How I Learn Listening

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Continuing to expand on Synergy, this post is about the role that listening plays in the language learning plan.

Listening is perhaps the hardest or most time consuming of all the skills to develop. Therefore you should start listening in the beginning and do a lot of it. I didn’t used to believe this, but over the years I experimented a lot, and came up with some good rules to follow. Let me tell you about my personal experiences with listening, and then make some suggestions.

My experiences with listening. As I’ve mentioned in other posts, I started studying Spanish when I was young, and leaned it for many years. Over the years I’ve listened to thousands of hours of media and people talking. Tons of exposure and study leads to good listening skills, which is no surprise.

In Africa, after an intense 3 month study period, I listened to a lot of people talk, and conversed hundreds of hours at a very low level for nearly 3 years, but my listening was only so-so. Maybe B1, just like my conversation. I think this was because I didn’t study, and didn’t use any other skills.

The first language I learned for fun, Thai, I learned at home, and didn’t listen to anything except my textbook recordings. They were good recordings, but it was really meager as far as listening goes. I really had no interest in listening. I wanted to converse, so that’s all I did outside the textbook. With Japanese, I only listened to Pimsleur in the beginning. For both of these languages, when I started conversing several months in, it was really difficult because I hardly understood my partner at all. Even when they went really easy on me, the number one problem was listening at that point.

Still not understanding the problem, I started Mandarin the same way. Fortunately, a few months into it I started listening to podcasts, watching dramas, etc. I did this because I had heard so many good things about listening in the forums, and in some research articles I read online. After I started listening, I actually enjoyed it. For the first time ever I thought it would be possible, and enjoyable, to understand TV shows, movies, other people’s conversations, etc. In addition, I started to notice improvements in my other skills, so I was hooked on listening from that point on. I think my listening really helped when I started to converse in Mandarin, but I wondered what it would be like if I had started listening in the beginning.

Finally, when I started French, I started listening. In conjunction with my normal learning, I used perhaps the best language program ever invented, French In Action (FIA), for listening. FIA is a complete “immersion” language program that is most popular for it’s 52 half hour TV shows. These shows are all French, designed for the complete beginner, and graduated so that the learner is always challenged. So the big test came when I began conversing in French for the fist time. I was overjoyed to find that my number one obstacle was no longer listening, but speaking, as I believe it should be when you start to converse.

For Russian, I had a very solid learning plan, which of course had a component of listening. This time I mostly relied on podcasts and movies with subtitles. And once again, speech was the number one obstacle when I started conversing, not listening. Now for some recommendations.

In steps 1 and 2 of Synergy, it is required to learn correct pronunciation. So right from the very beginning, you are practicing listening. You need to listen very carefully so that you can pronounce correctly. In the beginning, listen to audio before practicing speech. Don’t try to use reading to teach you pronunciation before you have heard the audio. This could result in incorrect pronunciation.

Try to listen carefully enough to notice the special aspects of the sounds of the language. Prosody, intonation, rhythm, stress, etc. Recognizing and repeating these things is the only way to have correct pronunciation at the sentence level. Listening and paying attention are crucial at this point.

Also starting in step 2 of Synergy, you are ready to make listening a solid component of your language learning plan. By this I mean, not only are you listening to audio that might come with your textbook, reading material, etc, but you are going to start extensive listening. As with all your learning, listening needs to be somewhat comprehensible, or i+1. In step 2, you will know very little, so you will need to listen to podcasts that have some L1 explanation, watch videos with some L1 subtitles, etc. You should try to listen to at least 10 minutes of native material a day.

As your understanding improves, wean yourself off of L1 material. Work yourself up to 30 min/day native material. Here are some suggestions.

Movies are particularly good, because you have visual context, making listening more comprehensible. I sometime like to turn on L2 subtitles if available to boost the comprehension even more. If you do this, know that it can be more of a reading exercise than a listening exercise. If you have time, watch it first without subtitles, then watch it again with.

The material should be native material at normal native speed. There is nothing better that understanding normal native material than listening to normal native material. There’s nothing wrong with listening to a little non-native L2 material, or abnormal speeds, but you don’t want to model your speech after it, and you don’t want it to infringe upon this normal listening practice.

Try to listen to material that has a transcript. This is a very good way to make both listening and reading more comprehensible. If you have time, listen to it both before and after reading. I find myself trying harder to understand the audio if I haven’t read the text. And after I’ve read the text, it’s fun to see if I can pick up and remember the stuff I learned while reading.

Listen Actively, not passively. When you listen, pay attention, see if you can recognize your known vocabulary, figure out the gist of what is being said, etc. This is why I recommend listening before reading transcripts or subtitles; it helps you pay more attention. Don’t just turn the audio on and ignore it, or get distracted. There is little if any benefit if you do. Listen without pausing. Try to get into the mindset of the language. Focus for the whole time you have allotted.

Repeat only if applicable. I like to repeat audio once or twice in the early stages. It can be very helpful. But don’t play it so often that you get bored of it, or stop paying attention. It’s better to get some fresh material in that case. After I get comfortable at the 30 min native material level, I only listen to things once.

Listening in your sleep doesn’t help. In fact, it hurts. It will make you sleep less soundly, which will have a negative effect on all your skills.

The future - looking for faster methods from B to C. For some reason, more than any other skill, people prefer to use extensive listening exclusively to get from B to C. They will get massive listening exposure, but not really try anything intensive. I will post about intensive vs. extensive learning later, to make these concepts clearer. But an example of extensive listening is watching TV for 30 min every day, and just hoping continued exposure and all the other aspects of your language learning will make your listening improve. And it will improve. In fact, I will even say that without lots of extensive listening practice you will never reach C1/C2. But I will also say that pure extensive listening isn’t nearly as effective as a mixture of extensive and intensive.

The Corollary to the Synergy Method states you should not merely learn by using all the skills, but you should try to learn new material while using each skill. (I’ll make a post about the Corollary and the importance of new material at another time.) For example, you should sometimes look up a word you hear for the first time. Or you should ask a native speaker about a grammatical structure she used during a conversation. By no means am I suggestion that you do this all the time. You have to practice extensive listening, and just let it flow without worrying about occasional unknown words, especially in the later stages of learning. But I am saying you should do intensive listening some of the time, on a regular basis, regardless of your level, until you reach your goal.

In the past, I was one of those guys who just listened extensively. Even though I was watching TV regularly, I made very slow progress. I knew there were some intensive techniques for rapidly improving listening. And I saw their results – polyglots learning difficult languages to C1/C2 in 2 or 3 years. For me, listening is the bottleneck that keeps me from being able to do this. So it was time to find something that sounds appealing, and experiment.

I read about several intensive listening techniques in language forums, and found one that I think applies well to my level, and that sounds fun. I am currently writing subtitles for a Russian TV comedy that I enjoy. I listen to a sentence, and I try to type it. I often don’t know what they are saying, so I have to play it several times. If I don’t know the words, I spell them out phonetically, and try to make sense out of it by using Google Translate, and if that fails I get help from a native speaker. I will let you know how it goes, but it feels quite effective so far.

In summary, listening is perhaps the most difficult skill to conquer. Practice it early, often, extensively and intensively.

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