

Listening is hard for many reasons. Like those noted above. So what’s the solution?

In order to improve listening skills, students need to improve comprehensible input. That means they have to find a way to understand what they are hearing. By understand, I mean have a picture of the words in their mind and know the meaning of the words and phrases.

A teacher can help with some of that but really this is something which students really need to learn how to do by themselves. The amount of time and effort required to improve listening skills is way beyond what a teacher can do inside the classroom.

One solution for students is Reading While Listening.

Students read a text while listening to a recording. This helps students connect the word image and meaning with the actual sound. Once students get the gist of the text, they spend time listening without reading. This builds comprehension.

This leads to listening fluency: the ability to understand spoken words with automatic processing, there is little or no conscious processing of words or word sounds.




Human Interaction Speeds by Human Factors International.

Listening to People in the Harvard Business Review.



Leave a comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.