How to Understand spoken language better: 7 atypical shortcuts

One rainy evening I sat down to watch The Intouchables in French with the full confidence that I would understand every single word. By the time I had a solid B1 level in French and no problem with understanding French vloggers on YouTube.

But that evening it appeared to me that I unlearned all my French. And since then, I never thought about foreign movies as a way to understand spoken language better. And for a good reason.

The actors spoke too fast. I couldn’t predict the flow of a dialog. Unfamiliar words were springing up like mushrooms after the rain. Quick changes in the pitch were killing me. On top of that, Omar Sy used African vernacular I’ve never heard before – and voila! I couldn’t understand 70% of the movie.

If it sounds to you like something familiar, welcome to the club.

Comprehension a cornerstone of language learning. It gives you confidence, opportunities, and motivation to go further. But it also requires lots of works. Or does it?

Let me show you a way to understand spoken language better right now.

You do not understand English

Listen to this piece of sound:

Did it just sound as a sequence of undistinguishable whistles and nothing more? And, yet, it was English. Now, listen to this one:

Now, refer back to the first sample. Impressed?

After listening to the second audio file, you found that you could clearly understand every single word uttered in the sample of degraded speech. So what has just happened?

You have just experienced what scientists call sine-wave speech.

And, as you noticed, your perception of sine-wave speech highly depended on whether you knew what these funny whistles supposed to signify or had no previous idea about it.

How to train your brain to understand spoken language better?

After listening to the clear speech sample just once, you were able to correlate SWS whistles with normal English speech and had no further problem in deciphering it.

Now, what will happen if you listen to 20 other samples of sine-wave vs clear speech?

Dr. Matt Davis from Cambridge University has found that your brain would get incredibly better in recognizing this form of degraded speech the more you listen to it1. He argues that with experience your perceptual system tunes into the new distorted form of speech. The more you train your brain to perceive sine-wave sentences, the more connections between SWS sounds and English words it establishes, the easier it is for you to understand distorted samples.

It is called perceptual learning, and you just learned to use it with one type of distorted speech.

But aren’t accents, accelerated speech or murmur just different examples of distortion?

How experience affects your perception and comprehension?

I guess you began to feel that perceptual learning is all about the experience.

Experience affects your perception in three major ways:

  • improves your sensibility in distinguishing subtle changes;
  • increases the speed of patterns recognition;
  • lowers attentional load.

In our example, the more times you listen to different sound samples, the faster and more exact you recognize its meaning and the less and less energy you spend.

Remember Sherlock Holmes? The famous detective was able to “tells at a glance different soils from each other” and trace them back to one or another part of London. Sounds impressive, doesn’t it? However, he wasn’t born with this particular talent, he learned it with experience.

You, too, can do it. Not to detect the origin of mud from the streets of London but rather to understand spoken language better. Any language and any accent.

Now, how on earth does it work in your case?

How do you get better in understanding spoken language?

To launch the Perceptual Learning program in your brain you will need 3 things:

Extensive exposure to spoken language

Every new language is a completely new set of phonetic and syntactic data.

If you listened to a foreign speech for the first time, it probably sounded just like a funny noise. You couldn’t spot where one word ended and another began. However, the more you listened, the more active efforts you made to understand it, the more times you repeated, the better you got. If now you can catch at least a few foreign words in a spoken sentence you made a huge improvement!

The more you listen, the more data your brain possesses, the more patterns it can recognize. So to understand spoken language better you have to listen a lot. Devour everything you can find: podcasts, audiobooks, YouTube videos, series on Netflix, songs and radio chatter. It is the fastest way to improve your understanding of speech.


There is a subtle difference between hearing and listening.

To move from the first to the second you have to start paying attention. But, watch out. The lifespan of your attention is just about 10 minutes (yeah, the Sherlock Holmes mode is not too prolonged, unfortunately). After this 10 minutes, you’ll check off – especially in the first weeks when you do not understand a single word – because it’s really hard to pay attention to boring things.

To be able to concentrate longer you have to understand at least 70-80% of what is being said. So it makes sense to choose material tailored to your proficiency level. So try to avoid listening to “War and Peace” at least on the beginner stage of learning Russian; it will save you some nerve cells.

Instead, pick up any short audiobook and listen to it at least two times. I typically head to Audible and look for books I’ve already read. Since the story is already familiar to me, I can follow it and stay engaged even with very limited knowledge of a target language. And as I keep listening to the audiobook, my brain does its “incidental learning” job and automatically acquires frequent vocabulary.

Active classificational effort

Making an active classificational effort means making sense of what you are hearing (which is quite hard if you just start learning a language). 

You skip this part – you get no result.

You can listen to French radio for 24 hours; but if it’s just playing on the background, your brain numbed out, I’m sorry, you won’t understand spoken language better. However, this is exactly the phase where a ton of modifications can be done.

There’s a number of ways to make a speech more intelligible. For example, using subtitles. Subtitles often play a role of that clear speech sample you listened to in the first part of this post. They give you the perceptual insight. If instead of an intelligible sentence you’ve heard a wild stream of sound, stop, take it back a few seconds, turn on subs and go over that phrase one more time. And one more. And one more. Until the big “Aha!”

With respect to podcasts, I like to slow them down a bit. I use PodcastAddict and this app allows to adjust reading speed as much as you like: by 10%, by 20%, even by 50%. Audible also offers such an option. And when reading speed is slow enough, the brain has plenty of time to catch everything it already knows and pick up something new on the way.

Another interesting advice I found really helpful is to go over old videos, movies or podcasts a few times. It’s an excellent way to refresh your vocabulary and, what’s more important, to boost your confidence. Why is that? Because even if you could comprehend just 50% of the content for the first time, this percentage increases to 80% by the second and will equal to 100% by the fifth.

RECAP: 7 ways to understand spoken language better

  1. Listen to a lot of authentic content: radios, podcast, videos on YouTube, music, etc.
  2. Make sure your listening sessions are short: you have just 10 minutes of active attention.
  3. Choose content appropriate for your proficiency level.
  4. Listen to the matters that interest you. Simple as it is, if you don’t listen to the news in your own language, don’t think that hearing about world catastrophes in French would make you beaucoup de bien.
  5. Use subtitles to give your comprehension a boost.
  6. Slow down the reading speed of your audiobook player.
  7. Go over the things you have already listened to a few times.

I hope this post gave you some helpful insights on how you can tame that new bilingual part of your brain. If you had the same problem with foreign movies, I would love to hear about your experience in the comments below.

Image Credits: Photo by William Iven 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. Matt Davis – An Introduction to Sine-Wave Speech
Notify of
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Tino Oudart
Tino Oudart
1 year ago

Great advices, thank you Alina :)

Read these next:

Get language learning hacks based on proven linguistic research.