I Stopped Listening To Slow Audio…So Should You! (Here’s Why)

listen slow audio foreign languageIt’s a part of language products I often see mentioned as a “great feature”…

It’s available with a tiny click of the mouse…

But with huge consequences…

Yep, I’m talking about the “slow down the audio” button.

Otherwise known as “Listen at ¾ or even ½ speed”.

slow audio speed

But is slowing down the audio a good thing?

Is it helping your language learning… or holding you back?

Slow It Down For Me!

I’ve been prompted to write this post after seeing a growing number of people talking about the virtues of slow audio.

And, of course, on the back of the release of Conversations – created with the sole purpose of improving your listening skills – it’s a particularly relevant topic for me (and for you, if you’re a Conversations customer!).

I actually think the area of listening skills is a pretty straightforward one…

There are, as it happens, only ever two reasons you’ll not understand something you hear in a foreign language.

Can you guess what those two reasons are? We’ll come back to this later.

Back to the matter at hand….

I first began to notice the “slow audio” topic when many people in the Fluency Mastermind group began talking about a site they like called News In Slow Spanish.

(They have it in other languages too, and I think there are a number of spin-off sites.)

It’s quite appealing at first glance…

“Can’t understand the news on Spanish TV? Oh, well how about we slow it down for you? Then you’ll understand.”

And, of course, it is easier to understand when it’s slower. (Have a listen here.)

Next up, I received an email from one customer of Conversations who said…

“I love it, but my one criticism is that the speech is too fast. I prefer tools like Yabla where you can slow down the speed.”

Let’s not also forget the experience we have whenever we go and speak with native speakers in our target language…

“Ahhhh… they speak so fast!”

It’s fair to say that the speed at which people talk is a significant perceived problem in language learning.

Did you notice the bolded word in the last sentence?

Read it again – it’s pretty important for the rest of the article.

If It’s Too Fast, Then Slow It Down! (Right?)

So, if the audio you’re listening to is too fast, isn’t there a problem?

Yep – we can agree on that. A problem for sure.

So, you should slow down the audio, right?

Hmm.

Well, your instincts tell you to slow it down.

And that’s presumably why “slow audio” seems to be so popular – our instincts tell us it’s a good thing…

“If I can’t understand at full speed, but I can understand at ¾ speed,” you think to yourself, “then surely I’ll be better off slowing it down to ¾ so that I can understand!”

Speed is the perceived problem.

Before we can answer this question, we need to take a quick look at why listening to audio at natural speed is hard in the first place.

Why Audio At Natural Speed Is Hard To Understand

If you’ve been through the Listening Skills video series I created recently (Missed it? Get on the email list… that’s where all the fun stuff happens!), you’ll be pretty familiar with what’s coming next, but it never hurts to recap.

OK, pay attention, because this can be a game-changer…

Real language, spoken in the real word, is nothing like your textbook.

And I mean nothing like. (Read: completely different. A different animal altogether.)

Firstly, it’s…

  • Simplified
  • Suitable for beginners
  • Avoiding difficult vocabulary and grammar.

(But that’s ok – as a beginner you need simplified language.)

Secondly, the audio is:

  • Spoken slowly, clearly and articulately
  • by professional voice actors

(Again, perfectly reasonably… it’s made for beginners after all.)

So, all good, right?

Well, here’s the thing…

In the real world, words and phrases are not pronounced like they are in your textbook.

When spoken at natural speed, the “correct” pronunciation of words goes out the window.

problem

The words themselves – the way they’re pronounced – change.

Take a minute to let that sink in.

It’s not just that people speak faster in real life… they actually speak differently.

(It’s known as “connected speech”.)

For example, try saying the following sentence aloud, the way it might be read in a textbook:

 

Now, say it at normal, conversational speed.

Hear the difference?

Can you tell all the parts that change?

Here’s a representation of all the pronunciation that probably changed when you read it at full speed (this will depend on your accent):

What does this mean?

It means that whenever audio is read slowly and clearly, it loses many the features that make speech real.

And so when you go out and listen to audio that’s real, this is why you struggle.

OK – time for a quick recap!

Here’s what we’ve established so far…

The language from most foreign language learning resources is unnatural because:

  1. It’s been simplified
  2. The audio is read at a slow speed, losing many features of natural speech

Now, like I said earlier, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

As a beginner, you need support.

But where it becomes a problem is when you move beyond the beginner stage and want to learn to understand native speakers – the “real thing”.

(You do want to learn to understand native speakers, right? Just checking…)

Two Reasons You Don’t Understand Natural Audio

The major mistake most people make when they start to improve and move beyond the beginner stage in a language, is to keep the same study habits they had as a beginner.

In reality, you need to change how you study.

Here’s the deal…

Remember earlier, we said there are only two reasons you’ll not understand something you hear in a foreign language?

They are…

  1. You don’t understand the words
  2. You don’t understand how it’s pronounced at natural speed

Got that?

Either you don’t know the word, or you don’t catch it at speed (because of “connected speech”).

Think back to the last time you were listening to something difficult in your target language…

The news, a YouTube video… whatever.

Can you identify which of the two problems above made it difficult to understand?

  • Was it because it was you didn’t understand the words?
  • Or was it because it was too fast to tell the words apart?

Take a second. Think about it.

Here’s where the confusion begins…

Why Are You Listening In The First Place?woman listening

In my experience, when you struggle with natural audio, most of the time it’s because you simply don’t know the words.

Sure, it’s fast, and that might make you flustered…

But, let’s face it…

If you don’t know the word, it doesn’t matter if it’s natural speed or veeerrryyy slllloooooowwwww.

If you don’t know it, you don’t know it.

And yet, the perceived problem (remember that from earlier?), is the speed.

“Agghh… I don’t understand… it’s too fast!”

Well, yes, it may be fast, but that’s not the main reason you don’t understand.

Think about it…

If you’re learning Spanish, for example, and a hyper-fast-talking Spanish speaker blurted at you at 100 mph:

“Hola amigo, ¿cómo estás? ¿Todo bien?”

(Hey, how are you? Good?)

Will you understand, even at 100 mph?

Sure you will.

Because you know those phrases inside-out and back-to-front. 

Heck, he could say them at 1,000 mph and you’d still get it!

You might chuckle to yourself: “Oh, he speaks kinda fast!”

But you’d still get it.

Where you might run into trouble is if the conversation continued, and got off-topic.

Why?

Yep, because you don’t know the words he’s using.

So, this brings us to a really important question:

“What is the purpose of listening?”

Is the purpose of listening, to:

  1. Improve your listening skills, or
  2. Learn new vocabulary, expressions, etc?

Well, it can be both.

You can learn a lot of new language from listening to interesting audio.

And you can also improve your listening skills by doing a lot of listening.

But here’s the kicker…

Slow Audio Kills Listening Skills

The minute you slow down the audio, you lose pretty much all the “listening” benefits.

The only benefit of slowing down the audio is to give you more time to understand the difficult words being used.

But this is a vocabulary problem, not a listening problem.

Your instinct tells you to slow it down, so you have more time to listen…

But in fact, the only real “study” benefit of the slow speed is to help you learn the vocabulary.

And if you’re spending your time listening to slow audio, how will you ever develop the ability to understand the way native speakers talk at natural speed?

It’s really important we separate out the two issues here: vocabulary and listening.

See if you can follow me here…

If you lose the “listening” benefits as soon as you slow down audio, all you’re left with is the language content to study.

In other words, you’re in full “study mode” at that point – learning the words, analysing the grammar, etc.

And in that case, my question to you is: What’s the point of using audio?

Is it a conscious study decision to use the audio?

Probably not.

Or are you just listening to it for the sake of it… because it’s there?

Probably.

The crux of the issue is this:

As soon as you slow down the audio and focus on the content, you’re basically losing all pretence of practising your listening skills.

Slow speech loses the characteristics of natural speech.

Artificially slowed-down speech (using an app) simply fails to provide your brain with the conditions in which to grow.

Just like gong to the gym, regular training with increasingly heavy weights builds big muscles!

Keep using light weights, and you’ll stay where you are.

weights

The way to improve your listening skills – your ability to cope with fast, natural speech – is to spend time listening at natural speed.

With a little help…

How To Listen At Full Speed

A lot of what we’ve spoken about so far has been a battle of intuitions.

If it’s too fast… slow it down.

But in reality, by slowing down the audio, you’re depriving yourself of the benefits of listening in the first place.

Agh!

Now…

Let’s say you’ve followed me up to here, and you understand the principle that in order to learn to cope with natural speech, you have to listen at natural speed.

You’re still left with one big (no, major!) obstacle…

“But I don’t understand anything when it’s so fast!”

So, let’s deal directly with this.

Firstly, you’re probably listening to material that’s too hard for you. (Most people do.)

If you’re at a post-beginner/low intermediate level, for example, and you’re listening to podcasts or watching movies, you’re out of your depth.

Sure, they’re fun, and might be interesting, but if you don’t understand anything, there’s very little for you to learn.

So, turn off the TV and close YouTube.

The #1 rule is to listen to what’s known as Comprehensible Input – material that’s just slightly above your current level.

That way, you’re not straining too much to understand.

The #2 rule is to use material that comes with full transcripts, so you can read along at the same time as you listen.

With transcripts, you can see what’s being said if you need help, compare the spoken word to the written word, and there is now no need to slow down the audio.

(Read this paragraph again. Let it sink in.)

Let’s put this another way:

If the material is at your level (so you’re not straining), and you can see transcriptions of what’s being said (so there’s help when you’re uncertain), then you can keep listening to the audio at full speed.

And… just like magic…

If you spend all your time listening to audio at full speed, how much faster do you think you’ll learn to understand native speakers when they’re chatting away at natural speed?

Yep…

Pretty damn quick.

The Transformation Comes Quickly!

When you first start listening to audio at full speed, you might feel a bit flustered.

After all, you’ve conditioned yourself to listening to all that slower (unnatural) stuff.

So, what’s required from you at the beginning is a bit of faith!

My promise to you is that if you stick at it for just a couple of weeks, you’ll begin to feel the ground literally shifting under your feet.

(This is, of course, providing you’ve chosen material that’s at the right level, and you’ve got the transcript to help.)

Just look at some student descriptions of what happens when you make this shift:

Spanish Beginner Testimonial

…this one’s from my Spanish Beginner course, which is built entirely around listening and reading (it’s fun!).

Conversations testimonialsomething changes Conversations testimonial

… these are from Conversations – which, again, is material specifically designed to focus on listening skills at intermediate level (with full transcripts, of course).

As you can see, the change from listening to natural audio comes quickly.

Not only that, but once you’ve experienced the feeling of: “OMG, I can actually follow along now at full speed…”

You can never go back to listening to unnaturally slow audio again.

You can taste what it feels like to be in the company of native speakers… and not be lost!

What Is Your Personal Listening Opportunity?

Honestly…

I’m mightily impressed if you’re still with me at this point!

It’s a tricky topic, and not an intuitive one to grasp… much less actually put into action.

So, good job on making it to this point (unless you’re skimming… in which case, go back to the top and start again!!)

What’s really important for you to do right now is to reflect on three things:

  1. How happy are you with listening ability in the language you’re learning?
  2. How much time have you spent “studying language” vs “practising listening”?
  3. What are the opportunities to improve your study habits, based on what you’ve read here?

Lastly, let’s briefly mention material.

It can be tough to find good study material that fits the advice I’ve given here:

  • At your level (“Comprehensible Input”)
  • With transcript (and ideally translation too)

Most so-called listening material, is nothing of the sort!

My strong advice is to take the time necessary to find the right material, because everything changes when you do!

You’ll learn faster and enjoy the experience much more.

This can be easier for some languages than others, though.

Conversations is available in Spanish, French, Italian, German, Japanese and Chinese, and is designed specifically to improve your listening skills at an intermediate level.

(There’s also a “pro” version for Cantonese learners!)

You might also like my books of short stories for beginners and intermediate learners, which have audio versions available. (Although just be aware that this is primarily written material, so is more suitable for general learning that listening practice per se.)

So, that’s it for now.

I’m looking forward to your comments on this – so please go ahead and we’ll continue the conversation


Are you guilty of listening to slowed down audio? Have I managed to convince you of the benefits of listening at normal speed? Comment below and let me know!

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  • Yea, I think slow audio for a total beginner is helpful, but you need to take those training wheels off fast. If there is a transcript with the audio content it should always be at a natural speed.

  • Kento Sato

    Hmm a difficult topic. I understand what you are trying to say but I thought slowing down the audio can help learners understand “connected speech”. If it’s too fast, it’s very hard for learners to see/hear which sounds are connected or which sounds are actually not pronounced in a natural speed.

    • I would disagree with that. I think for the most part, there is nothing difficult about connected speech by itself. What is difficult, and where learners run into trouble, is the relationship between connect speech and the written words they represent. In other words, it’s not connected speech that’s hard, it’s understanding how they are different from the pronunciation you were taught in your textbook (which is inaccurate).

      I do understand that listening to slow audio feels less intimidating, and less trying for the learner. But I think it is one of many instances in which taking the difficult path at the beginning saves you a lot of trouble in the long run.

      Now, of course, if you want to slow down a particularly difficult sentence to listen to a few times, then of course there is no problem with that. What I’m talking about here is a wholesale approach to listening whereby learners seek out and only listen to slow audio, which is the purpose of the sits and software that are becoming popular now.

      • Kento Sato

        Thank you for your reply, Olly.
        Okay I think I understand more now. Yeah, you’re right. The difficult part is the gap between written forms and how they are actually pronounced. Most of the language learning materials don’t really talk about it. And like you said, if there is some kind of clear instructions of connected speech of the language, slowing down the audio wouldn’t be necessary. Maybe a book just about connected speech of some languages can be your next product! Or if you could write an article about it, that’d be awesome.
        Keep up the great work, Olly!
        Cheers,

  • Brian T.

    “In my experience, when you struggle with natural audio, most of the time it’s because you simply don’t know the words.”

    I’m not sure I’d agree with that. I mean, obviously it’s true sometimes; if you’ve been learning a language for a month and then listen to a political discussion in that language, you’re not going to understand much, no matter how slowly the people are speaking. But often, what defeats you really is the speed – and the way in which the words then change, as you show very well in your article. Just think how much easier it is to understand a film with subtitles in your target language, as opposed to a film with no subtitles.

    Another thing that makes it hard to understand natural audio is not so much the words themselves, but the manner in which those words are used. I once heard an older German man order a scone in a café in Ireland. The girl behind the counter said “Will I heat it up for you?” The man had great difficulty understanding this. The girl had to repeat it several times. I’m sure he was able to understand each individual *word* in the sentence. But he was probably unfamiliar with the phrasal verb ‘to heat something up (for someone)’, and that, combined with the speed at which the girl was talking, meant that he couldn’t understand what she was saying.

    Anyway, thanks for an interesting article!

    • Yes, but I think what you’re describing is the experience that one has when first getting to grips with connected speech, which is obviously a tough one.

      The difference is, though, that once you’re used to the way people speak at speed, you don’t have to re-learn that. For example, once you know that we say “gonna” instead of “going to”, you’ve then got the facility to recognise elision, and you can even generalise this to help you understand other situations in which words may change. As such, I think your observation only applies to the initial period of familiarising yourself with natural speech, or a new accent.

      (You see this quite often in foreigners who come to live in London, who often over-apply in their own speech features of connected speech that they learn soon after arriving. To take another example, if I were to move to Glasgow, I’d struggle with the accent for a week or so, but it would take me many months or more to learn all the local slang. )

      In the case of your German man in Ireland, if he spent much time there, he’d quick become familiar with the accent, and the problem you describe would cease to be a problem. He would still be left with the significant challenge of learning phrasal verbs though, and will likely be tripped up again in the future with another phrase he’s not familiar with. This, though, is a vocabulary problem.

      Thanks for the comment!

  • peter b

    okay, here’s a bridge in the debate that’s working great for me. I really like this topic, because I was listening to slow german podcasts (and using it to pick up tons of vocab), but great point Olly–I was not attenuating my ear to actual speach, and all the idiosyncrasies of normal speach (es. words running indistinctly together). I wanted to keep the calm assurance I felt by listening to slow german–because the best learning does not coming in overwhelm–so I simply downloaded the podcast, played it in VLC media player, and began ramping up the speed slowly (10% increments) until I came to normal speed. took 2 days (about 2 hours) I sometimes slow it down a bit if it’s a harder or more specialized subject matter (German economy, etc), but that should pass soon enough.
    I think this is a pretty good hack.

    • To see if I understand correctly… you’re taking audio read at slow speed, and then artificially increasing the speed of that slow audio?

      Surely in that case you’re not getting any of the benefits of fast speech, because the spoken German you’re working with is originally slow – i.e. doesn’t have any of the features of fast speech.

      What might be cool is to slow down the audio of a natural speed podcast, then gradually ramp it up to normal speed? Or is that what you meant in the first place? 🙂

      Question – do you have the transcript for full-speed podcasts? Have you tried listening to fast German while reading with the transripts?

      • peter b

        great points.

        I was indeed listening to slow German and speeding it up.

        I had learned a bunch of German vocabulary and began listening to all the Slow German podcasts, in which each short episode talks about German culture (I could relate to it with interest, obviously important, because I’ve been there 2x). plus I found the grammar and vocab at a perfect level–a bit beyond my knowledge. and with transcripts. all things you discuss.
        after making my way through about 2/3 of them, I heard this podcast and it was a wake up call. would I do it this way again? in this instance, yeah, because I found the material to be just right, and lots of it. it was the best big chunk of material I had found to quickly increase vocab in context of stories.
        I do really like that it took the intimidation factor out at first, because I can be a bit of nose-grinder and then I lose the fun/spark. so feeling at ease is important–just enough challenge to feel invigorated, not overwhelmed.

        I guess the true bottom line is, the material really served my purpose, and I this is the way I made it work even better.
        do you find that listening and reading with transcripts works the best, or is it better to just listen a few times to train the ear without the transcript?

        Great podcast BTW! thanks for all your sharing–it’s really been an inspiration.

        ~Peter

        • If something’s working for you, then you should milk it for all it’s worth, in my opinion!

          Have a listen to episodes 223-225 of the podcast. We talk about listening skills in more detail, especially the point about listening first before adding the transcript (which you should definitely do).

          • peter b

            aweseome, I will, thanks for the reference.

  • Contrived Corridors

    I’ve never listened to one of these slow courses. I agree that slowed-down speech is unhelpful. You need to be able to listen to language spoken at natural speed and you can’t do that if you aren’t weaned off unnaturally slow language. People who articulate slowly and clearly are not speaking the real language.

    I think that what is needed is:

    1. Listening time and time again till you’ve latched onto and understand the language.

    2. A way to slow down natural speech so that it be heard more clearly (even if it sounds like a sheep bleating at low speed). Once you’ve got the hang of it, speed it up again.

    3. A way to look at a written version AFTER you’ve listened to natural speech as many times as you can. I do not agree with the idea of listening to natural speech as you read a transcription. This lulls you into a false sense of mastery. You need to be able to summon up the text ONLY AFTER you’ve done everything you can to understand the spoken word. The text could be summoned in a tooltip, for instance.

    • Yes, completely agree that the first round of listening should be without the transcript. I often listen to stuff for 1-2 days without looking at the transcript, to try and milk as much as possible from my listening skills (or lack of!).

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