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Seven tips for dealing with listening anxiety

Of all the skills in language learning, listening is perhaps unique in that you are unable to control much about the experience. The speaker may talk to fast, may have an unfamiliar accent or use language that you do not know and there is nothing you can do about this! Listening anxiety can be therefore be defined as an overload of information that is delivered in a way that is difficult for you to understand. This leads to embarrassing misunderstandings in conversations while the mental state of anxiety in itself results in slower information processing and lower concentration (see this post about the effect of anxiety on language learning).


However, listening anxiety is poorly understood by teachers and learners. Us teachers cannot see into your mind and we can only analyse your listening abilities by using exercises that show a 'right' or 'wrong' answer. You may be aware of anxiety but may not connect it specifically to listening, believe=ing you are scared of conversations or worried about an exam in general. In this post, I'm going to share seven tips for dealing with listening anxiety in three different areas of language learning - practice, conversation and exams.

Language Practice I am often amazed when my clients beat themselves up for not being able to understand a detailed question taken from a listening exercise the first time they listen. The clients don't realise that their listening skills improve when they use top down processing; moving from general information to details.


Most good course books teach listening this way. As an example, you might first look at a picture which is connected to the topic and talk about your feelings and what you already know about the subject. This is called activating the schemata and it means that you reawaken any information you currently have about the topic. Next, you listen to the text once and answer a couple of general questions or give a personal response; the idea here is to familiarise yourself with the complete text. Only then would you move onto the more detailed questions which by this point should be easier to understand. Whether you use a course book or not, this is a general method of listening practice that you should always use.


Conversation Avoiding the problem won't help! It's easy to decide that conversation is 'too difficult' for you and to be so worried about misunderstandings that you don't want to talk to people. Doing this, of course, will not solve anything! If you are really anxious about conversations, look for sympathetic speaking partners who will be able to help you without criticism or judgement. You can utilise friends, colleagues, classmates or a friendly teacher who can give you lots of practice at easy topics to build your confidence.

Also, listen to lots of conversations! Depending on your level, you might listen to materials from a course book, a website for students, a podcast or a TV show. Remember it's not a competition and there are no prizes for struggling through something that is too difficult. Instead, look for listening materials at an appropriate level for where you are now and build up from there.


Exams

It is essential that you do a lot of exam task practice. And I do mean a lot. However, it's not enough to listen and check your answers before moving onto the next task. Instead, you need to learn from mistakes. Don't just look at what's right and wrong but embody a growth mindset and learn from what went wrong. Ask yourself why you got something wrong - play the text again, read the tapescript at the same time and identify the thing that you didn't understand whether that's a word, the pronunciation or the grammar. Also, you need to practice exam strategies such as reading the questions before you listen, following the questions in time with the text and, depending on your exam, working on challenging skills such as inferring the speaker's feelings.

In the exam, it's important to keep calm and focussed. Remember that the mental state of anxiety has a direct impact on your ability to listen accurately. Use breathing or relaxation techniques where possible and don't worry about mistakes; you are unlikely to get 100% (and if you do, the exam was probably a little easy!) so focus on what you do understand. Make sure your spelling is accurate too, and that you copy the answers across correctly. How many exam candidates have thrown away marks simply through poor spelling or writing the answer in the wrong place? To sum up, listening is a challenging skill, but one that can be mastered with time, practice and patience.

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