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Three Ways to Stop Feeling Stressed when Listening in Another Language

It can be painful trying to follow every single word someone is saying in your target language. So here are three tips for what to do when you start feeling hot under the collar.

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It's painful trying to follow what someone is saying in another language. They speak so quickly and they use phrases and vocabulary you've never heard before.

Then, in the midst of trying to understand every single word, you're asking yourself what the heck they're saying and how the heck are you going to respond.

So I bet you can super relate to this pain-o-meter scale.

But never fear. I have three easy tips for you to help you understand what someone is saying in your target language.

1. Just relax

You're feeling anxious and nervous because you think you need to be perfect in your listening comprehension skills. Start by taking a deep breath.

Turns out, you don't have to know every single word that someone is saying.

In fact, it's normal not to catch everything someone is saying. So take that pressure off of yourself. Calm your thoughts. Calm your anxiety.

Tell yourself it's no big deal. Because it's not.

Just think, we're not even perfect with listening in our native language. How many times did you not hear someone when they were telling you something? Or how many times did you not hear them because you were focused on something else?

If someone is giving you life or death information, you'll be stressed then anyway. And how many times does that happen? Hopefully, not many.

2. Focus on the gist of the conversation

When you're listening to someone talk and can't follow them well, ask yourself these two questions.

  • What were you talking about beforehand?

  • What could the natural progression of the conversation be that they could be talking about now?

This is what you learned back in grade school about context clues. And, for that matter, critical thinking.

I tell all my students this tip, especially at the beginning of their studies.

Instead of focusing so hard on catching every single word someone is saying, just absorb. Catch what words you can.

So if you were just talking about how much you love your dog, what could be the next thing they're talking about? How many dogs they had growing up? That dog that bit them when they were five? How much they hate cats?

Give it a guess if you don't know what they're saying exactly. Make an effort to respond. Trust me, they'll let you know if you're off the mark or not.

There will be times when the words you can't make out are important to the conversation. In those times, just ask them to slow down a little. Or repeat what they just said. Or ask them to find another way to explain it.

It's okay. You don't need to be perfect. You just need to learn how to relax and not sweat catching every single word coming out of their mouth.

3. Follow their non-verbal cues

What can you make out from their gestures what they're talking about? This is another time when context clues can make a difference.

If you don't know what they're saying, watch what faces or what movements they're making.

Back to the dog scenario. You say how much you love your dog, how cute she is, how much fun you have together.

But now the person you're talking with then starts talking quickly about something. you can't catch all the words they're saying. They look agitated, they're frowning a bit and their hands are moving around quickly.

Could they be telling you about that time a dog bit them or something else that happened with a dog that was unpleasant? You figured this out because they're definitely not happy based on their facial cues and hand movements.

And even though you don't know every single word they're saying, you can now empathize with them or express sympathy that they went through a hard time.

It's not important all the words someone is saying. But it's important the feeling that they're trying to express.

I hope these three tips helped you feel better about listening. Developing listening comprehension skills in your target language takes time. Even those of us who have been speaking another language for years still don't catch everything a native speaker says 100 percent of the time. And that's ok.

If you want to work on improving your listening comprehension skills in English, Spanish, Italian, or Mandarin, then be sure to contact me today.


Jackie Donaldson is the founder and director of Amidon Studios Language Studies. She started Amidon Studios in 2017 after managing a language institute in Lima, Peru for six years. She's taught students from all over the world while living in Peru, Mexico, and the U.S. When she's not working or studying, you'll find her gardening, playing with her cat Frankie, swimming, baking, and exploring the globe.

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