Someone emailed me this week with a question:
“Do you also recommend watching TV without Italian subtitles?”
To which I replied:
“It depends on the person. If you’re a beginner, you won’t understand much, but if you’re OK with that then fine. Italian subtitles help you get the general idea, so are better than not watching TV at all. And the worst option is Italian audio with English subtitles, which is a waste of time.
Authentic materials ARE hard, so maybe plan a few months of listening with graded materials first, to build your skills. There are loads of listenings on the club website, besides the paid for material in our shop.”
A few elaborations on that emailed reply:
1.) Building listening skills requires that you practice actually listening, for many hours. Personally I aim for hundreds of hours, for each of the languages I’m learning. It takes years, so I begin immediately, not only after I’ve learnt all the grammar.
2.) Besides time, you clearly need lots of listening practice material. For many learners, resources for their particular lanaguage and level are either expensive, hard to get, or both. For example, there was little or nothing that was much use when I was a beginner in Swedish. In general, there’s not a mass of free material for any of the languages I’m learning, except perhaps Italian, which we do ourselves.
3.) And it’s for that reason that people will turn to ‘authentic’ materials, so TV, radio, podcasts, and so on. BECAUSE of the absence of free material that’s written to be suitable for my level (which is changing, remember) in Swedish/Turkish/French/Spanish, I make it a habit to listen to the radio in those languages, ideally daily. Other people prefer TV, and watching TV series in the language you’re learning is something I always recommend to my students.
4.) But as I pointed out in my email reply, authentic materials are ‘hard’, both initally and on an on-going basis. Understanding Swedish/Turkish etc. radio is never ‘easy’ for me, it just gets more ‘familiar’, and so ‘easier’. I know it’s doing me good because I can measure the improvement (for example with free test materials at different levels), and it costs nothing. So as long as I have time, I’ll continue.
5.) HOWEVER, and IDEALLY, I would not have began with authentic materials only and exclusively but worked up through practice materials designed for students at my level (A1, A2, B1, B2, C1, C2), introducing the radio and TV series as appropriate, initially in small doses and occasionally, later in bigger chunks and regularly.
If you once tried watching an Italian movie or TV series, or listening to the radio, and threw up your hands in disgust because you couldn’t understand anything (or worse – switched on the English subtitles), do try again: “initially in small doses and occasionally, later in bigger chunks and regularly”. It’ll do you good, I promise.
If you have access to FREE materials that are designed for learners, for example on the club website or our ‘easy’ news bulletins, then you would be foolish to neglect them. Start with the baby steps, saving the big-girl stuff for when you feel ready.
And for all those people who do no listening practice at all because they are busy memorising verb conjugations or learning vocabulary items they’ll probably never use, what can I say?
Remember how people used to learn languages, for example Latin and Ancient Greek, and perhaps living languages too when you were at school, but back in the days before low-cost airlines and the Internet?
Listening wasn’t a priority, right? For the ‘dead’ languages it would have been pointless. For the modern ones, there was little or no opportunity even if we’d wanted to.
So we studied/translated grammar and memorised lists of words. But language-learning today? Most people have the idea of using what they’re learning in conversation, and ideally understanding what’s said to them by the people they’re interacting with.
Their goals are obvious, but they have no idea how to achieve them, other than repeating what they may have tried (often without much joy or result) forty years before.
Most learners should be TRAINING THEMSELVES TO LISTEN AND SPEAK, as priority no.1.
And listening and speaking effectively are NOT functions of studying grammar and memorising lists of words, but separate skill areas.
If you want to speak and listen in the language you’re learning, you have to do those things, regularly.
Everything else is a distraction.