One of the greatest challenges for non-native academic users of English as a Lingua Franca is keeping up with what is being said in discussions to the point where they can process the information in real time and contribute themselves. In a word, the challenge is information overload. Not only are you trying to understand the content, but you are also trying to decode the language. But instead of listening to every single word, you need to focus on very specific things.
The challenge is two-fold. First, learn to listen for the key words that hold meaning, and know what vocabulary to expect and which structures to expect those words in. This is something you can acquire through practice. It is also where pronunciation as a receptive skill comes in, listening in context and noticing how the most important words are stressed. Here it makes sense in the name of international intelligibility to listen to and emulate good near-native speakers and the way they use nuclear stress.
The second challenge is learning to accommodate a wide variety of accents. This means understanding what specific challenges a non-native speaker needs to overcome to make his or her English sound “English”, based on the restrictions of his or her native tongue (L1). Accomodation is a challenge for every speaker of English, and in fact is at least as difficult for native speakers as it is for non-native speakers. I have a hard time with some Asian and African accents, and even with some from the UK! But practice makes perfect. Here are some sites to practice your listening skills:
Talk About English: Academic English is a didactic program from the BBC geared to preparing learners for the listening skills part of the IELTS exam. This BBC program provides discussions and tips, listening practice and accompanying questions, and student responses are discussed with a teacher.
The TED Talks http://www.ted.com/talks are the best lectures online today, but tend to be removed from the type of lectures students are subjected to at college. Still, it has obvious benefits to study these talks by international luminaries, as the series celebrates the highly engaging nature of cutting edge research.
Video Lectures http://videolectures.net/ is a collection of videotaped academic and business lectures by international speakers, tagged by discipline and accompanied interactively by powerpoint slides. This site has content supplied by academic institutions, which makes it a good window into academic presentations. On the business side, I’ve watched a presentation from 2001 by Volvo CEO Leif Johannsen on Volvo’s Environmental Business Strategy, and one from 2009 by Robert Grant on the financial crisis. I can also recommed the very entertaining Umberto Eco on the History of Ugliness, from 2007.
In the Reith Lectures on Radio 4 on BBC, Martin Rees, President of the Royal Society, speaks on “The Scientific Citizen”: In 4 lectures dedicated to “Scientific Horizons”, he challenges scientists to play a greater role in helping the public understand science. The full transcript is available.
For these and more tips, explore the wonderful English for University site written by Patrick McMahon. His page with great links is here.
Finally, my current favorite for online pronunciation practice, English Central, is the place to go to analyse at the level of individual words and phrases what exactly it is that you are hearing.