How to Improve your English Listening

1: Try a mini-dictation

Find an audio file which also has a written transcription. The BBC's six minute English podcast, for example, has both audio of native speakers and a written transcript (they speak slightly more slowly than usual, but this is a great place to start). Play the first few words of the recording and try to write down exactly what you hear. Play the same words again and again until you have written as much as you can. Then move to the next part. When you have finished, check your work against the written transcript, and listen again to any parts which you missed. This is hard, but it really works.

2: Understand weak forms

When we're talking quickly, native speakers of English use weak or short pronunciations of many common words. (We use strong pronunciation when we say the word on its own or when we want to emphasise it). For example, the word 'have' has a strong pronunciation /hæv/, but normally when we're talking we use one of its weak pronunciations: /həv/ or /əv/ or /v/. You can check the pronunciations by looking it up in a learner's dictionary. I got this example in the Cambridge Learner's Dictionary here. (Look at the top line. The sound you can play is usually the strong pronunciation).

Here is a list of words that have weak forms (download the PDF here):

(You can hear me say the examples by clicking the arrow. Remember, this is me speaking quickly and not being careful. This is how I talk with English-speaking friends.)

a I've got a new dress.
am I'm not going home, am I?
an That's an apple.
and We need some salt and pepper.
any Do you have any money?
are They are at school just now.
as It was as big as an elephant.
at She works at night.
be He's going to be late.
been Have you been here long?
but The food is good but the service is terrible.
can Can you come early?
could I think he could pass the exam.
do Do you need any help?
does He doesn't live in London, does he?
for It's a present for my dad.
from That book's from Julia.
had I had a car when I was at university.
has He has been here for years.
have I've had lunch already.
he She thinks he's handsome.
her Tom told her that the meeting had been cancelled.
him I've bought him some chocolate.
his That's his last chance.
I I wish I had gone to bed earlier.
me John called me last night.
must You really must take your umbrella.
of That's part of the problem.
our She dropped her coffee on our rug.
shall Shall we go out for dinner?
she I think she's gone to the library.
should You really should get a haircut.
some They bought some bread this morning.
than This part of London is much busier than where I live.
the Have you seen the front door keys?
them We dropped them off at the airport.
there The restaurant is over there.
to Are you going to the party tonight?
us Lucy gave us one of her kittens.
was It was a beautiful day.
we I wonder when we should leave.
were They were late again!
who Do you know who that girl is?
will He'll arrive later.
would If I were you, I would study a bit more.
you Do you like chocolate?
your Is that your coat?
Download this list in PDF here

3: Be aware that many set phrases and things we say often have special or different pronunciations in fast speech

For example:
do youDo you know what I mean?
don't youYou want coffee, don't you?
want toI want to leave now.
all rightIt's all right.
excuse meExcuse me.
got toGot to go!
I don't knowI don't know
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'A' and 'The' Explained