How to Choose What to Listen To – Language Learning


It’s an important skill in language learning. If you’re taking a proficiency exam, you’ll more than likely be tested on listening–along with reading, writing, and speaking. And it’s hard to hold a conversation if you can’t understand what the other person is saying.

I’m of the personal belief that listening holds special importance for language learners. I really think it paves the way for the other skills, and I think you should prioritize it in your own efforts.

Cinema Paradiso By Markus Mitterauer from Austria aka Addicted (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Cinema Paradiso
By Markus Mitterauer from Austria, aka Addicted [CC BY-SA 2.0], Image Source

A lot of people aren’t quite sure what to listen to. So here are five things to consider when selecting a text.

By the way, for language learning purposes, I consider watching movies, videos, and TV shows a subset of “listening.” Those activities make slightly different demands than listening to podcasts or the radio does, but ultimately they deliver the language itself to you via your ears and not your other senses.

1. Are you actually interested in the text?

This comes first, because it’s the most important thing to consider: Do you actually want to listen to the text?

I really don’t care about politics, but I love comedies and action movies. I can struggle through some political news or a government text book in my new language, but it’ll feel like work. If I watch some sketch comedy or a dubbed version of Mad Max: Fury Road, then I’ll feel like I’m enjoying myself–because I am.

Other people might be exactly the opposite and hate low-brow entertainment, so they should stay away from the French version of Happy Gilmore.

Of course, there are situations when you have to go outside of your immediate interests to expose yourself to new ideas and language. (I’ll go into these situations in a minute.) But most of the time, you should be seeking out stuff you actually like.

2. Are you up for the challenge of the text?

The very first week I started studying Spanish, I watched a movie called Vale Todo. It was an MMA movie, and I’m a huge MMA fan.

I could barely understand anything. However, I did pick out words and was able to follow the simple plot, for the most part. So while it wasn’t an ideal movie for a beginner, I did get something out of watching it.

The thing is, though, that not everyone should start watching movies out of the gate. Some people can’t stand the frustration of being lost. When those people are starting out, they should stick to listening to materials geared to beginners.

While “comprehensible input” is important, I don’t think you should only listen to stuff you can understand. Easy, medium, hard–each kind of text benefits you in its own way.  The important thing is that you choose something that won’t frustrate or discourage you.

3. Is there any context to help you?

We are always using contextual clues in our daily lives to help us understand what we’re hearing. This shouldn’t change when we’re learning a language.

Also, if you’re a little run down or feeling like you’re always getting lost, pick texts that offer a lot of contextual clues. This will help you get back on track.

Some things to keep in mind:

  • Video offers visual context, while audio-only texts don’t.
  • Videos with body language (such as movies or soap operas) offer more visual context than videos with talking heads (such as vlogs or certain news broadcasts).
  • Having knowledge of the subject at hand can help you get the gist of the text. For example, if someone loves buying clothes, they’ll have an easier time understanding a fashion podcast.
  • Having knowledge of a story can help you follow along. Similar to the last point, if you’re up to date on a soap opera or a recurring news story, you’ll be able to understand what’s going on better than if you came in completely blind.

4. Have  you heard the text before in your native language?

Man, I cannot emphasize enough how useful it is to watch shows or movies you like dubbed into the language you’re studying.

The Simpsons is dubbed into dozens of languages. If you’re a Simpsons fan, like I am, then you know the characters, the setting, and probably even the specific plots. Watching a dubbed episode is like listening with training wheels on.

Look for shows and movies that you’ve watched before. If you live in the United States and are studying French or Spanish, you can grab any DVD off your shelf and switch languages in 30 seconds.

5. Does the text serve your purpose?

Okay, if you’re studying for a proficiency exam, only watching Family Guy isn’t going to cut it. You’re going to have to get a variety of vocab, covering a broad range of subjects, with varying levels of difficulty.

Use a little common sense to pick texts that serve your purpose. For example, I knew I needed to improve my ability to understand German media, so I focused exclusively on German news for several weeks.

Or maybe you’re getting a job in the IT industry overseas, so you’d benefit from listening to technology podcasts in your new language.

Wrapping Up

What do you guys listen to? How do you choose your texts? Let me know in the comments.

  • Roman Shinkarenko

    My strategy is watching morning programs. A few interviews with ministers notwithstanding, it helps to understand people speaking quickly.
    وأنا أعلم أنك غالبا ما تكون أضيفت بلدي بلوق إلى Feedly، ولكن هل يمكن أن يرجى التعليق على بلدي بلوق لذلك أنا لا يشعر بالوحدة؟

    • Ron G.

      I kept looking at بلوق and wondering what that was. LOL…took me a minute. Definitely, Roman. I’ve got to do a better job at that in general, but yes, I’ll come by.

      • Roman Shinkarenko

        Thank you.

        By the way, does Google Translate do a decent job in this language pair? I read once that it stumbles with non-Indo-European languages.
        As an aside, I’m angry at all those people who, when recommending something to read in foreign languages, propose only Harry Potter. It’s obviously a hit with many, but do they know that it’s not for everyone? (end of aside).

        • Ron G.

          Google Translate is kind of clumsy with Arabic, but my own Arabic is kind of clumsy too. 😉

  • Red/

    It’s been not so easy to me to understand how to find a wider choice in French language of movies, series, cartoon and the like.
    So, a few suggestions:

    On youtube for istance: Yu yu hakusho vf
    VF it is the acronym for Version Francaise, which means the movie will be in French. If it would be the original version with subtitles, it would say VOST = Version Originale Sous-Titree.
    Also, these expressions are useful: en pleine français en français complet entier en français

    searching on the browser add this: serie tv en streaming vf
    It is been in this way that I found sites and articles about the subject.
    One interesting article was: Top 17 des meilleurs sites de streaming français

    Not for listening, but for reading manga in French add to your research: lecture en ligne.

    What does really is important to me is the fact that I’m listening and watching something that really get my interest. It’s for fun that I’m watching again Vikings in french.
    Usually more than movies I prefer some documentary, interview, or youtube channels on a topic that suit my interest. Unfortunately, often movies have not enough audio compared to other sources. But they have images that help you (like mangas).
    I quite never listen to podcasts, but I discovered that online radio stations catch my attention. So I can go along for a long time to listen to, always with a sheet of paper in which to jot down new words (as I suppose these could be written…).
    I know there are a few sites providing videos in various languages together with captions. This would be a great thing, but unfortunately I didn’t find the content they show enough attractive. Whilst it’s difficult to find videos that are both dubbed and subbed in the same language on the internet.

    I have difficulties with whispered voices like in the series Viking, because there are frequently people talking low voice, while plotting against another person.
    Another situation where I struggle in listening is that of a sort of fast mumbling together with a lowering of the tone of the voice. It happens from time to time on youtube.

    • Ron G.

      Hey, Red, these are great tips! Thanks for sharing them.

      “Whilst it’s difficult to find videos that are both dubbed and subbed in the same language on the internet.” <—- I heard that FluentU does this, but I can't say 100% since I haven't tried it. The videos themselves might not be your cup of tea, either.

      I have trouble with whispered voices, and fast colloquial speech as well. I don't have an issue with fast news speak, but fast colloquial speech always gives me trouble. I tend to get better over time, but not always.

      • Red/

        It’s the same for me, colloquial speech is more tricky.

  • Jorge Sivit

    I watch films and listen to audiobooks. For me, the most important thing is your first point: I must be interested in the text. I don’t care if I get lost or can just understand a 5%. If I’m interested, I can listen to it several times.

    • Ron G.

      Same here. I’m also the kind of person who can listen to songs over and over.