Learning a Language: What Makes Listening Difficult?

Larry M. Lynch

Visitors: 678

Of the four basic English language skills, reading, writing, speaking and listening, the most difficult to acquire is listening comprehension. It is also the one skill which cannot be “taught".

In evaluations that university English and foreign language institute EFL students must take at least three times a semester, the area which is most critical and the one in which they experience the greatest difficulty is listening comprehension.

What makes Listening Difficult?

There are four clusters of factors which can affect the difficulty of language listening tasks. Here is what they are and how they affect listening comprehension skills.


  • How many are there?

    Is one person speaking at a time? Are there a number of speakers? Do some of them speak at the same time?

  • How quickly they speak

    Does the pace of the speaker allow sufficient “time" for mental processing of the speech by the listener? Does the language of the speaker flow at a faster or slower rate than the listener is accustomed to?

  • What types of accent they have

    Does the speaker (or do the speakers) have an unfamiliar accent or manner of speaking that is less comprehensible to the listener? Is the listener accustomed to variable accents and speech types?


  • The role of the listener

    What is the listener’s purpose in listening? General comprehension? Specific information? Pleasure? Business? Extraction of critical data?

  • The level of response required

    What does the listener have to do in response to the speech? Act? Respond? Think? Enjoy? Nothing?

  • The interest in the content or subject

    Is the listener involved in the content or subject matter? Is it something they want to, need to, or must know?


  • Grammar

    Is the grammar and structure in use familiar to the listener? Is the listener able to use or assimilate the grammar – structure used in this context?

  • Vocabulary

    Is vocabulary or lexis that is new to the listener being used in the speech? Is the quantity of new words substantial? Noted linguistics author Scott Thornbury says, “Count 100 words of a passage. If more than 10 of the words are unknown, the text has less than a 90% vocabulary recognition rate. It is therefore, unreadable. " The same holds true for a listening comprehension passage.

  • Information structure

    Is the information or material being presented by the speech in a form that is clear and understandable to the listener? Is the presentation order logical, progressive, have redundancies or is presented non-sequentially?

  • Background knowledge assumed

    In comprehension of the speech, is prior knowledge required? Is any prior knowledge required substantial, highly specialized or technical in nature?


    What kind of support, if any, is available? Support in this context refers to whether there are pictures, diagrams or other visual aids to support the text.

    While there are a number of approaches that can be utilized to improve listening comprehension, one important key is regular and consistent practice. An EFL or ESL teacher may also provide a measure of guided practice in developing key listening comprehension skills. Taking these other factors into account, listening comprehension segments can be identified which may tend to cause problems for learners or that have a sufficient number of suitable aspects to make them practical and useable.

    Prof. Larry M. Lynch is a bi-lingual copywriter, expert author and photographer specializing in business, travel, food and education-related writing in South America. His work has appeared in Transitions Abroad, South American Explorer, Escape From America, Mexico News and Brazil magazines. He now lives in Colombia and teaches at a university in Cali. Want lots more free tips, help and information on language learning, public speaking, writing and mental skills development? Go now to: http://bettereflteacher.blogspot.com

  • (692)

    Article Source:

    Rate this Article: 
    Developing Listening Comprehension Skills in IDI English Language Students
    Rated 4 / 5
    based on 5 votes

    Related Articles:

    Learning French- What Makes The Language Unique?

    by: Shareen Aguilar (May 04, 2007) 
    (Arts and Entertainment)

    Learning Spanish Part Twenty-Three- Language Learning versus Language ..

    by: Douglas Bower (July 11, 2007) 
    (Arts and Entertainment)

    Learning a Foreign Language: Language Learning Software

    by: Pete Rumbles (November 04, 2005) 
    (Arts and Entertainment/Language)

    English Language Teaching and Learning: Are You a Good Language Learner?

    by: Larry M. Lynch (July 12, 2006) 
    (Arts and Entertainment/Language)

    What I Learned About Language Learning From Months Of German Language Education

    by: Derren Geht (April 30, 2008) 
    (Reference and Education/Languages)

    Is a New Language Difficult to Learn?

    by: Derren Geht (November 29, 2007) 
    (Reference and Education/Languages)

    Why is it difficult to translate Russian language?

    by: Valea Traga (February 02, 2011) 

    The Chinese Language - Difficult to Study?

    by: Isriel Robinson (April 09, 2008) 
    (Reference and Education/Languages)

    Using Popular Songs to Improve Language Listening Comprehension Skills

    by: Larry M. Lynch (November 30, 2005) 
    (Arts and Entertainment/Language)

    Developing Listening Comprehension Skills in IDI English Language Students

    by: Larry M. Lynch (November 27, 2005) 
    (Arts and Entertainment/Language)