How to improve your listening skills in English – The (almost) complete guide

↓ Summary     → En español

They say that the best way to learn how to do something is... by doing it (ohh... deja vú). To improve your ability to understand spoken English you will need to listen to a lot of content in English, but just like in training your reading skills, it's not as simple as throwing yourself on the couch to listen to The Beatles and watch dubbed anime in English all afternoon without doing anything else.

As we already established, watching shows and movies and videos and listening to music and podcasts, all in English, 24 hours a day without stopping will do NOTHING for you if you don't transform all that input into comprehensible input. If you don't find a way to decipher all that "noise" in English to more or less understand it, your understanding skills will not improve.

Right up I will show you how to train your listening skills in English each day. This process is basically the same you have to follow to decipher texts in English, it's just that you will be deciphering the contents you listen to with the aid of transcriptions. I recommend you read that article first (even just the TL;DR), and then come back here once you are done.

... oki doki, prepared? All right, then let's do this! Let's go go go go go go go go go go go go...


What kind of content should you use to improve your English?


Well, as I mentioned in the other article, to improve your reading skills in English you can read any texts in English that you want and about any topic you want, as long as those texts are well written.

Similarly, you can listen to and watch content in English about any topic your heart desires... BUT, only if you can find a correct transcription for said content.

Look, I understand how limited that is. On the web you can find waaaaay more content without transcriptions or subtitles than content that has been properly transcribed or subtitled. I know.

The problem is that if you try to decipher content without a transcription, when you listen to a word you don't know you will have to try to guess how to write that word so you can search it in your dictionaries.

Once you reach a high English level you will be able to guess more correctly the written structure of those unknown words, because you will already be used to a lot of writing patterns and their respective pronunciations. But if your English level is low or intermediate, that strategy of guessing is not viable – you will some times listen to chunks of English so confusing that you will have no idea about what words to use to try to write down what you just heard.

If you want, you can watch and listen to content without subtitles or transcriptions in English every now and then. You can listen to music in English during the day whenever you are doing any low-concentration tasks if you like. And if you want to watch videos or a show or a movie in English "for fun" in your free time, without looking up unknown words, you can do that, and that would still be better than spending that time with content in your native language.

Doing those activities maintain the level of understanding in English you've reached up until that point, but if you don't look up what you don't know, those activities will not help you improve your understanding skills in English.

As I see it, if you are going to sit down and give your full attention to a piece of audio or audiovisual content to improve your understanding skills, then it's crucial to have a transcription for that content.

So, I want to share with you the audio/audiovisual contents that I think are more suitable to improve your listening in English. I also show you how to find pieces (songs, videos, etc.) of those kinds of content, and how to "decipher" each kind of content to improve your listening. And I also show you some pieces of content in English that I personally like.

Click on the kind of content that you want to know more about, or read them all if you have time:

Music in English


How to find songs in English

Music in English is a very versatile resource to learn the language. It's super-useful, first, because you will never have trouble finding songs and their lyrics. You can find tons of free music on YouTube (and you can download any video in .mp3 or .mp4 format, if you want), or you can buy it via iTunes if you have a credit card and you want to support your favorite artists.

If you already have artists and bands you like who sing in English, and you have their music in your computer, that's great. If you don't have music from those groups in your computer, search the name of one of those groups on YouTube to see what songs come up.

If you never listened to any music in English before starting to learn the language, think about what music genres you like in your native language, and research what genre would be similar in English. For instance, just like there is rock in Spanish there is rock in English. Same for pop and metal. If you like rap in your native language, then search for rap in English, etc.

I would start exploring and discovering songs at YouTube's Music Portal, or by searching the name of the musical genre you like on YouTube (rock, pop, rap, etc.) Another option is searching on Google or YouTube something like:

best (musical genre in English here) songs
best (musical genre in English here) artists
best (musical genre in English here) bands

And see if you find any top list for bands and/or songs on music websites.

A site I found recently, which you could use to discover new music is Jango.com, a site where you can listen to "stations" specialized in musical genres, for free. The only thing I didn't like about it is that if you start playing a song you can't "rewind" it – you have to search it on YouTube or somewhere else to be able to replay the song from the beginning.

Once you find a group or artist whose music you want to listen to, search the name of said group/artist on YouTube and open one (or more) of their songs. Pause those videos so they don't start playing automatically.


Songs I like, and their artists
If I find any more songs that I like I will add them here.


How to find lyrics for English songs, and translations in your native language

The second reason of why music in English is such a versatile tool to train your understanding is that you can easily find the lyrics of the songs you listen to. Unless you listen to a really hipster obscure group, you will most likely find the lyrics you need with a simple Google search. To search the lyrics of a song just search for:

(name of song in English) (name of artist or band) lyrics

And press Enter, and that's it – in one of aaaaaall those lyrics websites that will appear in the search results you will find the lyrics you need. If you want, copy-paste those lyrics on Notepad, Word or LibreOffice Write to save them. Or just use your browser, it doesn't matter.

If you are a beginner you can try searching for translations in your native language for the lyrics you've found, and use them as an aid. For that, simply go to Google and search for any of these terms, translated into your native language:

(name of song) (name of artist or group) X lyrics
(name of song) (name of artist or group) X lyrics translation

... where 'X' is the name of your native language. Some pages that offer lyrics and translations for them sometimes have the lyrics in English on one column, and the translated lyrics on another column by the side, just like if it were a parallel text.


How to decipher songs in English

Once you have your song, your dictionaries and your lyrics ready... relax, play the song and listen to it completely. Give your whole attention to the song. For real, don't start browsing 9gag or your Facebook or fry an egg as you listen to it (ok... maybe fry an egg, but pay attention to the song dammit!). Close your eyes if you want, but give your whole attention to the song.

After you've done this, think about the parts of the song that were not that clear to you. Now, open up your lyrics, start reading them, and apply the process of deciphering texts on it. Aid yourself with a translation of the lyrics in your native language if you need to. Doing this to the lyrics will likely clarify for you the parts you didn't understand well before.

Once you decipher the lyrics of the entire song, listen to the song again and give it your whole attention. After that, just repeat this same process for another song. Repeat and repeat with different songs until you get tired or you want to decipher something else in English, or until you complete your specified time to work on your English that day.



Short stories in English


Where to find short stories in English with audio and transcription

The only answer I can think of is... Google it. Remember, when everything else fails, Google is your last hope. Get in the search engine and google something like:

learn english short stories with audio
learn english short stories with audio and transcriptions

Using these search terms I found three websites in particular that have short stories with audio and transcriptions. I really liked them, so I want to share them with you here:

* ESL Fast: The tagline of this site says, "A huge free online English learning resource"... and freaking dammit, they are right! The amount of written content you can find there is enormous, and it's all divided in content for the very beginners and content for intermediate learners. I recommend you use the beginner resources only if you are learning English from scratch.

I explored the site for a bit, and many (not all) of the writings there have an audio version, which is what we were looking for. I liked the 365 ESL Short Stories and 1,500+ ESL/EFL Conversations on 25 Topics pages. The conversational examples are a bit forced, and the stories sound a bit slower than normal... but whatever, if you are just starting out in English, they are a good resource.

Something else I wanted to mention is that I opened a story called "Please Don't Hurt Me"... and man, did it take me by surprise. I was pleased to see a story so dark on a ESL site. Kudos! But when I started listening to the audio... I actually laughed at how dry (but clear) the narrator was telling the story.


* VOA News for English Learners: This site surprised me because of the quality of its content. It's like CNN, but with articles written in simpler English, and divided in three English levels. All the articles have audio or video. To me, this resource was amazing and gave me an excellent impression. Very recommended!


* Nelson Lauver's Audio Stories for English Learners: This is a website filled with stories for natives and English learners, created by an entrepreneur guy with a very interesting backstory. You can explore the available stories by following the link above, and you can listen to the stories on your web browser... but to read the transcription you have to download it in .pdf format. I liked a lot how the narrators show feelings and emotions when they tell each story, and the audio has sounds effects and everything. Good resource!


How to decipher a short story with audio and transcript

Open a story that seems interesting to you. Start playing the audio, and if you hear a part you don't understand, pause the recording. In your transcript, you will need to find the corresponding part you didn't understand.

To do this I suggest that you use "Ctrl+f" (or whatever the "search" command is) in your browser or .pdf reader. In the search box type words you remember from the part right before the part you did not understand. You will likely find in the transcript that part you did understand, and right after you will see the part you did NOT understand.

On your transcript, read and decipher that chunk you couldn't understand (look up pronunciations, definitions, examples, etc.) Verify if you can understand the sentence (or the phrase of up to 10 words) where the word or chunk happens. Do what you can to try to decipher what that sentence/phrase really means, but if you can't do it, that's ok. Then start playing your audio again, 3 seconds before from where you paused it. When you listen to something you don't understand again, repeat the process: Pause the recording, search in your transcription, etc.

After you finish with that story, open another story, or decipher a song, or a video, or just a text... whatever you want.


YouTuve videos in English, manually subtitled


How to find YouTube videos in English that have been properly subtitled (or as they say, "subbed")

If you want to decipher videos in English you will need videos that have been properly subbed. Let me show you how you can find YouTube videos with subtitles (also known as Closed Captions):

First, think about a keyword in English, something that you would like to watch a video about. Something like...
  • cooking show
  • sketch comedy
  • nintendo
  • let's play
  • world news
Go to YouTube.com, input your keywords in the search bar and press Enter. You will see your normal results list. Now, below the search bar you will see a small button that says "Filters". Click it, and several options will appear. Click on the "Subtitles/CC" option. That will readjust the results to show videos with subtitles only.

Now, you have to go into one of the videos that appear there, any video that seems interesting to you. When the video starts to play, pause it. Click on the gear-like icon below the video, and you will see some options. Click on the drop-down menu called "Subtitles/CC".

If in that drop-down menu you can see an option that says "English" or "English (UK)", then the video is appropriately subtitled. BUT CAREFUL, if on that drop-down menu you can only see an option that says "English (auto-generated)", without any other English option...

THROW THE COMPUTER AGAINST THE WALL JUMP OUT THE WINDOW AND RUN FOR YOUR LIFE OH THE HUMANITY!!!11 Calmly close that video, return to the search results, and do the same verification for another video until you find one that has subtitles that say "English" without the automatic thing. If the subtitles say "English (UK)", it means the dialogues are in British English.

The issue is that for the videos that only have that "auto-generated" option for English subtitles, a program in YouTube automatically tries to convert the video's audio into its respective written words. Sounds good in theory, but the system is imprecise. Very imprecise. Very, very, very, veeeeeeeeeeeeeery, freaking imprecise. Horribly imprecise. Like... wow...

YouTube's automatic subtitle generator has been the author of some of the funniest atrocities ever seen in a video... which is good for a laugh, but not to help you learn good English. The automatic transcriptions ends up having bad grammar, and the written words end up being VERY different to the words that actually happen in the video.

Ok, once you find a video that does have manual subtitles in English, open it, pause it and let it load for a bit. If the subtitles are active, deactivate them. The idea is NOT to read subtitles while you watch the video, but to consult the subtitles if you really need to. I'll show you how in a bit.

Some subtitled videos from YouTube channels I like

I also want to share with you some channels and YouTube videos that are not subtitles, but do have transcriptions at Wikis dedicated to each channel:



How to decipher a manually-subbed YouTube video

Once you have your video ready with correct subtitles, go to the video description and click where it says "More". Then select the "Transcript" option, and a list with all the subtitles on the video will appear, all divided and organized by time. Make sure the language that appears in the drop-down menu below the word "Transcript" says "English" or "English (UK)" (no auto-generated crap). If you want you could copy-paste the transcription into Notepad or Word to easier checking.

Another thing: DO NOT activate the Closed Captions of the video. That is, don't make the subtitles show on the video itself. Don't do it. When you don't understand something, you can go down and check the transcription.

All right, now the moment of truth! Play the video and give it your full attention. Don't check your Twitter, don't play Heroin Crush Candy Crush on your phone, don't look at photos of naked people, just watch the video.

When you are watching the video and you listen to a word or chunk you don't understand, pause it, look at the minute the video is in, and go down (or change windows) to check your transcription. Look a few seconds before the minute your video is currently in. For instance, if you paused the video at the minute 1:23, check your transcription, and search for the section that starts more or less at 1:20.

Assuming that your video is correctly synchronized (some videos have that problem... the transcription is correct, but it's not synchronized), then read the text that starts in the indicated section (1:20 in the last example), and try to identify the written part that corresponds to what you couldn't understand by listening to the video.

Then, follow the steps to decipher text to that part you didn't understand: Search for unknown words in your dictionaries, verify pronunciations, analyze if you understand the sentence/phrase that contains the word/part you didn't understand initially, etc.

And that's it. Repeat this process of pausing when you don't understand something, check the transcription and decipher that part you didn't understand. Do that until you finish the video. Then try to do the same with another video, or decipher something else, your choice.


TV shows and movies


Ahhh the world of TV shows and movies. These are the most dense (i.e. more "content per piece") materials you could use to improve your understanding in English, and they are the reason many people decide to improve their understanding in the language in the first place. Here, I will show you how to make the most out of them. First, have some scenes and funny clips from recommended shows:

Live-action TV shows (with real actors):

Caricaturas:

Anime dubbed in English

If you are interested in watching dubbed anime, you can find transcriptions of several shows at the Anime Transcripts Wiki. Here you will find two anime shows for which I found complete transcriptions for all of their episodes:

Some recommended movies

Regarding movies, something I suggest you do is that if you've already seen a movie dubbed in your native language, watch that movie again but in its original language (English), and apply the deciphering process as much as you can stand it.

The most complete resource I've found to check movie scripts in English is the Internet Movie Script Database.

Here are some movie sagas you have most likely seen in your native language:

Where to find TV shows and movies

First, for more ideas of what TV shows to watch, I suggest you take a look at this top list of shows at the IMDB (Internet Movie DataBase). And for more ideas on what movies to watch, I suggest these funny reviews from Jeremy Jahns and this list of popular movies at the IMDB.

Ok, now, where to find shows and movies... well, a practical and legal option if you have a credit card is to open an account on the iTunes store, and buy there the shows and movies that you want to watch. That way you don't have to worry about searching like crazy through the entire Internet to find the show you want, and you will feel good about supporting the artists and producers responsible for your favorite works.

I understand that not everyone can afford such "luxury". A more economic and legal option would be to pay for a Netflix or Hulu subscription, each one for $7.99 a month. The problem is that if you don't live in the United States, these sites will give you access to WAY less content, or will not even let you access at all.

Because of that, on top of a subscription you will have to pay yet another subscription to a VPN service (this service also encrypts your Internet connection, which is useful if you are using public WiFi). Once you are connected to a VPN and sign in your Netflix and/or Hulu account, you will obtain access to the complete catalog of shows and movies on those two services (I might do a tutorial about how to buy and configure those services in the future.)

Finally, if you can't do this... do what you already know to do in order to obtain shows and movies in your native language, but search for content in English instead. And if you don't know how to do that either... ehm... try this: Go to Google. On the search bar, search the following terms depending on the kind of content you want to find:

For shows:
watch (show name here) show online

For cartoons:
watch (cartoon name here) cartoon online

For anime:
watch (anime name here) anime dub online

For movies:
watch (movie name here) movie online

Then press enter... and may Arceus and Amaterasu be with you. Good luck!


A recommendation about deciphering shows and movies in English

To decipher shows and movies just play your content and pause whenever you heard something you don't know. Now, because practically no transcription for shows and movies is ordered by time like YouTube transcriptions are, you will have to use the same strategy as with the short stories:

In your transcript, you will need to find the part that goes just before the part you didn't understand, the part that I assume that you could understand well enough. Because you did understand that part that goes just before, you will be able to search it in your transcription using Ctrl+F and writing in the search box words from the part you did understand. Once you find it, read the part that goes next to figure out what it was that you listened to that you couldn't understand.

After that follow the process of deciphering texts: Search in the dictionary any word you don't know, check pronunciation and definitions, and look for usage examples if you can. Remember to analyze the word order of the sentence/phrase where that part you didn't understand happened. Analyze if you feel you understand the sentence/phrase well, or not.

After that, play your content 5 seconds back from where you paused it, and repeat the process for more chunks you don't understand. Rest once you complete your study time (no way I'm going to ask you to decipher a whole movie in one go lol).


Podcasts in English with transcriptions


Where to find podcasts in English with transcripts

Before I tell you, if you are not that experienced with Internet technologies then you might be wondering, "Wait wait wait... a podcast? And what the heck is that, dude?"

A podcast is the name given to pre-recorded audio shows that you can download on demand. It's like, a radio show, about 30 minutes or an hour long, that the authors record and then make public on their website, or in a specialized service like PodOmatic or the iTunes Store.

Podcasts are usually free. And generally (and unfortunately), podcasts don't have transcriptions with them... unless they are podcasts specifically about learning English. It's just a sad fact of life :(

You can try to find podcasts in English with transcripts by searching this on Google:

(put the topic of the podcast you want to listen to here) podcast transcript

To help you a little bit, I will share with you several podcasts I've found that DO offer free transcriptions (I will keep adding more to this list as I find more). I hope some of these will be of your liking, and that they keep you busy for a while:

How to decipher a podcast in English

Deciphering a podcast is basically the same process that you have to follow for a show or movie (if you want, go up ↑ and read how the process is for movies):

Get your transcription and dictionaries ready, start to play the podcast and pause whenever you don't understand something. To find in your transcript the part corresponding to what you didn't understand, search in your transcript (using Ctrl+f or something) the part just before that one, which is a part you DID understand.

In your transcript, the part after the one you did understand will be the part you didn't understand. Read and decipher that part you didn't understand by following the steps you already know (check pronunciations, definitions, examples, etc.) Once that's done play the podcast again, but 3 seconds earlier from where you paused it, and repeat the previous process each time you don't understand something.


Audiobooks and their respective books


Ahhh, what a great invention audiobooks are (just like podcasts). If you are walking or driving to your university or job, you can play an audiobook in your smartphone or car stereo, and immerse yourself in the story of a work of fiction, or learn new things by listening to non-fiction works.

Unlike podcasts, audiobooks always have a written counterpart: Their respective book. That way, audiobooks are a good tool you can use to improve your understanding in English. The only thing is that in this case you will have to pay both for the audiobook and its respective book. If you have access to a credit card you can open an Amazon.com account, and there you can use it to buy kindle ebooks and downloadable audiobooks, all in English.

You can also get free digital books on pages like LoyalBooks, where you will find a wide selection of public domain audiobooks and their respective ebooks. You can see a list of 20 sites where you an get free audiobooks here.

Finally, how to improve your English with audiobooks? By following the same process as with movies and podcasts: Have your digital book open, play your audiobook and start listening. If there's a part you don't understand, pause it, search in your written book the part immediately before that you did understand, and then read the part you did not understand. Check the pronunciation and definition of words there that you did not understand, analyze if you understood the sentence/phrase where those words occur, etc.


One last powerful resource: Yabla.com


Note: The image below and the following blue links contain affiliate links. This means that if you follow those links and you buy a subscription, I earn a commission.

This has been an interesting trip... from songs about beaten women and bosses who transform into jets and die, passing through the speed of darkness and weird pizzas in YouTube, and finally arriving to Homer transforming into a donut and Terminator trailers. What. A. Ride!

I think that with this you have more than enough methods, tools and content to improve your listening in English... but there is one more resource I would really like to share with you.

This resource is a website called Yabla.com, a video library with 800+ videos in English about many different topics (sports, society, music, food, comedy, etc.), where each and every video has a transcription. Also, most of the videos have their transcriptions translated into different languages, namely, Portuguese, German, Italian, French and Spanish.

Yabla is a paid service. If you have access to a credit card and/or a PayPal account, I think buying a Yabla subscription is one of the best investments you could make to improve your understanding of spoken English. It's not necessary, but I believe it can help you a lot if you use it with discipline.

Why do I recommend this resource? Well, back when I was learning Japanese I wished there was Yabla Japanese to help me in my learning. And now that I'm seriously thinking about learning and mastering French, I'll definitely buy a Yabla French membership once I can afford it, and I'll use it everyday to improve my listening skills in the language. That's how useful I think this service is.

You can check Yabla English if you click here. Or you can read my review of this site here.


Great, now I think you are armed to the teeth to train your understanding in English, so GO, search for some interesting content with transcriptions, and apply what you've learned. If you want to see concrete examples of how the process of deciphering videos, and shows, and short stories looks like, take a look at this article.

Keep progressing, and keep your hopes up!


Summary


You can use any kind of audio and audiovisual content you want to improve your English, as long as you have a trustworthy transcription for each content you want to consume, like:


Songs in English: Search for songs on YouTube or buy them on iTunes. Search for lyrics in English for those songs, and maybe translations in your native language of those lyrics if you are a beginner. Listen to the song. Decipher what you don't understand using the lyrics. Verify the meaning of sentences using the translations in your native language as a base. Repeat the previous process with another song, or decipher another content.


Short stories with audio: Stories here and here. For more google "learn english short stories audio transcripts". Start listening to the story and pause it when you don't understand something. In any case, use a transcript to identify and decipher what you didn't understand. Repeat the process with another story, or decipher another piece of content.


YouTube videos: Search on YouTube keywords about the topic of the video you want to watch. Then, click on Filters → Subtitles. Open a video. Click on the gear icon. Click on subtitles. If there is an option that says "English" or "English (UK)", good. If it says "English (auto-generated)", get out of the video and open another one until you find one with "English" or "English (UK)" subtitles.

Play the video. If you don't understand something, pause, look at what minute you are in on the video, and click on More → Transcription. Verify that the list says "English" or "English (UK)" and search for the part corresponding to that minute minus 3 seconds. Identify and decipher what you didn't understand. Go back to the video and play it, and repeat the process when you don't understand something. Repeat this with another video, or decipher another piece of content.


TV shows and movies:
How to find shows and movies: Buy on iTunes Or pay for Netflix/Hulu and a VPN. Or google "watch (name of show or movie) online" and cross your fingers.

Once you find what to watch, decipher a show or movie just like you would a short story with audio. Because the transcriptions of shows/movies are not ordered by time like YouTube videos are, if you don't understand a part, search on your transcription the part that goes right before, which you did understand, and read the next part (the part you didn't understand). Keep deciphering normally (search for unknown words in the dictionary, etc.)


Podcasts with transcripts: Podcasts are like radio shows, which are pre-recorded and downloadable. To find podcasts with transcriptions: (topic here) podcast transcript.

Some podcasts with transcriptions: This American Life, Better @ English.

Decipher a podcast using a transcript, just like in the previous kinds of content.


Audiobooks with their respective books: You can get audiobooks with their respective ebooks on sites like Amazon.com and LoyalBooks.com. Once you get one, follow the same deciphering process you would have to follow for movies and podcasts.


Recommended resource: Yabla.com. Paid service. 800+ videos in English with transcripts, and most of those have the transcripts translated into Portuguese, German, Italian, French and Spanish. Affiliate link. If you buy a subscription through the following blue link, I earn a commission → You can check out Yabla English here.


Last updated: May 22 of 2015

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