This will be a long-ish article about listening skills in learning a foreign language.
For your sake, I’ll divide it into two parts.
Part I will be research-heavy. In it, I’ll argue my case for why listening skills are the cornerstone of language learning, and why listening drills are the best way to acquire them.
Part II will show you my personal method for creating and using listening drills.
Feel free to skip the background if you don’t need to be convinced that listening skills are important. But, some information in Part I might help you keep in mind exactly what components of your listening ability you need to work on.
At any rate, good luck. Listening drills are not fun at all.
Listening Skills Are So, So Important
I agree with Donovan Nagel at the Mezzofanti Guild, who says that listening comprehension is the only aspect of language learning you can’t bullshit through:
“A learner might be able to say a lot in their target language, but as soon as a native speaker says something which warrants a response, it’s going to be very obvious whether or not the listener actually understands what’s being said.”
Olle Linge, of Hacking Chinese, also says that “listening is the most important skill of all.”
That’s because improved listening has a twofold effect on language learning:
- A well-tuned ear cracks open a whole universe of exposure opportunities. You’re not confined to textbooks anymore. You can have a chat with a native-speaker, or watch a movie, or listen to a pod-cast. It’ll be way more engaging, and you’ll learn a lot.
- Listening is also pretty convenient. As Olle says, in our era of ubiquitous ear-buds, “It’s fairly easy to fill our lives” with audio from our target language. Upload some MP3s to your phone, and boom, you can learn while you commute. Not possible with a textbook.
Combined, those two effects ramp up the amount of input we can subject ourselves to. Once we get an ear for our target language, it’s suddenly possible to listen to hours of it every day.
Exponential growth, baby. Exciting, isn’t it?
But What if I Can’t Understand Anything Anyone Says?
Well there’s the rub.
It’s tough to train yourself to hear a foreign language.
Compared to the other Big Four (the others being reading, speaking, and writing), I’d say listening is more physically uncomfortable (earbud fatigue sucks), and more potentially embarrassing to practice.
Not only that, but with the other skills you have some clear markers of progress. Often, there’s a product in front of you to be proud of. The thrill in realizing “Wow! I just wrote a whole page of Chinese!” doesn’t quite translate into listening.
Instead, progress is subtle and internal. After the sweat you pour into it, sometimes you don’t know if you’ve made progress at all.
But if you’re practicing, have faith. You’re learning.
The Power of Practice – Nailing Down Your Micros and Macros
Two different papers say so: Ali S Hasan’s Leaners’ Perceptions of Second Language Listening Comprehension Problems, and Anna CS Chang, Bill Wen-Pin Wu, and Jerry CL Pang’s Second-Language Listening Difficulties Perceived by Low-Level Learners.
Together these papers show how “Listening Skills” is actually an umbrella term that refers to a whole host of abilities. I divide them into Micro-Skills and Macro-Skills (others might use the terms “bottom-up” and “top-down” – but that’s for another blog post).
Micro-Skills relate to your ability to pick apart what you’re listening to, and decipher the individual elements of an utterance. If audio input is a forest, you’ll use Micro-Skills to look at the trees.
Confused? Here are a couple of examples:
- Picking Apart Connected Speech
It’s one thing to be able to recognize a word in isolation. Maybe you have no problem hearing subtle differences between words in your target language.But in real life, we don’t say words in isolation. We use connected speech, and that messes up everything.In connected speech, words and sounds trip all over each other. Every sound you make gets distorted by the sounds that come before and after. Sometimes this makes whole words sound completely different. It takes a lot of practice to hear how words sound in real-life, natural conversation.
- An Ear For Prosody
Prosody refers to all the stuff that words don’t tell you. It’s the rhythm and emphases and tones of speech.Prosody can tell you how a speaker is feeling, and what she thinks is important. Prosody is how you will know if she’s being sarcastic. Sometimes, prosody can tell you if a sentence is a statement, a command, or a question.It’s important that you know how to listen for this stuff in your target language. And I’m not the only one who says so.
Onward to Macro-Skills. Remember the forest analogy? Where Micro-Skills will have you looking at individual trees, Macro-Skills put you on high ground, looking at the whole acreage. They’ll help you build a broader picture of the forest as a whole, so you can figure out what it all adds up to.
In my opinion, the two biggest macro-skills are:
- Intelligent Guesswork
Sure, it’d be nice to understand every little thing that comes from a native speaker’s mouth. But if you’ve just started to practice listening, you won’t be able to do that for a long, long time.Instead, you need to develop the ability to make an intelligent guess at what the speaker wants to say.Take a phrase like “Pardon me, it’s hot in here. Would you mind opening the window?”In a foreign language, you might not understand all the words. But that’s okay! You hear “hot” and “open” and “window”, so you know what to do.
You might think that’s cheating, but it’s not! That guess-work is exactly how children start to acquire the structures and vocabulary they need to express themselves.
The details come later. Focus on meaning first.
Oh man, this one is tough.When you’re just starting out, it’s unbearable to focus on unfamiliar audio for a long time.My attention-span usually collapsed after 20 seconds or so. The Mandarin I was trying to hear would devolve into gobbledygook, and I’d have to start the track over.Don’t underrate concentration. Without it, everything else falls apart. Fortunately, the more you work at it, the stronger your “focus muscle” will get. Before too long, you’ll be able to sustain your attention for a good long while.
These Micro- and Macro-skills won’t come on their own. As Chang, et al say: they need “constant, and systematic, and abundant practice.”
You won’t get there without putting in your reps. Here’s how I get it done.
I borrow heavily from Donovan and One-Eye from Chinese-Forums.com, but those guys already have some serious listening abilities under their belts. If you’re a lower-level listener, my technique might suit you better.
Yes, it’s tedious. Yes, it’s miserable. But I promise you won’t regret it.
STEP ONE – Gather Your Materials
- 5 minutes or so of audio in your target language (for Mandarin, I recommend ChinesePod.)
- A transcript of the audio (especially if you’re just getting started)
- Audacity, freeware that will help you “process” the audio
STEP TWO – Prep Your Audio
Upload your audio into Audacity. It’ll look like this:
Hit ctrl+n (or command+n, for you Mac fiends) to open a new Audacity window. Stack the windows side-by-side, like so:
See the gaps in the sound-waves? Typically, those are where the speaker paused to take a breath, or allowed somebody else to talk. That’s helpful for you, because in between those gaps are usually linguistically complete ‘chunks’.
It’s important that these chunks are complete. You want meaningful phrases, not just fragments. This will give you an idea of how speakers of your target language deploy grammar and emphasis to make meaning. Important stuff!
So, highlight a chunk in the audio file, and hit ctrl+c to copy (note: make sure you have hit the “Stop” button before you do this – Audacity won’t let you do anything to the file if it’s still in “play” mode).
Now, click on the other Audacity window you have open, and ctrl+p to paste it. It should look like this:
Congratulations, you’re most of the way there.
Now you want to use the new Audacity window to create a file you can put on an MP3 player. So go to File . . . Export. You want to export the file as an MP3.
After you pick a name and a location for the file, you’ll get a chance to change the file’s Metadata:
This is not strictly essential, but I recommend that you do it. The Track Numbers are especially helpful for arranging your MP3s.
Once you do that, voila! You created your first micro-MP3. Now you just have to do it. . . like 80 more times.
This process will make you want to slam your head in a drawer. But it’s essential. You’ll see why.
STEP THREE – Upload, and Listen
Get your audio files onto your preferred MP3 device, pop in your ear-buds, and get to work.
I prefer to take a walk, transcript in hand.
I listen to the complete, unaltered Audio first. It’s a good warm-up, and it helps me frame everything I’m listening to.
Then comes the sucky part.
I pick the first little chunk that I created, set my iPhone to repeat, and listen to the file over and over and over and over.
At first, I try to pick the meaning apart with only my ears. If I can’t do that, I peek at the transcript to help me decipher it.
Then, using the transcript, I “shadow” the chunk. That means saying the audio at the same time as I listen to it. Having the transcript to follow definitely helps.
After that, I shadow the chunk without the transcript. That makes it much harder. But it helps me internalize the prosody of what I’ve been listening to, and it cements any new vocabulary I might have heard.
Once I can confidently shadow the chunk without a transcript, then I move on to the next chunk. The whole cycle usually takes me about 6 minutes per chunk.
STEP FOUR – Take a Break!
Earbud fatigue is a real phenomenon. For me it starts to kick in around the 45-minute mark.
Truly, you shouldn’t be listening to anything on earbuds for much longer than that. Language-learning is no excuse for preventable deafness!
Plus, once I start doing that for too long, my concentration withers. Once I’ve lost focus, I don’t see the point in going on.
Remember that rest is as important to learning as it is to fitness. Give your brain a chance to recover. Go get an iced-tea or something.
It’s also important to mention that I only use this technique for short bursts. Maybe I do it every day for a month, and then take a break for a while. It’s not easy to make a habit of something that is so utterly not fun.
Well, here’s hoping that I’ve informed you, without discouraging you. I know I made listening drills sound awful, but check out this excerpt from One-Eye on the Chinese-Forums:
I noticed a big difference in my listening in everyday life after the whole thing was over. It was like my brain had to do less processing in order for me to understand what I was hearing. I don’t know to describe it other than saying there used to be a sort of wall between sound and comprehension, and the wall has come down now, or at least it’s much less noticeable.
There’s your light at the end of the tunnel, folks. He’s completely right. So get out there and get some work done!