Tips & Techniques to

Develop English Skills

(Contents)

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Improving Your English Listening Skills (About 5,200 words)



Improving Your English Listening Skills



Table of Contents



1 Introduction: Why you should give top priority to improving your listening skills among the four skills

Listening is the foundation of speaking, reading, and writing skills.
Make the best use of the reading skills for entrance exams by developing listening skills.


2 Understanding listening skills: Listening skill is the integration of top-down and bottom-up processing

Listen “from the whole to the details” and “from the details to the whole.”


3 Method 1: Make it a habit to listen to English directly related to your interests at your own pace

Learn to listen from the whole to the details by using “videos with subtitles and transcriptions,” “adding subtitles to videos,” “podcasts,” “audiobooks,” and “Text-to-Speech service.”


4 Method 2: Learn English sound features analytically

Learning pronunciation leads to better listening skills.
Pronunciation skills develop skills of reading and writing, too.


5 Conclusion

Links to other useful sites.



Audio of "Improving Your Listening Skills" (The playback speed is adjustable on Chrome or Edge)

Introduction



Points



Listening is the foundation of speaking, reading, and writing skills.
Make the best use of the reading skills for entrance exams by developing listening skills.



Now that you have arrived at this article, you may probably feel your English listening skills are weak or that you have a strong desire to improve them. Whatever your motivation, we hope this article will help you develop your English listening skills because listening is the first skill to strengthen among the four skills (reading, writing, listening, and speaking) for many university students in Japan. In this section, we will explain why it is essential to improve your listening skills from two perspectives: “Listening is the foundation of English proficiency” and “You can make the best use of the reading skills for entrance exams by developing listening skills.”



We must first acknowledge the limitations of these ideas. Those of you who are hard of hearing in general must be experiencing great difficulty in listening, not just in English. The authors of this article regret they have little expertise in disability issues, with unique circumstances for each individual. Unfortunately, therefore, this article cannot offer any specific advice on developing English listening skills for those in such situations.


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1.1 Listening is the foundation of speaking, reading, and writing skills



Some of you may be thinking, “If I can't understand spoken English, all I need to do is just use a smartphone app to transcribe English audio. That will solve my problem, right?” However, that idea denies a great deal of your potential. This is because developing your listening skills and learning the sound features of English is the foundation for your speaking, reading, and writing skills.

Speaking is not making sounds in an arbitrary way but vocalizing them so that other people can hear and understand you without much problem. Vocalization should be based on the sound characteristics of English (pronunciation, intonation, rhythm, among others) to a reasonable degree so that the listener can easily understand the content of the speech.

However, perfect pronunciation like a so-called “native speaker” is virtually impossible to attain for non-native English users. No learners should feel ashamed of that. Nevertheless, if learners pronounce with an unusually difficult accent, many listeners in the world will not understand them, to the disappointment of the speaker in the end. In terms of intonation, too, it is crucial to speak so that the pitches naturally change according to the meaning the speaker intends to express. A monotonous speech with little intonation does not convey much meaning even when it is pronounced correctly. The rhythm should also emphasize the intended meaning effectively. Once learners have mastered these sound features of English to a reasonable extent, the listener will naturally focus on the content of their speech.

Thus, in speaking, learners need to have some knowledge of the sound features of English. The foundation for this acquisition is, of course, listening to a lot of natural English (i.e., English in which the content and the sound are fused). When mastering music, people first listen to a lot of the music they want to learn. In learning an athletic skill, people first observe examples of competent performers. When learners listen to English, they are preparing to build their articulation skills.

The argument above can be extended to reading. Reading begins with the reader's mind transforming the print in front of them into an expressive human voice. Reading is “listening with the eyes,” so to speak. If readers cannot do such phonetic conversion effortlessly, that is, if they do not hear a human voice from the print, their reading skills may not be practical enough in the real world.

This vocalization of the printed word is more demanding than musicians’ effort to produce sound from a musical score. A musical score offers various symbols to designate pitch, length, tonality, and expression of the sounds, for example. However, English sentences are merely a series of letters with no convenient signals to help readers produce a communicative human voice. Therefore, learners need to have a lot of listening experience and familiarize themselves with English sounds. The familiarization should be beyond the level of automatic recall of word pronunciations. Learners should embody the sound features of English to the point where they can master altering intonation and rhythm as meaning changes. In other words, listening to the “music of English” is necessary if learners want their reading to be “as comfortable as listening to music.”

The foundation of writing is also in listening. The basis of writing is to write sentences that the reader can vocalize comfortably. In other words, writing is about putting words in such a way that the reader can comfortably “listen with the eyes.”

To sum up, speaking, reading, and writing will improve as learners expand their listening experience and acquire the sound features of English. Learners should aim to improve their listening skills, not so much to obtain high scores on listening tests but to improve their overall English proficiency so that they can enjoy using English.

However, one problem with listening is that listeners have to adapt to the speaker’s pace. Learners can choose to speak, read, and write at a speed with which they are comfortable. In listening, however, they cannot usually control the speed of the speaker’s speech. For this reason, some people may have negative feelings about listening. However, we hope the methods that this article introduces will help learners improve their listening skills and unlock their English potential.


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1.2 You can make the best use of the reading skills for entrance exams by developing listening skills.



Many of you must have spent a great deal of effort preparing for the university entrance exam. That effort has resulted in your high level of English reading skills. Many of you make sense of written English very accurately, with a reasonable speed.

However, in many cases, the reading skills did not directly transfer to listening skills. Some learners may have neglected to improve their listening skills and focused on developing their reading skills because listening was not that important in the entrance exam. As a result, they may pass the entrance exam, but without good listening skills, they may not even recognize English sounds that would be obvious to understand if they were written. Thus, they feel troubled in conversational situations. In addition, since listening skills are directly related to speaking skills (especially the ability to vocalize intended English intelligibly), a lack of listening experience directly leads to a lack of speaking skills.

What is frustrating for such a learner is that to non-Japanese English users who are not aware of the learner's reading ability, the learner appears to be “someone who can't even understand such simple English.” When those learners try to speak, they cannot speak English like flowing music because they have not mastered the sound features of English. Many Japanese say with a sense of slight envy that “non-Japanese learners of English can express what they want to say even if their grammar is strange.” Many Japanese cannot speak in that way because they do not know sound features of English. If those learners keep searching for words, proficient users of English users may assume that they can't speak English. Very unfortunately, people with little imagination about non-native speakers’ efforts may make negative judgments about their intelligence in general from superficial features of the language.

It is thus frustrating that learners’ listening skills are far below their reading skills. If learners can bring their listening skills as close as possible to their reading skills, they will be amply rewarded for all their hard work and avoid unfair evaluation from others. Many in Japan say that English for exams is not practical. However, if students’ listening abilities can be close to their reading comprehension of English for exams, their English will be very useful in practical situations. Learning (or relearning) appropriate phonetic representations for the English words they understand in reading is only a matter of exposing themselves to the sounds and acquiring them. We strongly recommend that university students improve their listening skills and obtain the English competency they deserve. In this section, we have explained that listening is the most fundamental of the four skills. In the next section, we will briefly analyze how listening skills are structured. After that, we will introduce some ways to improve listening skills based on the analysis.



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2 Understanding listening skills:
Listening skill is the integration of top-down and bottom-up processing



Point



Listen “from the whole to the details” and “from the details to the whole.”



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Listening skills can be understood as the integration of top-down and bottom-up processing. Top-down processing uses abstract, higher-order cognitive processing, such as understanding the overall meaning of a text, to facilitate more concrete, lower-order cognitive processing (e.g., identifying the words a learner hears). Bottom-up processing is the opposite: using concrete, lower-order cognitive processing, such as word identification, to facilitate abstract, higher-order cognitive processing, such as understanding the meaning of an entire text. Listening is a process in which these two processes complement each other, with top-down processing helping to catch the details while bottom-up processing promotes understanding of the whole.

This complementarity between top-down and bottom-up processing may lead to a philosophical paradox called the “hermeneutic circle of the whole and the parts.” This paradox means that the whole cannot be understood unless the parts can be comprehended, but for the comprehension of the parts, the whole must be understood.

We can make an analogical argument about listening: Exact identification of a word or a sentence is often difficult unless the listener has some understanding of the meaning of the whole text. Nevertheless, to understand the meaning of the whole text, they must comprehend the words and sentences that make up the entire text. A slightly different translation is that it is difficult to “listen to the details without considering the meaning of the whole text” or “try to understand the meaning of the whole text without catching the details.” In listening, it is crucial to both understand the whole and comprehend the parts simultaneously. 

Top-down processing means, for example, that the listener asks themselves, “What is the topic of this talk?” “What argument is this text making about this topic?” “What function does this sentence perform in the entire topic?” “Considering the structure of the whole text, what function will the next sentence perform?” Bottom-up processing, on the other hand, involves asking questions such as, “Now that this word has been mentioned, what word will come next?” “With these parts I recognized, how can I guess the overall message of the text?”

Naturally, most of these questions are formulated and processed unconsciously by the brain below the level of verbalization and consciousness. (If these questions were verbalized and vocalized in mind, it would be extremely difficult to hear English sounds coming from outside.)  

If we regard listening comprehension as the integration of top-down and bottom-up processing or as a complementary process between understanding the whole and comprehending the parts, then there are two ways to improve listening comprehension. One is to focus on understanding the whole while using that understanding to comprehend the details. The other is to prioritize the comprehension of the details while utilizing that comprehension to understand the whole. To use a metaphorical expression, we may say that the methods are either “to attack from top to bottom or from bottom to top.”

These two top-down and bottom-up methods are explained in the two sections below. There must be individual preferences for learning strategies. We hope you can find or invent ones that are suitable for you.



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3 Method 1: Make it a habit to listen to English
directly related to your interests at your own pace



Point



Learn to listen from the whole to the details by using “videos with subtitles and transcriptions,” “adding subtitles to videos,” “podcasts,” “audiobooks,” and “Text-to-Speech service.”


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Confucius once said in the Analects: “Those who learn something cannot surpass those who like it. Those who like it cannot surpass those who enjoy it.” An expansion of this saying would be, “It's more effective to listen to what you like than to force yourself to listen to what you have to study. Furthermore, to enjoy listening to what you like will be far more effective.

The method we recommend in this regard is to “listen to English directly related to your interests at your own pace and incorporate English listening into your daily routine and enjoy it.” This method emphasizes top-down processing, focusing on the meaning of the whole text. It is also a method that prioritizes learners’ feelings (motivation, interest, and willingness) over skill training. There are five possible teaching materials for this method that we recommend: “videos with subtitles and transcriptions,” “adding subtitles to videos,” “podcasts,” “audiobooks,” and “Text-to-Speech service.” We will explain them one by one below.



3.1 Video with subtitles and transcription



Listening to English while looking at English subtitles or transcripts is a great way to learn English for learners who are not yet proficient in listening to the details but are interested in the content of English videos. Listening to English while following the subtitles and transcriptions with the eyes will teach learners the appropriate audio representation for their reading skills and improve their listening skills (and eventually articulation skills, too).

Following the English subtitles and transcriptions at the speed of the English audio will also help improve their reading speed. The ultimate goal, of course, is to understand the audio directly without any subtitles or transcriptions. However, the top-down-processing-oriented method here prioritizes enjoying the meaning of the entire English video. This method is also about valuing the learners’ feelings (motivation, interest, and willingness).

Among the English videos that offer subtitles and transcriptions, the best ones for learning English are probably free and inspiring videos, such as TED and Khan Academy. TED invites people in the global spotlight for their distinguished ideas to give a presentation in 20 minutes or less. Most videos have subtitles and transcriptions. (A related site is TED-Ed, which is designed for English-speaking learners, not general audiences. Most videos have English subtitles).

Khan Academy presents short videos (and quizzes) on educational content from the early elementary to the high school level, with English subtitles. Users can view the videos without registering. These enlightening English videos let Japanese learners of English relearn what they have learned up to the high school level through English. The relearning can arouse their intellectual curiosity because they can understand the content from a different perspective. It is enjoyable to learn something away from examination pressures. Also, although many Japanese learners know much about history, geography, mathematics, and natural science subjects, most do not know how to express it in English. Therefore, when such topics are discussed in English, they will feel frustrated because they want to participate but cannot. However, if they learn English expressions efficiently through these engaging videos, they will acquire English skills more appropriate to their intellectual curiosity.

Those who find the speed of the English audio too fast to follow the English subtitles or transcriptions can use the speed adjustment function that those websites above have and listen at a slower speed as they like.

If learners do not know much about the technical vocabulary of their field of interest, they may first read the subtitles or transcriptions in Japanese. In this case, they may regard English videos as “English learning materials with Japanese translation and video playback.” If the videos are about their favorite topics, learners will enjoy learning from such materials. One caution is necessary, though. Those who read Japanese subtitles inevitably make their brains convert the Japanese subtitles into audio, thus paying less attention to the English sounds. While it is OK to use some Japanese subtitles at the start, try to avoid depending on them.



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3.2 Adding subtitles to a video


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The above explained how to use videos that have English subtitles or transcriptions. However, many video sites do not provide subtitles or transcriptions. Until recently, learners with limited listening skills had to give up on such videos despite their interest in the content. However, in the spring of 2021, Google added a revolutionary feature to the Chrome browser for free: an AI that automatically recognizes the English audio coming from the Chrome browser and immediately transcribes it. Users can now read the English subtitles a moment later than they hear the English audio (Users can easily set this up by selecting “Settings > Advanced Settings” from the upper right corner of the Chrome screen).

These Chrome subtitles are not presented before the English audio but appear after a moment's delay. This feature is surprisingly helpful for improving listening skills. If learners read the subtitles before the English audio, that prior knowledge of the text inevitably stays in mind, and they lose focus on the English audio. However, if there are no subtitles when they listen to the audio, and the transcript appears a moment later, learners concentrate more on listening. In addition, the English that they wrongly assumed they have heard is corrected by the subtitles immediately afterward. It is as if learners are in a state of a continuous process of the dictation method (i.e., training to listen to English speech and transcribe it by themselves) without moving their hands. This cycle of listen-read-check improves their detailed listening skills.

Users can, of course, turn off the subtitles to check how their listening skills have improved. ICT and AI are providing far more opportunities for learning than people imagined, free of charge.

Sites that can benefit from Chrome's automatic English subtitling feature include news sites, hobby sites, and NHK language program sites.

Many news videos are provided by English-language broadcasters. Watching the news videos through the Chrome browser enables learners to check the English audio of the news with English subtitles. Since the newscasters are professionally trained in vocalization, Chrome's speech recognition and transcription are almost 100% accurate. Also, watching the news in English helps Japanese learners to converse with English speakers. Learners who only watch the news in Japanese do not learn the English pronunciation of the places and people on the topic. Even when learners have their ideas about the news, they cannot communicate well in English. Starting to watch the news in English expands their range of conversation topics.

Many videos of a variety of hobbies are available in English. Learners only need to put English keywords in the search box of YouTube and look for English videos about their favorite subjects. Also, if learners have a researcher or author they are interested in, searching for them on YouTube is an excellent idea. In many cases, their lectures are available to the public. It is exciting to hear the voices and see the facial expressions of researchers and authors learners know through the printed word.

However, the accuracy of Chrome's voice recognition may somewhat be degraded by many of the speakers who have not been particularly trained in public speaking. Yet, it is interesting to note that if learners have the expertise (and the desire to understand the content), they can understand a lot of English that Chrome fails to recognize. They may point out the limitations of Chrome's speech recognition and say, “This English sounds like as Chrome recognizes it, but it must be ____ given the context.” We encourage learners to make it a pleasure in their life to watch English videos by adding subtitles to their favorite videos of their personal interest.

Another valuable type of website to take advantage of the automatic subtitle generation feature is NHK's language programs (for learning English). NHK's language programs are based on the needs of Japanese learners, making them a valuable resource, especially for those who are not so adept at the target language. Users can listen to NHK language programs for a week or so on the NHK website. They no longer have to sit in front of the radio on a particular date and time.

However, most of NHK's language programs are best used with their textbooks. Although textbooks are available at reasonable prices, including e-book versions, the purchase of textbooks has been a barrier for some learners to continue using NHK language programs. However, with Chrome's free auto-subtitling feature, learners with limited listening abilities can now check the English audio without looking at the text. The subtitle makes it easier to keep using NHK language programs. However, subtitles alone cannot fully convey the rich content of the text. If learners like a program, we recommend purchasing the textbook as well. The explanations above show only a few examples of how to use Chrome's automatic subtitle generator to enjoy English videos on news sites, hobby sites, and NHK language program sites. There must be many other ways to take advantage of this feature. We hope learners will start using this feature in Chrome autonomously.



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3.3 Podcasts


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Podcast programs can be accessed through certain apps on a smartphone, tablet, or computer, not in the open webspace. Learners who subscribe to a music streaming app can find quite a few podcast programs in that app. This section explains how to use audio podcast programs.

Because most of the well-known podcast programs are created by a team of professionals, the accuracy of the content and the vocalization of the broadcasters are often of high quality. Therefore, they are recommended for developing learning skills. A typical example of such is the multiple podcast programs that The New York Times provides. These are associated with the print version of newspaper articles, and listeners can examine the news content from multiple perspectives. (One note: the web versions of newspapers such as The New York Times require a paid subscription if users want to view them more than a certain number of times per month.)  

Internationally prestigious academic journals, Science and Nature, also have their podcast programs, reporting summaries of the latest scientific findings. These programs are related to the journals’ websites, too. 

 Other podcast programs are more light-hearted, including casual English learning programs. Please find the best program for you.



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3.4 Audiobooks


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Nowadays, it is easy to purchase audiobooks narrated by professionals. If learners love English books and want to remember some expressions in them by heart, it is an excellent idea to buy the audiobook version of that book and listen to it continuously in their spare time. This habit of listening can be an effortless way to acquire English expressions that are meaningful to their lives. Also, if learners are interested in a translated book used in an academic course in Japanese, they may read the translation thoroughly and then buy the original book and the audiobook in English. They can listen to the audiobook repeatedly or listen to the audiobook while following the English text of the book with their eyes. In this case, learners integrate the book's content and the English expression into their knowledge simultaneously. With the clever use of audiobooks, they can learn the contents of books along with original expressions. Learners do not have to be serious book lovers. It is also enjoyable to listen to an audiobook of a classic children's book that they read in Japanese translation in the past. Since learners know the story, it is easy to keep listening. They may remember many famous lines and enjoy discovering the original English expressions. Most audiobook apps have a speed adjustment function, so learners can slow down or speed up as they please. Also, many audiobook apps are accessible from the Chrome browser, which adds transcriptions automatically.



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3.5 Text-To-Speech



There are currently AI services on the web that vocalize typed English sentences. If learners are not confident to give a research presentation in English, they may prepare for it by using one of these sites to convert their prepared English manuscript into English speech. They can listen to it many times so that they can develop a core of English speaking fluently for that presentation. Needless to say, a presentation involves more than vocalizing the manuscript. The Q&A session is critical. However, mastering essential expressions of the topic may make a solid foundation for the Q&A session. [Click here to listen to the AI readout of the English translation of this article.]

In this section, we have introduced some ways to learn (or enjoy) listening in a top-down manner, prioritizing learners’ personal interests and overall understanding of the contents. There are Japanese sayings, such as Sukikoso-monono-jozunare (“Having a positive feeling about a skill is essential to master it”) or Narauyori-narero (“Better to be familiar with something than to learn it”). We hope you will find materials that you enjoy watching.

In the next section, we will explain a learning method that focuses on learning the features of English sounds in a bottom-up processing way.



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4 Method 2: Learn English sound features analytically



Points



Learning pronunciation leads to better listening skills.
Pronunciation skills develop skills of reading and writing, too.


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This section will briefly account for the “bottom-up” method (a training method that prioritizes bottom-up processing) to listen to small units such as words and sentences accurately.

One of the major reasons that learners cannot pick up on the details of spoken English is that they are not fully aware of the phonetic features of English that are different from those of Japanese. To overcome this, learners should read English pronunciation guidebooks and practice articulation by following their explanations (and the accompanying audio). In the process of training to pronounce reasonably, they will naturally acquire the ability to recognize the features of English sounds.

Since pronunciation is a motor skill that is performed with the tongue and mouth, it is reasonable to think of it as an example of sporting skills. Some talented people in the world naturally learn a sporting skill just by watching it without being taught by anyone. However, many people cannot execute a technique well just by watching it. Therefore, the coach explains the critical points of the technique, such as its structure and process. Then, the beginner starts to learn the technique little by little. At first, the movements may be awkward, but eventually, the conscious and analytical execution of the techniques will merge with the images of competent players that they have been observing; the beginner will embody the techniques on their own without much difficulty. Our suggestion here is to do the same with listening.

English pronunciation guidebooks systematically explain English sounds at various levels, such as phonemes (the smallest unit of sound), words, phrases, and sentences, in terms of the pronunciation difficulty for Japanese learners or the frequency of expressions in English corpora. Those guidebooks often contain English audio resources in accompanying CDs or downloadable audio.

Learners should try to construct these English sounds by faithfully following the textbook and sample voices. It may be frustrating at first, as their tongue and mouth may not move as much as they like. However, as they continue to try, their bodies will eventually learn to pronounce them (aided by the memory of the sounds stored in their brains).

Once the learners can pronounce the sounds by themselves to a certain degree, their ability to distinguish them will improve. Humans can recognize motor skills that they can perform more accurately than those they cannot. To take an example from spots, for many people a boxing match at the Olympic Games only consists of a series of movements too fast to recognize. However, when such a person starts practicing boxing, they will start to see previously unrecognizable movements.

Suppose there is an English sentence that a learner cannot recognize; they should read it aloud repeatedly, if only slowly at first. Gradually, they increase the speed of vocalization. After this physical self-training, they listen to the sentence again. Much to their surprise, they should find the original English sound incredibly slow. Applying this general rule of thumb, we suggest that students learn to pronounce English correctly to improve their English listening skills.


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The pronunciation skills they learn will be useful not only for listening but also for their subsequent speaking experience. To expand on the previous point, “Reading is listening with the eyes,” we can state that “Reading is turning letters into sound and listening to it in the mind”. Similarly, in writing, it is useful for writers to rewrite their English text after vocalizing it and checking how comfortable the sound is. Writing experts recommend reading aloud text writers have written for this reason.

At the beginning of this article, we argued that improving listening skills is the number one priority among the four skills. Here, we add that one way to improve listening skills is to take a slight detour and focus only on the art of articulation in speaking. Learning to pronounce English by closely following guidebooks and sample voices will produce a desirable effect in listening, speaking, reading, and writing.

There are many introductory English pronunciation guidebooks available on the market. Learners should choose the book for themselves by checking book reviews and other sources. Also, since learning English is a worldwide activity, various apps are available for smartphones and other devices. Some are international bestsellers, and many of them use AI to evaluate the user’s pronunciation. Learners can find the best app for themselves from reviews and other sources, too. However, please bear in mind that some apps only use American English as their evaluation criterion. British English speakers may obtain a relatively low rating, although their pronunciation is perfectly acceptable worldwide.

In general, English pronunciation training can be unnecessarily time-consuming and labor-intensive if learners set a goal to “to sound perfectly like a native speaker.” Many English users (i.e., people who use English to accomplish something meaningful in their lives without learning English for its own sake) say, “If your English is comfortably intelligible to others, it is good enough. If you have time to train for a higher level of pronunciation, you should probably spend it on your professional studies or personal hobbies.” We suggest that learners should set their own goals as the owner of their learning.

This DELE website provides a brief presentation of one of the most prominent sound features of English, the phonetic changes that occur when words are connected to each other. Please click here to take advantage of it.

There are also some very useful free sites available on the web. In particular, the following site, created by Dr. Midori Iba (Konan University), is worth visiting.



English Pronunciation Practice for Japanese Learners
http://kccn.konan-u.ac.jp/ilc/english/



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5 Conclusion


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Here we have explained why it is critical to improve listening skills and then explained listening skills in terms of top-down and bottom-up processing. Then it introduced a method for improving listening skills that prioritizes top-down processing and another one that favors bottom-up processing.  Some of you may have acquired a car license and realized that your world changed with your driving experience. The same is true for using English. When learners start using English outside of the classroom, instead of studying inside it, their world expands at once. And as they use English, they learn more of it. The English they learn further broadens and deepens their world. We hope that readers of this article will improve listening skills during their college years, incorporate the habit of using English into their lives, and get more enjoyment in their lives.

In addition to the sites and apps mentioned above, there are many more useful ones.

The DELE website also has a database of useful sites and apps for learning English autonomously. Click here to explore the possibilities.

If you want a consultation on English language learning, click here.

You can learn from the experience of autonomous users of English at Kyoto University from here.



[Click here to listen to the AI readout of this article.]



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Audio of "Improving Your Listening Skills" (The playback speed is adjustable on Chrome or Edge)