Narrow Listening: How to fix your “I don’t understand natives” problem

Narrow listening: the ultimate way to solve your listening comprehension problem

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Listening to a native speaker can be quite a challenge. This feeling of “losing it” is known to every language learner. Once comprehensible speech begins to morph into a continuous stream of sound with no pauses between words – and there you are, sinking in the quicksand of L2 input.

In fact, this “WTF” stage can go on for long (typically, learners struggle to catch the point in most real-life dialogs until they hit the B2 level). And after several attempts to understand foreign language speech you may become desperate. But don’t be.

There is a proven solution to this problem. I used this strategy to quickly boost my listening scores on the DELF exam and ended up making listening comprehension one of my strongest skill in French.

And the strategy I’m talking about is called narrow listening.

What is narrow listening?

The narrow listening technique was invented (or rather developed from another strategy called narrow reading) by Stephen Krashen as he struggled his way through Mexico with only little Spanish1.

After a number of uncontrolled conversations with Mexicans, Krashen realized that he needed to change his approach. Instead of letting natives expand on topics he knew little about, he began questioning them about something very specific and well-known to him: the story of Hernando Cortes. Here, the linguist had an obvious advantage: he already read this story in English. This background knowledge helped him to keep on track with what they were saying even if he failed to understand certain words.

Everything began to come together. Krashen found these “directed” conversations intrinsically engaging – and so did the natives. Hearing different opinions on the same subject helped him consolidate specific vocabulary, as he constantly came along the same words over and over again. Finally, he felt that he could understand Spanish.

After this experience, Krashen developed the narrow listening technique further, to the extent where he would actually record several natives speakers talking about the same topic for 2-3 minutes. Later then, he would repeatedly listen to these recordings until he felt confident enough to move on to the next topic.

The original narrow listening technique step by step

In short, narrow listening strategy, as it proposed by Stephen Krashen, comes down to 5 simple steps:

Step one: Choose a topic and make a question

It can be as simple as asking someone to tell about their family or as complex as proposing them to expand on the current economic situation in their country. It should be interesting to you and potentially interesting for a native speaker.

But choosing a topic is only half a deal: the most important part is to come up with a question that would keep a native speaker talking for at least a couple of minutes.

Avoid asking yes-no questions like “Do you like to travel?” or “Do you speak foreign languages?“. Instead, ask what countries they have traveled (and how they liked it) and what they think is the most effective way to learn a foreign language.

Step two: Do some background research

This is where your English may serve you a good deal. Since your goal in all this hustle is to grasp at least the general idea of what people are saying, you can do two things to improve:

  • learn at least some topic-related vocabulary (you will need some to ask a question anyway)
  • read two-three English articles about the topic you selected (same like Krashen read about Cortes)

Topic-specific vocabulary will allow you to navigate throughout a native speaker’s monologue, and your familiarity with the topic will help you to fill the blanks.

Step three: “Interview” several native speakers

You want to pose your question to at least 3-4 natives. Ideally, this question should automatically pop up in your head every time you get a chance to chat with someone who speaks your target language.

Krashen recommends recording these people (with their permission, of course!) and then listen to their responses during your downtime. However, later in this post, I will offer you a way to transform the narrow listening technique. You can skip this step without losing effectiveness.

Step four: Listen until you’re fed up

Repetition is everything in language learning. This is how memory works. And, unless you’re using mnemonic techniques, repetition (in whatever form) is the only way to learn new vocabulary.

That’s why Krashen insists on having access to the recordings. It ensures that your brain gets a sufficient dose of repeated content to work with.

Typically 3-4 repetitions are just enough to extract everything important from a short 2-3 minute speech sample. However, beginners, who tend to understand about 10% more with each successive listening, will benefit from a larger number of repetitions (7-8)2.

Step five: Gradually explore related topics

Once you are done processing public opinions on the best language learning strategies, you can move on and start another round of interviews on a related topic. The key word here is “related“. You want to choose a topic close enough so that all vocabulary acquired on the first stage could be reviewed during the second set of narrow listening.

So if you departed with a question on the best way to learn a foreign language, your next candidates could be “Do you think it’s necessary to know another language in the XXI century?“, “What language does it make more sense to learn?” and so on.

Narrow listening without a tape recorder

Narrow listening seems a fairly simple technique when it comes to execution. At the end of the count, all you have to do really is just listen to the recordings of natives speakers as much as possible. The problem, however, is how you obtain these recordings. And this is where the whole system breaks down.

What Krashen offers is to go out there with a tape recorder and interview native speakers on the topic you previously researched. And if the mere idea of recording someone doesn’t already make you squirm, here’s another problem. You may not be able to find those native speakers where you live.

The quick solution is HelloTalk that can be turned into a powerful narrow listening tool (should you approach it mindfully, of course). Since HelloTalk is the language exchange app, most people out there are happy to help you learn their native tongue. So, after a quick chat with 5-6 native speakers, I often ask them to record me a short audio message about [whatever topic] in their language.

And voilà – I have perfect recordings that I can narrow-listen to as many times as I want. Problem solved.

Narrow listening with YouTube

HelloTalk can be a wonderful thing to use but there are limits. Not everybody agrees to send an audio message. And ones sent rarely provide an in-depth discussion of the topic in question. So I often resort to yet another way of obtaining valid topic-centered speech samples.

Which one?

I parasitize on what other people have already created and use this ultimate linguistic database called the Internet. More specifically, YouTube.

How I use YouTube for narrow listening

First, I define the topic. The choice largely depends on my proficiency level, but I typically try to stick with simple stuff like relationships, hobbies, pets, travel, languages, even food. It just offers a larger assortment of videos. There are millions of bloggers who talk about dating but only a handful of those who expand on morphosyntactic analysis I may be equally interested in.

After the topic is set, I just choose a question (trying to keep it balanced in terms of specificity-generality) and translate it in my target language. I may even go as far as to create a short list of translated questions for the days ahead. Although, YouTube is usually damn good at doing this work for me. (Just look at “Watch next” column with its suggestions).

Here are some examples of questions I come to:

  • The best places to visit in California/London/Barcelona (there are always at least a dozen lists of top-10 places in literally every God-forsaken place)
  • How to make paella? (I found that receipts are a great way to grasp the “survival vocabulary”. After just ten such videos you learn a word for every eatable thing on this planet)
  • How to start training your labrador retriever?
  • Is coffee bad for your health?
  • How much sleep do you need per night?

2 ways to practice narrow listening on YouTube

With all this just go to YouTube and hit the search.

And there you’ve got a whole pool of public opinions on all sorts of things. It may be useful to restrict the results to shorter 2-3 minutes videos so that you don’t end up feeling overwhelmed. Pick 3-4 videos, tag them3 and dive in.

I realized that sooner or later I end up finding a blogger or two whom I can actually understand. At this point, narrow listening with YouTube becomes the easiest thing in the world. I simply go with everything this person published on their channel. Usually, people create channels about their area of expertise. And it means that I automatically get filtered and focused content on the topic of my interest and in my target language.

What can be better, right?

True, narrow listening requires some groundwork. But there is literally no better way to improve your aural comprehension than that. So make sure to try it out.

Image Credits: Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash.

Author Details
Polyglot, Author and Founder of Linguapath
Hey! I am Alina Kuimova, and my long-lasting obsession with learning languages led to the creation of this site. Apart from being a grammar enthusiast, I enjoy reading smart books in any language available, finding easier ways for the brain to learn things and buffing productivity stats by 180%.
  1. S. Krashen – The Case for Narrow Listening
  2. Dupuy, B. C. (1999). Narrow Listening: An alternative way to develop and enhance listening comprehension in students of French as a foreign language. System27(3), 351-361.
  3. I find it generally useful to tag videos for future reference and add them in a language-specific playlist (#SP for Spanish, #FR for French, etc) rather than simply dump it in Watch Later.

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