Listening seems to be a recurrent theme at the moment.
You would not believe how many people email to say one or more of the following:
- Listening is so difficult compared to, say, grammar
- I can’t understand much / anything at all
- The audio quality of the listenings on the club site is poor / intolerable
- The audio is much too fast for the level (Why can’t they be slower???)
Let’s leave aside for the moment the probability that none of those who have written in are actually doing ENOUGH listening practice (hence the problem).
And talk about audio quality and speed.
OK, here’s an experiment.
We’re going to listen to a minute or so of music on Youtube.
You’ll see why in a minute.
Click this link, which will take you to Youtube.
You’ll see an advert.
Wait a few seconds then look for the ‘Skip advert’ button in the bottom right-hand corner (or you could just watch the ad…)
Music will start to play.
Mouse over the screen, or if you’re using a tablet or smartphone, touch it with your finger. You’ll see how many seconds have passed.
Enjoy the tune.
You’ll probably notice it sounds kind of scratchy, maybe like an old vinyl L.P., or perhaps from a radio broadcast?
Listen until 41 seconds have passed. Something happens.
If you’re a fan of this band, you’ll have already known what was coming.
Just this version on Youtube has been played one hundred and sixty-sixty million times.
Imagine how often it’s been heard in total. Billions of times, probably.
If you didn’t bother to click the link and listen to the music, I’m not going to enlighten you about what you missed ( here’s the link again ).
But I ask you now, for the first 40 seconds or so, before the surprising event at the 41-second mark, how much of a problem was the scratchy, ‘radio’ sound?
Bet your brain sort of ‘tuned into’ it after a few seconds.
And then, it wasn’t until something changed, at the forty-one second mark, that the ‘scratchy’ quality became noticeable again.
Think about that.
You have a sophisticated computer between your ears, and it’s capable of listening to and understanding human speech in a wide range of environmental conditions.
For example, at a disco or a party where there’s very loud music playing.
You have a drink in your hand and you’re standing in a crush of people, trying not to spill red wine over anyone.
The sound system is turned up to eleven, remember: ‘BOOM, BOOM, BOOM’.
But no matter, because you’re talking, or trying to talk, to the hottest, most desirable, most interesting person you’ve ever met in your whole life.
You’re eating them up with your eyes, their perfume is a drug, and each word they utter is poetry.
Trouble is, the ‘music’ really IS very loud.
In fact, you’re struggling to make out very much of what they say at all.
And when it’s your turn to speak, they turn sideways on to you, cup their ear to listen, and mouth “WHAT DID YOU SAY?”
Beh, you could give up and go home to study Italian.
I probably would, as I’m married.
Or you could turn the computer in your head up to ‘Max.’ and apply all processing power available to understanding what this god or goddess is trying to tell you.
Hopefully it’ll be something like “Let’s go some place quieter – mine, or yours?”
I’ll flip the metaphor.
Imagine you’re a sound engineer, learning Italian.
A very fussy sound engineer, say, who can’t stand anything less than 100% perfect audio recordings.
You will tolerate no buzzing, no echoes, no misprounciations, glitches or screw ups.
In short, amateurism is out.
So one day you visit onlineitalianclub.com, click on the ‘listening’ or ‘dialogues’ icons and…
OMG, what a horrible row!
It’s torture, ghastly, a nightmare!
As soon as you manage to find the stop button, you push it, and thank goodness!!
You’ll never come back and, boy, is that our own fault!
Google suggests instead another site, one with chic graphics and no smart-ass articles.
It, too, offers free listening practice.
So you turn the volume down, just to be on the safe side, and click – carefully.
This site’s audio is a perfect symphony of sound.
Every phoneme and syllable in harmony.
Each tone is rich and full.
But hey, you’re a beginner, right?
So you still don’t understand a single word.
Must be because it’s too fast…
Perhaps there’s a website that…
I’m sure there is.
There’s probably one with a helpful button with a tortoise icon on it.
The function will be unmistakable.
If the speakers go too fast, just click on the button and…
Which is very handy, actually.
In fact, it’s so useful that, from next year on, all babies born in Italy will have such a ‘tortoise’ button implanted between their eyes.
No kidding, just above the bridge of the nose.
The idea is that vistors to Italy, who may be practiced at listening to ‘slow Italian’, need only reach out towards a garrulous waitress or receptionist and, being careful not to poke them in the eye, press the ‘SLOW’ button.
So where was I?
‘Why the audio quality and speed doesn’t or shouldn’t matter’.
‘Slow’ is a training aid, at best. You’ll need to get past it as soon as you can, or you’re holding yourself back.
And what’s the point of that?
Sooner or later the training wheels have to come off.
(Remember that moment? Scary, wasn’t it?)
OnlineItalianClub.com listenings and dialogues often have transcripts, which can help.
If an audio is too fast, listen a couple of times with the transcript, then a couple of times without.
You’ll understand more each time.
Will you understand everything?
Nope, but THAT’S THE POINT.
In life, you don’t understand eveything, really you don’t.
Think goddess + noisy party.
Think when you’re trying to make a phone call on the train up from Rome, and it keeps going through those damn tunnels.
THAT’S what your practising for!
Not undestanding, but getting by anyway.
A final point.
To be good at listening you have to do a lot of it.
You have to build hundreds, thousands of hours of experience.
Ideally that should be with graded material, which will help keep your motivation high.
But not only. A mix of graded and authentic is fine.
And the grading can be approximate, too. It’s not rocket science.
To get from ‘here’, where you ‘don’t understand anything’ to ‘there’, where you’ll ‘get by’, you need lots and lots of practice material.
Here are two from the club website I’ve chosen at random:
They’re rubbish, more or less in every respect.
The audio is rubbish, the acting is rubbish, the script is rubbish, and the didactic material, if there is any, is rubbish.
But you know what?
They were cheap to produce.
Which meant we could do LOADS OF THEM, and give them away for free.
Which means you could do a different one each day for months at a time and not run out of material.
You could, for example, start with the A1 listenings, do all of them. Then do the A2 listenings, then the B1, then the B2, then the C1 and finally the C2.
Were you to do this, you would notice your listening improving.
I guarantee it.
You’d have got ‘there’ without spending a cent.
It’s just a matter of time.
Do it or don’t do it. Your choice.
But if you ‘don’t understand’, if it’s ‘too fast’, you’ll have only yourself to blame.
Someone who HAS clearly got the message about listening, or probably already knew, is Mary who wrote this:
I was inspired by your email about 21st century ideas for learning Swedish and thought I would share one of my strategies for learning Italian.
I enjoy listening to all kinds of Italian music. I listen to Radio Latte Miele ( bit middle of the road, rather like BBC radio 2, but no English!) via Internet and have downloaded enough Italian songs from iTunes to take me from Lands End to John o’Groats and back!
I usually avoid anything that includes English, but thought the song in this link was just too perfect to ignore!
She means that the song has lyrics in both languages, and a transcript.
Ruth Reilly says
I discovered your site relatively recently and have been listening to a dialogue a day. I am up to about forty. I feel my listening skills are really improving. In my humble opinion there is no cause to complain about the quality of your recordings. In fact most of the speakers articulate really clearly and when there is a bit of a regional accent that is all to the good for listening practice.
I have also been watching/listening to RAI programmes on line, for a maximum of five minutes at a time. Sometimes I can understand almost everything, sometimes very little. That can be frustrating, but I think it is key to manage one’s expectations, as you have discussed in today’s article. It’s a question of getting your head around the fact that it is OK not to understand everything.
I enjoy watching Sereno Variabile. Apart from seeing great places in Italy, I think it is a really good mix for listening. The presenters speak slowly and clearly to camera for the introductions, then get more informal with the people they interview, who can sometimes be difficult to understand because of their accents. I watch and listen to the same short segment at least four times, by which I have usually picked up a bit more, but then I just move on and console myself that I have got the gist of the conversation if not the detail.
Many thanks for the on line material, this is a great site. Complimenti.
Thanks for taking the time to comment, Ruth. And for the feedback, of course.
It sounds like you’re doing most of the right things.
One thing I always recommend is watching a TV series – ideally something with many seasons and not too much speech. It doesn’t have to be Italian origin, as long as it’s dubbed. CSI, Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad are good – Friends, Dr. House, are less so. You can imagine why.
The value of a TV series, that is to say a drama, is that as you watch more and more episodes, the motivations of the characters become more familiar to you, as in real life. It’s not a one-off, like a film, but a developing story line in which, ideally, you get engrossed with the characters’ lives, and want to know what will happen.
Choose the right material and you can soon find that watching it becomes and end in itself, rather than another tool in your language-learning portfoglio. And that, of course, is the whole idea….
Another thing I could add is that you seem quite advanced from what you say. My most-advanced students are usually the unhappiest… Good to counter that by remembering what hearing Italian felt like in the initial months you were learning it, and so remind yourself just how far you’ve come!
Buono studio, allora.
Leslie Gut says
A great (and inspiring) piece today, Daniel. I’m guilty of slowing things down in order to “get” what’s being said, but will now try to be a bit more true to real life.
Special thanks to Mary for the Andrea Bocelli link. If you play it to the end, you’ll find at least two more with the Italian lyrics which are equally wonderful. With the lyrics and reasonably paced music, one can’t help but sing along (with sincerest apologies to the artists). It feels as if you’re really immersed in the language, and I recommend your followers give it a try.
Wondering if you’ve ever done a survey of the “members” to see our ages, where we live, the time we’ve been studying l’italiano, where we are in the process, and our motivation. Might make for an interesting piece to learn who else is out there.
Many thanks for your efforts to keep us moving forward!
Sorry this took so long to become visible, Leslie. Somehow it ended up amongst the spam comments.
To answer your question, I haven’t done a formal survey but statistics from our site show that most users are looking for lower level materials, which is typical in the language-learning sector.
Age-wise, my gut feeling is that most of us are somewhere between forty and eighty, a mix of professionals and retired people.
Members are in English-speaking countries mainly, in particular the USA, the UK and Australia, though we have people from as far away as Asia (China, Vietnam, Korea), South Africa, and Central and South America. Plenty of Europeans, too, of course, though mainly from the north – the Netherlands, Sweden, and so on.
Thanks for taking the time to comment. I have already thanked Mary for the link – you weren’t the first to ask me!
To be fair, Jill, learning a language is a complex process that many people are unfamiliar with. Listening in particular seems to cause a lot of problems – people just assume that learning the grammar and the words will be sufficient, then are left scratching their heads as to why they can read a text at a certain level but not understand the accompanying audio. Complaining that it’s too fast just shows a lack of familiarity with the process of learning to listen. I’d say it’s a bit like training for a sporting event, or events even. You have to actually do it, and build your skills and stamina until you reach the required level.
Thanks for taking the time to comment, by the way!
Thanks for the
I try to listen to Italian every day – the dialogues and listening and also the Al dente podClub. Sometimes I can do half an hour, sometimes just 10 minutes and it does help. Little and often! I think the main issue is to relax and not try to understand every word – before I was just so anxious to try and understand it all, that in fact, I couldn’t understand any! Is it better to listen first for a few times, without the transcript or to read the transcript at the same time?
I am now able to get Italian tv so will be spending some time listening to that. I used to watch Geo&Geo – a programme about life in Italy and abroad, animals etc.
Please thank Mary for the link to the Ed Sheehan and Andrea Boticelli song – love, love it!
I suppose different approaches will have different benefits, and difficulties, Anita. And would be more suited to different types of material.
For example, at the moment I’m listening with subtitles first, then later without, if the subtitles or transcripts are available. For material where that’s not an option (live news broadcasts, say) I just listen. That combination gives me both ‘intensive’ (word, grammar, detail-focused) and ‘extensive’ (general meaning-focused) listening practice.
Sometimes you need to listen with no support (as in life), so as to develop those skills.
But when the text support is there, listening WITH the subtitles/transcript gives you a triple benefit – it’s listening practice but also excellent consolidation of the grammar/vocab you’ve studied, AND a chance to learn new words and structure.
Summary: different approaches for different needs, getting different benefits, using different materials.
Yes, thanks to Mary for the Youtube link!
You’re not the first person who asked me to do this.