This post is part of a series on learning foreign languages. It focuses on mastering the input half of foreign language learning which is listening and reading. For the first article which provides an overview into successful language learning, see ‘The Secret Benefit Of Learning Languages: How To Learn Effectively‘. For the article that provides specific details into becoming fluent in speaking and writing (the output half) in a foreign language, see ‘Language Learning: How To Speak And Write Fluently‘. For advice on how to get the most out of immersion and learning overseas see ‘Learning A Language Abroad: How To Use Immersion To Achieve Fluency‘. For the article on using language to develop understanding of a culture and vice versa, see ‘How To Better Your Foreign Language Ability Through The Language And Culture Relationship‘.


In many ways, listening is the most challenging skill when it comes to languages.

For one, it can create the most overwhelming situation for learners. Having to instantly interpret what someone is saying to you in person can be stressful since you need to communicate your understanding to another person in realtime.

It’s also the skill that’s most out of your control. With reading, speaking and writing you either have the ability to apply existing knowledge or have the time to process new knowledge. Listening is a more passive language skill—you’re receiving information but unlike reading, there’s no extra time to process it.

Even in our native tongues, we’re constantly reminded of the rarity and importance of good listening. As the saying goes: ”We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.”

So how do we conquer the challenge of verbal comprehension in foreign language learning?

i+1 in listening

In my post about getting into language teaching, I wrote about the power of i+1 as a learning principle.

If it’s good enough for decades of classroom foreign language teaching pedagogy across the world, it’s good enough for any foreign language learner.

i+1 is what I call the ‘Goldilocks concept’—progressing at a level that is just right for you.

There’s a sweet spot when it comes to progression in learning any skillset. If what you’re learning is too easy, you’ll soon become disengaged and bored. On the other hand, if what you’re learning is too difficult, you’ll become frustrated and stressed. When the difficulty level is just right however, you’re at your maximum level of interest and engagement, in a flow state of optimal gains. i+1 is the key to unlocking this sweet spot.

i+1 marries well with listening practice. ‘i’ is your current ability and ‘+1’ is one level above that. To enter the sweet spot of ideal progression in listening, listen to audio that is slightly more difficult than your current listening level. This will keep your ears focused on improving verbal comprehension without the vices of boredom or frustration creeping in.

As an overarching learning principle, i+1 applies to any language learning skillset. But it’s particularly helpful with listening. 

As mentioned, listening is the language skill where progression is most out of our control. Unlike the other language faculties, x amount of study doesn’t result in y amount of result. Attentive study of 10 new words encountered when reading results in 10 new words memorised. But 10 minutes of careful hearing of new vocabulary doesn’t result in guaranteed understanding the next time you hear those words. Along with another technique discussed below, i+1 is an efficient approach to dealing with this.

The beauty of i+1 is it’s simplicity to implement in practice. With the internet and resources available, there’s always a way to find audio material aligned with your ‘+1’. The following are example ideas of audio material you can use depending on the level you’re at:

Beginner: Audio accompanying beginner course materials, Beginner level YouTube videos, Basic and slow conversation with a teacher

Elementary: Children’s audiobooks, (slow) Songs, Elementary level YouTube videos

Intermediate: Audio accompanying intermediate course materials, Young adult audiobooks, (faster) Songs, TV shows, Movies and films, Podcasts, Immersion conversations with a teacher

Advanced: All types of audiobooks and podcasts, TV shows and films with colloquial language and slang, Immersion conversations with natives

Note that this doesn’t mean there are only four levels to the concept of i+1. Language competency can be cut finely into many levels or reduced to just a few. 

What’s important is that you’re challenged enough above your current level without feeling overwhelmed. One intermediate learner might find it optimal to listen to advanced material while another intermediate individual might feel pushed too far by jumping to advanced and instead prefers audio around an upper-intermediate range.

Another tip is altering the speed of audio material to calibrate to your i+1 level. Many interfaces such as YouTube offer users the ability to speed up or slow down the video and audio meaning in theory, you can use any material no matter it’s level and turn it into a sweet spot resource. If one piece of audio feels ‘+2’ instead of ‘+1’, try slowing it down to 0.75x. If you understand everything straight away, try speeding the material up to 1.5x.

i+1 isn’t the only panacea for your listening challenges. There’s also a unique method called chunking.

Foreign Language Listening


If i+1 gets your listening porridge bowl ‘just right’, chunking will make each spoonful perfect.

Chunking is the process of breaking down large amounts of information into smaller pieces so that our brains are more effective in processing them.

In psychology, this is most apparent with faculties such as memory where separating bits of information into chunks makes them easier to combine into a meaningful whole allowing for better retention. For example, it’s easier to remember 30 07 1966 as a date than the number 30071966 on its own.

Applying this to listening in foreign language learning, chunking means listening to smaller snippets of audio repeatedly until you achieve full understanding.

By dividing audio files into smaller pieces and mastering comprehension of each one, you achieve a ‘meaningful whole’ of the entire audio material.

Take a five minute YouTube video in a target language for example. If you listen to the whole video only once through, you’re almost certainly not going to understand everything said. Even at your i+1 level, a one time listen isn’t going to be effective enough.

But if you break the video down into 1 minute chunks and listen to each repeatedly before moving on to the next, you’re optimising for your brain’s processing capacity. You’re allowing your mind to catch everything said instead of missing out due to continuous new sounds appearing.

In essence, chunking is a multitasking remover—it hones our focus on understanding one thing at a time instead of spreading our attention thin trying to process incoming (sound) bits of information and never comprehending any one bit properly.

As with all aspects of foreign language learning, chunking requires patience. To a new language learner, listening to the same audio again and again can induce FOMO. They feel like they could be watching an entire series or listening to an entire audiobook yet they’re replaying the same pieces over and over. 

But recall that listening progression doesn’t operate in the same way as other faculties. The average foreign language learner is doing what everyone else is doing such as watching entire movies or TV shows with little understanding and not getting superior results.

Contrary to a ‘listen and hope’ approach, chunking is a prime way to train your ear to internalise the sound of a foreign language. It forces you to pay intricate attention to the cadence, rhythm, intonation and patterns of native speakers. Since spoken language uses the most frequent words again and again, you’ll master understanding the majority of your target language speech patterns faster than you think. 

By embodying a strong foundation in the verbal structure of a foreign language, listening becomes mostly an exercise in hearing new words. This is what the author and martial arts competitor Joshua Waitzkin calls learning the macro from the micro, going in depth to hone a particular component which makes you understand how the macro skill ticks.

Someone using a ‘listen and hope’ approach isn’t going to hear new words faster than you. If you’re a comprehensive language learner studying vocabulary as well then you’ll pick up those words in speech when you eventually encounter them.

For best results, use i+1 and chunking both in combination together and separately. Listening to i+1 longer form content can prevent the feeling of over-repetition from chunking while chunking can motivate you via complete understanding of the material in a way even i+1 can’t.

Foreign Language Chunking


If you wish to reach a high level in a foreign language, reading is vital—you can’t skip it.

The reason is that compared to everyday speech, the written language uses significantly more vocabulary. To gain a broad understanding and know-how of less frequent but important vocabulary, you must read.

Reading doesn’t have to entail sifting through giant tomes of reference grammars or textbooks. There are different ways to flexibly incorporate reading into your language learning study.

i+1 in reading

As discussed, the concept of i+1 is an overarching learning principle. As the basis for ‘comprehensible input’, it works well with learning to read in foreign languages too.

As with the listening component of language learning, you’ll want to find material aligned with your reading ‘+1’ so that you can progress at an optimal rate. Below are some ideas for reading materials separated via ability levels:

Beginner: Beginner textbooks/courses

Elementary: Children’s books, Comics, Basic short stories

Intermediate: Intermediate textbooks/courses, Novellas, Young adult books, Newspapers, Articles, Blog posts

Advanced: Advanced textbooks/courses, Novels, Non-fiction literature, Specialist material

Unlike listening, you have more time to process the input you’re receiving when reading meaning you may find you can push yourself with higher level materials quicker than expected.

When reading at an i+1 level, it helps to have a dictionary on hand to look up new vocabulary. Strive for as much understanding with the reading material as possible to ensure you’re internalising the target language. You can also use the next method described below for a more fluid reading experience.

Foreign Language Reading

Digital text with foreign language translation extensions

If you favour reading digital material either online or through an eReader, there are a number of tools you can use for a smoother target language reading experience.

Google Chrome browser has many extensions that allow you to translate vocabulary on-the-go as you read content online. This makes for a more seamless reading experience than getting out a physical dictionary and looking up the word by hand.

Some of the leading Chrome extensions include Readlang, Rememberry and Google Dictionary.

If you read on an Amazon Kindle eReader, a handy instant translation tool is Kindle Cloud Reader Translate.

It’s paramount when using these embedded translation tools that you only use them to translate unknown words and not translate the entire text.

Relying on mass translation or even translation of entire sentences is a fallback crux that prevents learners from internalising their target language. It’s no different to watching a foreign language TV series with your native language subtitles on. You’re going to struggle with substantive learning since your brain defaults to comprehension in your own language and not the one you aspire to learn.

Use the tools as efficient dictionaries for swift understanding of new words, then keep yourself immersed in the foreign language reading material as much as possible.

The techniques covered so far follow a standard reading process to improve your target language reading efficiency. But there’s another method that will supercharge your entire understanding of the language.

Foreign Language Digital Text

Bidirectional Translation

When I started self-directed learning of foreign languages over a decade ago, bidirectional translation was a transformative method in achieving comprehensive understanding of a new language.

Although it starts out as a reading method, it includes active translation via writing to combine input and output into one extensive foreign language learning technique. Like the other techniques I’ve shown throughout this series, it’s centred around deep understanding of the core elements of a language skillset rather than speed. In the long run, deep understanding trumps rushed learning.

There are four steps to bidirectional translation:

1. Read to understand

Find text that has versions in your own language (L1) and the target language you’re learning (L2). A good resource for this is the Assimil series of courses which display L1 and L2 versions of texts on adjacent pages. Read the texts in both languages for deep understanding of the material.

2. Translate from the target language (L2) to your own language (L1)

Without looking at the L1 version, translate the L2 text by hand into your own language.

3. Translate back from your own language (L1) to the target language (L2)

Using the L1 text you translated yourself, translate back into L2 without looking at the original version of the text.

4. Cross-check your translations with the original versions

The final step is to consolidate your learning by comparing your own translations with the original texts. Identify any errors and gaps in grammar, spelling and vocabulary and learn from them.

The power of this technique is that it forces deep understanding leaving no stone unturned in how well you grasp the passive and active components of your target language. Use this technique and reap the rewards.

Foreign Language Bidirectional


In the dynamic of foreign language learning, the output of speaking and writing must be balanced with the input of listening and reading. If something isn’t between your ears first, then you’re not going to be able to get it out of your mouth or hand.

Listening can pose a realtime challenge for learners with the need for fast processing of what someone is saying to you.

Using the concept of i+1 in listening to maximise your progression via your own listening ‘sweet spot’. Use speed adjusters on audio and other interfaces to align your material with the ideal level for learning.

Work in tandem with your brain by using chunking. Listen to shorter pieces of audio repeatedly until you’ve achieved understanding which will allow your brain to internalise the sounds and patterns of the spoken language in a deep manner.

Reading is essential for higher level learning and acquiring wider vocabulary.

As with listening, i+1 in reading is still effective as a principle of making sure this passive phase of foreign language learning is being done in your sweet spot.

Take advantage of the online tools that exist to make reading digital text a smooth experience.

Last but not least, use bidirectional translation for ultimate understanding of the structure of a foreign language.

With the principles and methods covered in this foreign language learning series, you have the tools to conquer any target language. Make learning a habit with these methods, stick to your process and you’ll achieve the fluency you’ve always desired.