How to improve your listening skills with audiobooks

Bree here again! One of the things I struggled with most in my quest to learn Spanish was my ability to hear the language. While reading is difficult, you can stop to look things up and really absorb what you’re consuming — on your own time.

So, in my quest to hone my listening skills, I turned to audiobooks. I figured since I loved books, I’d love listening to them. And it’s true, I do enjoy them…now. However, when I first started listening to audiobooks, it was a hellish nightmare.

Have you ever been there?

You try to practice your listening, and you go from innocent optimism to depressing pessimism the second the audio starts.

You think to yourself:

  • How are you supposed to know what’s going on if you can’t see what’s happening?
  • Why is the narrator speaking speaking so dang fast?
  • I know all these words, but why can’t I understand them when I hear them?
  • Do I even know anything in my target language at all?!??!?!?!?

The list goes on and on, but I’m going to let you in on a little secret: audiobooks aren’t only for native speakers and advanced learners. I’d go so far as to argue that they’re valuable at any level — if you use them correctly.

Here are three ways to make audiobooks more comprehensible if you’re not an advanced learner:

Read first then re-listen

As a beginner and intermediate learner, I found this technique really valuable. By reading intensively first, the plot and vocabulary will be fresh in your mind, making it easier to pick up on words and follow along!

Here’s how it works:

  1. Read a book for a chapter or two. Pay close attention to new words, and take your time reading. Try to give yourself time to absorb as much as you can.
  2. Then, after you’ve intensively read the text, load up the audiobook and listen to what you just read! Remember to be on the lookout for words you remembered looking up!
  3. Repeat!

Relisten to your favorite books

If you have a favorite book, try listening to it in your target language! I remember when I queued up Harry Potter for the first time, I was able to understand a lot — despite my lack of vocabulary.

By using the limited vocabulary that I did know, paying attention to the narrator’s over-the-top impressions of the character’s voices, and referencing my already deep understanding of the plot, I was able to enjoy the story with little to no effort.

Alternate reading and listening

I can’t stress how much I love this strategy. It helped me get over the feeling that I needed to see a word to really understand it. Once you’re comfortable with the previous two techniques, this is the best way to improve your general listening skills.

I’d recommend this strategy for people who are more familiar with the language. However, you could do this if you’re a beginner and the text is simple enough (like a graded reader + audiobook).

Here’s what worked for me:

  1. First, you’ll start off by reading some of the book. I recommend reading the entire introduction and exposition. I’ve noticed that the first 25–50 pages of a book are the hardest because they use a lot of descriptive vocabulary when introducing you to the world the author created.
  2. Then, once you’re familiar with the world, stop reading and queue up the audiobook where you left off. Listen for as long as you can, at least for a chapter or two. At first, this may be uncomfortable but try to trust your ears. Don’t get hung up on adjectives and obscure vocabulary, just try to follow the story.
  3. After a chapter or two, or if you start getting confused, switch back to reading! If you need to, you can review what you listened to, but only if what you missed prevents you from following the plot.
  4. Repeat until you finish the book!

Bonus tip! Slow it down

If you’re still struggling to follow along with the audio even if you’re reading ahead, try slowing down the audio to around 80% speed, then gradually increase the speed as you get more and more comfortable.

Warning: Do not go below 80% speed because the voices get too distorted, and it sounds too unnatural.

I did this and found I adjusted to the speed after a few days!

Audiobooks are amazing!

They’re the perfect resource for reading addicts looking to level up their listening abilities. Sure, jumping in can be intimidating, but with these strategies, you’ll be a listening pro in no time!

Have you tried listening to an audiobook in your target language yet? How did it go? What are some of the strategies you think you’ll use the next time you try to listen to a book? Let me know in the comments below, I’d love to hear from you!

2 thoughts on “How to improve your listening skills with audiobooks”

  1. Listening to books that I knew the plot of was the perfect way to get started for me. It doesn’t involve any repetition (which I quite dislike) and allowed me to relax and try to understand the language rather than stressing about missing plot points. I think the other methods you mention are quite valuable for getting started on audio books in earlier stages, which I now wish I’d done. Listening comprehension tends to be undervalued by beginner/intermediate learners, and audio books are a great way to build a solid listening foundation since narrators tend to articulate very well.

    1. Hey Vincent! I love re-reading and re-listening to things, even in English! I totally agree with your point that audio books are a great way to build listening comprehension. Sometimes I even find the audio books EASIER because the narrator does such an amazing job acting everything out with emotion and voices!

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