Using YouTube to develop listening skills on your own

Having clear strategies is key to dealing with new videos because most videos don’t come with handy vocabulary lists or warmup materials or comprehension questions. You have to figure out for yourself what you’re listening for! You often get the advice to just turn on the TV or radio and do your best, but that fast, nonstop stream of language gets overwhelming quickly. You can get more out of each video if you focus on a couple strategies and questions:

Listening can be one of the hardest skills to develop. Luckily, YouTube has a lot of features that can help you develop listening skills. I thought this could be very helpful for my students, so I did some research and compiled some best practices. You can develop your own listening if you have the right strategies, self-awareness, and process.

  • Expectations and goal-setting: What do you expect to get from this video? What do you want to get from it?
  • Awareness of your own comprehension: How well are you understanding it as you listen?
  • Research strategies for understanding new vocabulary or grammatical structures: How will you figure out the parts you don’t understand?
  • Social strategies for getting understanding from other people: Who can you ask for help?
  • Recording and reflecting on progress over time: How did this one work compared to the last one you watched? Compared to one you watched a month ago? A year ago?

Self-awareness is a key part of this process as well. You need to make sure that you’re in the right mindset while listening. Don’t expect yourself to get 100% of it; aim for 80% instead. That way there’s less stress to catch every word or pressure to listen to it dozens of times. Throughout the listening process, check in with yourself to make sure that the material is challenging enough to be understood, but with some effort. You want it to be not too hard AND not too easy.

Here is a walkthrough of the process that I use with students as they’re encountering new listening materials so that they’re prepared to do it on their own:

  • Preview it (look at the title, context, source, etc.) and brainstorm the topics, vocabulary, and information you might be about to see.
  • As you listen, revisit your expectations. Were you right or wrong?
  • Also, as you listen, check in with your emotional state. Is this getting stressful or is it going smoothly? Adjust the listening materials (speed, pause and restart, add captions, slow it down, or choose something new) to make sure you’re being challenged, but not too much.
  • After you’ve listened to it a couple of times, make a plan for how you’ll fill in the gaps. How will you find the vocabulary that you didn’t know? How will you understand points that you missed?

This process can be very effective, and using the technology that you already use in your daily life is a great way to help you develop an easy, comfortable routine to your language development. Podcasts, online video, and media outlets that offer audio or video versions of their stories have some of these same features, but I’ll focus here on YouTube. YouTube offers a few excellent features that give learners a lot of support in their language development:

  • You can adjust the speed of a video. 75% is usually the best for making speech understandable, but not too distorted. You can do this by clicking the Settings button (⚙), Speed, and “.75”.
  • You can add closed captions for many videos by clicking the “CC” button in the video window. Some of these are transcribed by people, but most are done by machine, so there might be some issues, especially with proper nouns or fast, casual speech.
  • You can also see the closed caption text compiled into a transcript by clicking the Extra Options (···) button and then “Open Transcript”.

Each of these features can help adjust the video quality to better suit your listening experience. I typically advise people to listen to it once at full speed without captions or transcript, and then use those tools to go back and listen again and fill in gaps.

Guiding your own learning is a satisfying way to help you toward your goals, and these are some tools for getting more comfortable with those skills. I hope these ideas and resources are helpful for you and I would love to hear about your feedback on them or implementation of them; please email me at [email protected]. Good luck!