This post is an honest look at the often misunderstood skill of listening in a foreign language – what it is, what it isn’t, how some get good at it and why others don’t.
By understanding what listening really is you can work towards improving it and an easier time understanding native speakers.
At the time of writing, in the early stages of my Cantonese mission, I had just had my first Cantonese conversation with a native speaker. It was a rather humbling experience.
I struggled big time! Having studied hard for a couple of months I could say most of what I wanted, but it was very one-sided.
So one-sided, in fact, that I could barely understand what the other person was saying to me. I came out of the conversation frustrated, confused and discouraged.
In search of salvation, I started to reflect on my past language learning experiences – all seven of them – digging deep in an effort to figure out what was going wrong this time.
Think back to a time when you were studying a language. Now think of all the times during your studying that you listened to the language. It may have been a CD in class, or a podcast in the car. Now, what was the purpose of that listening – language or skill?
Let’s look at this in more detail. Firstly, listening for language. The chances are that most of your listening has been for language. In other words, you listened to a dialogue of some kind, then went back to look at some of the vocabulary within that dialogue, then maybe a spot of grammar.
Sound familiar? Thought so.
This is the pattern followed by virtually every language course on the planet.
So what’s the problem? In so far as you learn new words and phrases, none. But let’s be clear here, this kind of listening is intended to teach you new words, not to make you a better listener. You know this because the audio you listen to is highly simplified, and it's simplified in order to help you understand the new words.
The trouble is that when native speakers talk it's not simplified.
Quite the opposite. Natural speech is very complex and not at all like the oversimplified dialogues you find in self-study courses.
If the only listening you've ever done has been the kind mentioned above – for language – you will be seriously unprepared when it comes to understanding the real thing.
In order to do this, you need to develop the second kind of listening mentioned earlier: listening skill.
So as suggested above, a working definition of listening is the ability to understand language, as it is actually spoken by native speakers in everyday contexts. This ability comes ultimately from one thing: exposure.
And a lot of it. This is self-evident, as people who go to live abroad rapidly improve their ability to understand native speakers.
Quite apart from any special studying that they might be doing, living abroad and getting a lot of exposure to language helps to form connections on a number of levels: context gives you information on how to use language naturally, “learnt” vocabulary becomes consolidated as you hear and see it used, and you learn the true usage of words rather that the dictionary definition.
The important message at this stage is this: the fact that people improve quickly when they live abroad does not mean that you have to live abroad in order to improve quickly.
Although by living abroad you get a lot ‘for free’ (such as picking up common expressions through hearing them everyday), those of us learning in our home countries can replicate that success, and even improve on it, by deconstructing the skill of listening and using strategies that your average expat won’t even know existed.
In my experience, there are usually three reasons you won’t understand what a native speaker says.
Let’s examine these one by one.
1) You don’t know the words
The most common problem and one that, in fact, has nothing to do with listening! In order to have a conversation with someone you have to know the words they’re using.
2) You can’t distinguish the individual words (whether you know them or not)
This is a problem with understanding connected speech – what happens to words when they’re spoken quickly (as in the English: want to/wanna). When we speak quickly a whole range of factors come into play which affect how we articulate individual words. The result can be sounds being linked together (a glass_of water), changing (Green[m] Park), disappearing completely (I’d go if I could), or even appearing out of nowhere (He_[y]_ate a pizza). The same happens in all languages, and you need to be able to handle it.
3) You understand the individual words, but the meaning is lost on you
This can happen for a number of reasons. It could be due to colloquial or idiomatic language (e.g. take my word for it), long sentences that make it hard to keep track of what's being said, or unfamiliar grammar.
Now, if improving your listening is important to you, you need to make sure you're studying in a way that addresses these three areas. This might need a change in mindset. You've heard this quote before, but never was it more relevant than now!
If you keep on doing what you've always done, you'll keep on getting what you've always got. W.L. Bateman.
So, here is your new manifesto for pimping your listening skills and starting to understand those pesky native speakers!
The first problem above is actually the most straightforward to address. It isn't related to listening, it's about the number of words you know. In other words, you need to know more of them. Here's how.
The second and third problem get right to the heart of the listening skill, and need to be addressed together. To do this we need to hack your study methods so that you stop wasting time on things that don't improve your listening and double down on those things that do.
As I dug all these thing up from my previous learning experiences, I realised that improving your listening ability is a long, hard road. Even in my strongest languages, it certainly didn't happen overnight. It was the result of many months of constant exposure and struggle.
So where does that leave me and my Cantonese progress?
Well, I've already decided not to let myself get frustrated any more. I'm going to keep learning as much new vocabulary as possible, and set aside specific time for listening everyday, following the ideas that I've written about in this post.
Good luck and let me know how you get on – I'd love to hear from you!
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