How to perfect your listening skills in 6 easy steps

Level: B1/+

(You’ll find a short vocabulary list at the bottom of this article containing the underlined words. If there are any other words you don’t understand, don’t hesitate to ask).

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Hi, I’m back for the latest episode of this blog. I hope you enjoyed reading my guide to learning a foreign language last time.

Today I’m going to write to you about how you can improve your listening skills in six easy steps. I am going to use the example of ABBA to help you, but these six steps can be applied to any band / musician you like.

Here are six simple steps to sharpen your listening skills:

Six steps:
Actively listen
Read title and interpret
Read the lyrics
Listen to chorus without text
Listen to song with lyrics
Listen to song without pausing
Six simple steps ©Tamás Bradford Teaching 2019

In the above diagram, you see six steps to improve your listening skills. Let me go through this diagram in a bit more detail.

Step 1: Actively listen

First of all, when you start, you should actively listen to the song from beginning to end. Active listening means when you are listening for the words and meanings of the lyrics. In contrast, passive listening means that we don’t really pay attention to the lyrics, but just enjoy the melodies. If you have problems with the vocabulary, you should write down the unclear words as they are said/pronounced.

Step 2: Read title and interpret

Secondly, you then look at the title of the song and think of a meaning for it. If you don’t understand a part of the title, then you should use an English-English dictionary to find another meaning to the title. However, if this doesn’t help, then you translate the words into your native language, but be careful because words have different meanings in different contexts.

Step 3: Read the lyrics

Thirdly, I would advise that you read the lyrics. Look at the words you may have written down and see whether you wrote them correctly. Look up the words in the dictionary.

Step 4: Listen to chorus without the text

Fourthly, then listen to the chorus without the text, as it is the most repeated part of the song.

Step 5: Listen to song with lyrics

Listen to the song this time with the lyrics. Perhaps do this twice to become more confident. If you like singing, you can sing along as this also helps with your speaking. If you don’t like singing, then speak the words out loud.

Step 6: Listen to song without pausing

And finally, once you are confident enough you understand all the lyrics, listen to the song from beginning to end without pausing. By the end of this exercise you understand the meaning of the song and be able to understand the majority of it. However, if you don’t understand everything, you can always repeat this exercise numerous times, because you know how the saying goes, ‘Practice makes perfect!’

Now let’s apply these steps on Waterloo

I would now like us to try this exercise with ABBA’s first big hit, ‘Waterloo’. Here is the link, enjoy!

Step 1: Listen to the song from beginning to end. If you have problems with the vocabulary, write it down how you think it is said. 

Step 2: Once you have done this, you then look at the title of the song “Waterloo” and figure out a meaning to it. 

As many of you probably know, Waterloo is a place in Belgium and famous for Napoleons defeat by the English

Step 3: Now, let’s read the lyrics (link). Look at the vocabulary you may have written down and see whether you wrote it correctly. Look up the words in the dictionary.

Step 4: Then listen to the chorus without the text, (copy and paste the chorus?) as it is the most repeated part of the song.

Step 5: Listen to the song this time with the lyrics. Perhaps do this twice to become more confident. If you like singing, you can sing along as this also helps with your speaking. If you don’t like singing, then speak the words out loud.

Step 6: Once you are confident enough you understand all the lyrics, listen to the song from beginning to end without pausing. You should now understand the meaning of the song and be able to understand the majority of it. Don’t worry if you don’t understand everything, you can always repeat this exercise numerous times.

Why ABBA?

Why did I choose ABBA for our exercise? 

There are many answers to that question. First of all, anyone can learn English from them. Despite them not being native speakers of the English language, they produced songs so as anyone who is learning English can learn from them. Additionally, their pitch perfect singing also allows you as a learner to make out each and every word very clearly. 

My advice to you is really get into their music. Even if it’s not your sort of genre, they make it so easy to learn English. 

Coming from Sweden, they arrived on the world scene after their truly amazing performance at the Eurovision Song Contest in 1974 with our practice song Waterloo. Let’s look in more depth at them! Furthermore, let’s listen to a few more songs to practise our new learnt skills on how to perfect our listening skills.

So, click on one of the videos below and enjoy! I’m looking forward to hearing from you about what you have learnt!

Who are they?

The basic answer to that is three Swedish nationals, Björn Ulvaeus, Benny Andersson, Agnetha Fältskog and a Norwegian, Anni-Frid Lyngstad (Anni for short).

The beginnings

Björn and Benny had known each other since the mid 1960s after they met during their early careers in Sweden. They met Anni and Agnetha in 1969. All of the musicians had been successful in Sweden during the late 1960s. Agnetha and Björn married in July 1971 and Benny and Anni married in October 1978.

How did they become popular

They originally tried to qualify as Sweden’s Eurovision candidates with the song ‘Ring Ring’ in 1973. We already hear in this early recording the melodies and the perfection of the pitch. But, what we also hear is crystal-clear English pronunciation. This is despite none of the band coming from an English-speaking country. It has to be said, though, that the level of English is very high. For many English learners of all levels, but in particular for those of you starting out, this is a perfect place to start with the band.

Clear examples

Here is just an example of some of the lyrics, which can be made out very clearly, “Won’t you tell me honey how I can go on here without you / I’m down I’m feeling blue and I don’t know what to do! / So, ring, ring, why don’t you give me a call?” Furthermore, Björn’s harmonic voice says, “And I sit all alone impatiently, won’t you please understand the need in me”. We can hear the perfect pronunciation and almost native-like intonation of all these lyrics.

Breakthrough

On the night of the 6thApril 1974, ABBA had their breakthrough! With metaphors of the Battle of Waterloo (British defeating the French at the Battle of the Waterloo, Belgium) and love, this is such a great song. The costumes worn are very extravagant and the guitar that Björn is playing looks very cool. It seems like it is almost the shape of a star.

Perfect pronunciation

Yet again, this song shows that perfect pronunciation we heard in their first track. Here are a further lyrics that can be heard clearly during the song, ‘My, my! At Waterloo Napoleon did surrender / I have met my destiny in quite a similar way / Waterloo, promised to love you forever more.’ Added to this, we also see is the almost symmetrical choreography, which would also be characteristic of all ABBA performances.

More success, please

It seems, ABBA didn’t want to be one-hit wonders! After breaking on to the world scene, they followed this up with song ‘SOS’ in 1975. SOS – meaning save our souls – depicts someone in danger of ‘not being able to carry on’. In this depiction, the musicians are firmly in love, yet the person they love is not interested. The visual effects show how someone can be in a twist and how lives can become distorted by love. Further, clear as day examples, can be heard: ‘So when you’re near me darling, can’t you hear me SOS / The love you gave me, nothing else can save me SOS’.

More hits, more popularity

The period between 1975 and 1980 was the most productive part of ABBA’s existence. 1976 saw the release of Fernando and 1977 saw ABBA release Dancing Queen which would be their only US number 1. A song which has a real quality to it because of the easy-going beat and melody. Moreover, every element of the song works perfectly, including the most important part – the English!

Mood to dance

‘You’re in the mood for dance, when you get the chance, you are the dancing queen,’ proclaim Agnetha and Anni! ‘Friday night and the lights low, looking out for a place to go’ – something that we can all refer to in one way or another! ‘The night is young and the music is high!’ Such lyrics, which are crisply and succinctly sung, get us wanting to go to the dancefloor.

Pure eccentricity

In addition, ABBA songs would not be ABBA without a bit of eccentricity, which we can see in the songs Chiquitita and Knowing Me, Knowing You.

In Chiquitita, the band are sat in the middle of winter outside fully clad in winter clothes. In Knowing Me, Knowing You the band also appear in clips outside. But also the jealousy, which would eventually bring the end of the band, is already on show. Knowing Me, Knowing You also features Benny and Björn on backing vocals, which are so clearly sung that they can be made out under the harmony of Agnetha and Anni.

Simple, but easy examples

‘Walking through an empty house, tears in my eyes, this is where the story, this is goodbye!’ – these lyrics are clear to all listeners that this is the end of a relationship. Benny and Björn reply, ‘it’s time, it’s time we’re through. This time I have to go’. English lyrics do not have to be so complicated and ABBA show how simple it is to make English learnable.

Breakup

Unfortunately, ABBA only survived until 1981 as Benny and Frida divorced. The final album produced one last hit One Of Us. A song that summed up the breakup of the band with the lyrics ‘One of us is crying, one of us is lying in a lonely bed, staring at the ceiling’. Also the musical direction of the band has gone towards a more disco style rather than pop. This direction is also typical of many pop bands at the beginning of the 1980s. 

What happened next

As ABBA no longer existed as a band after 1982, there was a void that had to be filled. Between their breakup and today, ABBA’s records have been re-released by their record company, Polar Music.

Musical and film success

In 1999, the musical ‘ABBA’ premiered in London to great success. In 2008 with the help of Benny and Björn, the musical comedy film ‘Mamma Mia’, to a great fanfare. Last year, ‘Mamma Mia, Here We Go Again’ was released. This also received high praise from film critics.

Mamma Mia – Official Trailer
Mamma Mia 2 – Official Trailer

Is there going to be an ABBA revival

For those of you who have fallen in love with the harmonious melodies and clearly spoken English, it does not look like ABBA will come together anytime soon. They have been seen very rarely together since their official breakup in 1982. Nevertheless they were seen together at the premiere of the musical in 1999, the premiere in Leicester Square, London of the film Mamma Mia. 

If you would like to listen to the best ABBA songs of all time, here is the perfect CD for you:

ABBA Gold: The Greatest Hits

1 thought on “How to perfect your listening skills in 6 easy steps”

  1. Hallo Tommy,
    das sind ja wirklich ganz tolle Tipps, wenn man sein englisch verbessern möchte oder gar erlernen will. Ich finde besonders den Tipp mit den Liedern und den Lyrics super. Das geht natürlich auch mit Filmen, um die Aussprache besser zu hören 🙂

    Schönen Tag!

    Liebst Linni
    http://www.linnisleben.de

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