Driving our small guest to her kindergarten on the other side of our city each weekday morning is an opportunity to listen to the radio, a station that combines monologues on political themes with ‘rock’, so the Rolling Stones, Bruce, and plenty of newer stuff that I’m not familiar with, but enjoy anyway.
Music passes the time in the macchina, and given that the traffic can be absolutely infernal (we live in a medieval city) it helps get us to where we’re due to be without tears or tantrums.
That said, this morning we had three green lights in a row, so I could put my foot down and zoom where we’d normally crawl. The joy of it!
I’m off to buy a lottery ticket later, as it must be my lucky day (and about time…)
On the way back from the historic center, I’m alone in the car, so prop my smartphone up where I can hear it over the din of frustrated Italians blowing their horns (loudspeaker on, volume at max), and listen to the news headlines in Swedish.
The daily selection of items is approximately 30 minutes, so just about right to get me back to my laptop at the kitchen table.
This morning, as I sort of listened, I was reflecting on, tra virgolette (the Italian term for ‘air quotes’, when you wave your fingers to substitute for written punctuation) ‘understanding’.
It’s a poorly-understood term, perhaps obviously so, because when you do, there’s no need to consider it, and when you don’t, it’s probably not one thing that’s holding you back, but a range of them, a combination of different issues.
I fail to understand when I can’t hear, or when an accent is very unfamiliar, or perhaps when there’s a word I don’t know. Happens all the time, even in Italian, even in English.
But mostly, I fail to understand PARTIALLY, and mostly that’s due to having not been listening, and so missed the contextual clues to what’s being talked about.
How often do you ask, “What are you guys talking about?”, as a general enquiry, rather than as a complaint about the idiocy of the world (which reminds me, club members, please don’t write with your anti-vax conspiracy theories or I will, I promise, be RUDE in my reply.)
That’s what I mean. When you need to find out what the topic is, to orientate yourself, so you have a better chance of following.
We do this all the time, even in our own language. ‘Not understanding’, actually, is a sort of default state. It’s just that with your own language, you’re used to it, it doesn’t bother you.
Back to the radio news headlines in Swedish, sometimes I’m just following, without any awareness that I’m listening to a foreign language.
I notice this, in the sense that I’m called back to being aware of understanding/not understanding, in particular when things ‘flip’. Swedish radio news has a particular habit of interviewing people in English (unless they can find a handy expat Swede), then translating what they say back into Swedish.
So I’m listening to some poor Ukrainain refugee at a train station in the east of Poland explaining in accented English that she needs to get to Warsaw, but there are no connections.
“That’s why I’m crying”, she explains.
And then I hear the Swedish version of what she said, without the sexy East-European accent, obviously.
These ‘flip’ moments are a sort of mental gear change, and briefly disrupt the ‘flow’, bringing me back to listening consciously, that is to say actively, deliberately, which I wasn’t before.
Then, there are the other times…
A lot of the journey I’m basically not listening at all, as I’m thinking about something else, or hurling curses at fellow motorists. There’s Swedish noise in the background, but it is just that, background noise, devoid of an intelligible signal.
I may or may not be hearing enough to know what’s being talked about, very generally, say additional sums being allocated to Swedish homeland defence in the light of the Russian agression in Ukraine.
But if you called my attention back from the pretty girl walking briskly down the sidewalk past the endless queue of stationary vehicles with their bored drivers, I wouldn’t be able to provide many or any details of what had been said.
So now we have ‘not understanding’ because we never got started and have no idea of what’s being said, and ‘not understanding’ due to not being mentally engaged (subconsciously or consciously) in the process of listening, beyond the actual physical mechnanism of hearing.
Which brings us to a different situation – the common experience, at least for learners, of understanding or not understanding (let’s agree that it’s always going to be partial, so more or less, not all or nothing) when you ARE actually paying attention and trying your best.
You know what’s being talked about – a maternity hospital being bombed – you may be picking up some of the details, but not to the point of ‘flow’. You’re having to listen ‘actively’, that is to say, consciously trying to piece things together so they make some sort of sense, to at least formulate a hypothesis of what’s being said.
Loads of people will describe this as ‘not understanding’, though I, in a rare moment of positivity, prefer to think of it as ‘working busily towards understanding better’.
We’re talking about when you’re engaged, trying, motivated to understand, but when your level of success is less than you would wish. You’re plagued by uncertainty, to a greater or lesser degree, and it’s enough of an issue to keep you listening ‘deliberately’, rather than allowing you to just drift and look at pedestrians in short skirts.
If you were doing a listening test, that’s how I’d expect you to be feeling. You’re motivated to do as well as you can but, assuming the test is at an appropriate level, you’re having to work hard at it and success is not guaranteed.
In life, it’s this state that bothers people, the ‘I want to’, ‘I’m trying to’, but ‘I can’t’, and ‘I don’t’.
It is bothersome, this regular reminder that you don’t (yet) have the tools, the experience, and the knowledge to do what you would be able to do in your mother tongue or another language you know better.
Go ahead and bitch about it, why not? It’s much more fun to be able to understand ‘everything’, ‘without effort’.
But, asssuming we’re talking about language LEARNING, that’s also totally unrealistic.
To learn implies not to know already, not to be able to do. It’s a process that requires time, and probably failure. Learning implies gradual improvement, perhaps eventual mastery.
But that could take a while.
Insomma, and I say this often, you’re going to need to do an awful lot of not-understanding before you start noticing (or better still, not noticing) that you are following what’s being said.
Tens of hours of practice with materials that are ‘graded’ to your level. Then repeat for the next level, and the one above that.
Hundreds of hours of practice to get to the point when you’ll have a chance of making sense of an authentic radio show.
I’ve done several thousand hours of Swedish listening practice, with the results I’ve described above (my pronunciation has improved, at least!)
A large part of what I’ve learnt has had little to do with grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation but involved, and still involves, figuring out what conversations people are having, who’s being talked about, and why.
Without ‘cultural knowledge’, it’s much harder to apply your ‘linguistic knowledge’ to make sense of things. If you didn’t understand that sentence, or don’t agree, I’d argue that you’re likely going nowhere with your language-learning. So read it again, maybe.
Takeways from this article? There are several:
1.) Understanding/Not understanding are not distinct states like black and white, but a spectrum. You’ll always understand SOMETHING, even if it’s just how many people are talking, what sex they are, how interested they seem, and so on.
2.) Your experience of Understanding/Not understanding will, in part, reflect whether you are engaged or not engaged with the ‘listening’ process. You don’t have to be engaged in actively listening to benefit from the practice – a lot of the rhythms, phonemes, and intonational characteristics of a language are absorbed subconsciously, with sufficient exposure. The way English speakers learn the grammar and pronunciation of their own language, for example.
3.) Learning to understand takes masses of time. If ‘not understanding’ bugs you so much that you’re not willing to submit to further frustration and humiliation, then you are unlikely to get far (though graded materials can help – see below.)
Out of time, sorry.
Gotta go prepare an ebook to publish next week!
Ebook offer – final reminder
And here’s my last mention of this week’s half price ‘ebook of the week offer’, L’imperatore e i giochi.
- .pdf e-book (+ audio available free online)
- .mobi (Kindle-compatible) and .epub (other ebook readers) available on request at no extra charge – just add a note to the order form or email us
- 8 chapters to read and listen to
- Comprehension questions to check your understanding
- Italian/English glossary of ‘difficult’ terms for the level
- Suitable for students at any level
- Download your Free Sample Chapter (.pdf)
Also this week, ALL OUR HISTORICAL TITLES, a further ten ebooks, at different levels, are 25% off the usual price!
Someone wrote yesterday to say that he wants to learn MODERN Italian, as people speak it in Milano or Roma, say, not pointless words like ‘chalice’ and all this guff about Romans.
The history offer clearly wasn’t right for him, but hey, I replied, we have dozens, actually hundreds, of ebooks that are NOT history/historical. They’re all listed, by type and level on our Catalog page, along with links to free sample chapters, and free online audio.
There was no reply. Some people just like to moan…
How do I access my ebook?
When your order is ‘completed’ (allow up to 24 hours), a download link will be automatically emailed to you. It’s valid for 7 days and 3 download attempts so please save a copy of the .pdf ebook in a safe place. Other versions of the ebook (.mobi/Kindle-compatible, .epub) cannot be downloaded but will be emailed to people who request them.
Thursday’s FREE bulletin of ‘easy’ Italian news came out yesterday.
I haven’t read/listened to it yet, but I plan to today, in an otherwise idle moment.
It takes time and regular exposure to build reading/listening skills.
So free material is not to be passed by!