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How to deal with anxiety when you are listening to English

Updated: Aug 11, 2021

Although Second Language Anxiety is most commonly associated with speaking, listening can also cause a great deal of worry for language learners. Difficult accents, quick speech and unfamiliar contexts can all stop you from understanding what you are hearing. Lack of understanding can quickly become panic, especially if you are in a high-stakes situation such as an interview or exam. And when we panic, we reduce our capacity for understanding even further!

A dangerous belief about listening One belief that I hear many times from my clients:

I should understand everything perfectly the first time I hear it

This belief is enough to cause a great deal of anxiety before you even listen to anything! Believing that you should understand everything perfectly the first time you hear it is a damaging belief because it is not possible to achieve. Think about it: In your first language, have you ever listened to or watched something more than once and realised that you didn’t catch everything the first time? I know I have! So if we don’t understand everything perfectly in our first language, why would we be able to do so in our second?

It is completely normal that the first time you listen to something you will not understand everything. It is natural that your understanding develops over time and that there are sections that you do not fully comprehend. And most importantly, this is okay! Most of the time, we can get away with having an incomplete picture as long as we have understood enough of the main points. Listening in high-stakes situations In exams or interviews, the stakes are higher. If we don’t understand what we hear, we might fail the exam or be turned down for a job we really wanted. However, even in these situations, you are unlikely to understand absolutely everything you hear, and you need to have strategies in place to deal with that. These strategies could include:

  • asking your speaker to repeat things (and feeling comfortable doing so!). Asking for clarification is a completely normal thing to do. A great way to do this is through paraphrasing what the speaker said to you and introducing your paraphrase with phrases like do you mean …….?

  • practising the questions you are likely to face; the more familiar you are with them, the easier the listening will be on the day. For exams like CAE or IELTS, this means being absolutely 100% clear on the question types, what they are testing and how to answer them. This includes things like knowing if you are listening for general information or specific details. For interviews, this could involve research on YouTube or industry-specific websites where you can find examples of likely questions.

  • controlling anxiety through breathing exercises if you feel panicky. Even just breathing out for longer than you breathe in will send a signal to your brain that you are safe.

Here are three more tips on how to reduce anxiety when you are listening

1. Use sentence stress to help you. English is made up of content words and function words. Content words are things like nouns, verbs and adjectives and they carry the main information. Function words are things like articles, pronouns and auxiliary verbs. Function words are important for grammatical accuracy, but you can actually understand a lot of spoken English without them. Also, native speakers use sentence stress (also called ‘prominence’) to emphasise what is important. Very often, the stress will be placed on the content words whereas the function words are reduced (made very small). By training your ear to follow the stress and learning how to ignore the reduced words, you can pick up the general meaning of the speaker. This technique also helps reduce overwhelm and stops you from trying to understand everything.

2. Practice! Okay, I know that sounds obvious but it’s worth mentioning. I’ve had so many clients who tell me they want to get better at a particular skill but then never practice it. The great thing about practising listening is that you can do it anywhere and there is a vast quantity of listening materials out there! I listen to Chinese when I am walking my dog, doing the housework and cooking my dinner. This means that I can easily listen to 30 minutes of Chinese in one day.

Watch a video about extensive listening:

3. Develop your strategies and subskills Many learners think listening is just listening, but in fact there is a wide range of different listening strategies and subskills that you can and should develop. For example:

  • predicting the content using pictures and / or headlines (okay, you can’t do this in a job interview, but you can be prepared by predicting likely questions).

  • knowing how to listen for the main information and how to listen for details

  • summarising

  • inferring attitudes and opinions

All of these are examples of listening subskills that you can develop over time.

Watch a video about intensive listening:

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