There was lots of feedback on Wednesday’s article about listening, “Please reassure me!”.
What an interesting range of suggestions you came up with! I’ll copy and paste them here below, after the plus signs (+++). If you have time, do read though what people wrote to me and commented on the club website.
But reading the various contributions, it occurred to me that what might be helpful here would be a little ‘theory’, that is to say, the sort of thing that we language teachers learn on our training courses about how to help learners like you develop listening skills.
For in fact, listening is not one thing, but a set of different sub-skills. Which you use at any given moment all depends on WHY you’re listening.
And it’s therefore the case that the club members’ advice and suggestions (below, between +++ and +++) may be more or less appropriate/relevant according to which sub-skill you need to improve.
Insomma, if your’re pressed for time, scroll right down to the second set of +++. Otherwise, read your fellow club members’ suggestions, THEN look at the theory.
So here we go!
“It sounds to me as if Martin is trying to run a little too early. Many moons ago I started learning the piano. I didn’t start with a Rachmaninov piano concerto but with simple nursery rhymes. I still can’t play Rachmaninov very well but can give it a good try … but it has taken more than 30 years! I fully understand where Martin is and my suggestion is that he has a few less demanding podcasts to listen to first which will get his ear into tune and boost his morale. Then go for something more demanding.
One of the world’s greatest concert pianists used to start and finish all his practice sessions with what he called lollipops. Pieces that he knew he could play well. He said it stopped him getting depressed! I think it was good advice.”
To which I replied:
“Maybe, but there’s a lot in live media that’s actually understandable, even at beginner level. Obviously a small fraction of the whole, but it’s a start.
Personally I think that a combination of simplified texts and authentic texts are ideal, so you’re getting stuff at both ends of the spectrum and therefore learning different skills. As if your beginner pianist was mastering Level 1 pieces but also studying the occasional, more-accessible few bars of ‘real’ music, not the whole concerto, obviously!”
Angela wrote in with this:
“Thanks Daniel, that made a lot of sense. I was out yesterday with three Italian women and one to one I understood them, But when the three were chatting together, I got lost and turned off….. Next time I will just listen.”
So I told her:
“I think that’s quite normal, Angela. It happens to me at home when my kids are speaking Italian to each other or to their mother. It’s one of those things, I’m afraid. Context matters a lot to comprehension – if you knew what they know, and what they were talking about, it would be easy!”
Kathy commented on the club website:
“I don’t know how much time Martin is giving any one thing he’s listening to, but for myself I find 2 things very useful (and “moralizing”). The first is to balancing listening broadly with listening deeply. It sounds like he’s listening to lots of different things and maybe bouncing around a lot. That’s fun once you’re comfortable with the language, but to get comfortable, it’s better to listen deeply – that is, to pick one thing, a podcast, a story, but something that isn’t too long at first (5-10 minutes?), and something that piques your curiosity – and listen to it over and over again. Pause to look a word up only when it REALLY niggles at you. Next time through, notice the word and how it fits in the sentence. Keep listening and looking things up but only sparingly. I guarantee that new words and phrases will keep coming to your attention as you focus more deeply, but they will be filling in details rather than be overwhelming chaos.. After a while, you’ll either be sick of the piece and move on, having learned some new words, or, if you’ve chosen well, you’ll find that you’re enjoying how the story’s details have emerged out of the fog. It’s so satisfying to find yourself smiling at the funny bits and tearing up at the sad parts (now that you understand them!)
The second thing I find motivating is, as Daniel says, to remind myself how far I’ve come – once I’ve done this with a few different pieces, I go back to an early one and marvel at how much I understand.”
And Melissa replied to Kathy’s comment:
“I agree completely that listening to the same piece over and over really helps. The first time you listen, concentrate on what you DO understand…maybe a place name, a borrowed word from your own language, a couple of numbers. Then ask you self what you CAN say about the passage, What is the general message of the passage? .is it cheery? Something to worry about? A dialogue between two people? How old are they and what is their relationship? What is the subject? Health? World news? An advertisement? An argument?
Then listen again, and see if you can add any more details. Can you distinguish any more words? Even with a very basic knowledge of the language you will probably be able to refine your answers to the questions above and distinguish a few more words, even if you don’t know what they mean. That is progress.
Each time you listen, your comprehension will improve. Then listen to it again after a few more weeks of study. You will be surprised at how much you know!”
(Other comments have been added since I wrote this yesterday – read them all here.)
Nancy sent me this claim she saw on Facebook:
“Reading to children six to seven days a week puts them almost a year ahead of those who are not being read to”, and added “this sure supports your point. Although I haven’t been able to convince an Italian mother to come read to me, listening to Easy News, RAI Radio, etc. may be the next best thing (less the cuddling!). I’m a believer!”
And finally, Donna emailed her suggestion:
“Something that has helped me in understanding spoken Italian is to listen to the same recording multiple times alternating between slow speed and normal. If you listen over and over to the same thing it helps your brain stop hearing what it expects to hear and start hearing the actual sounds. Also I found that once I became advanced enough to start listening for phrases instead of individual words my listening comprehension advanced much more rapidly.”
Which brings me back to theory. Who’s right?
When, for instance, might it be advisable to listen multiple times, over and over, until you understand as much as possible?
Lots of people seem to think that’s the best way.
And when, in contrast, would it be more logical to move on, to NOT dwell on the parts you don’t understand, which could be 90+% of what you’re hearing?
It all depends on WHY you’re listening.
‘Understanding’ is not one thing. So the resources we devote to it (time, attention, mental energy) and the strategies we employ (listening to the same text repeatedly, listening only once for the general idea, predicting, guessing) will be different based on what our needs, and so priorities, are.
‘Understanding everything‘ is not how we listen in real life, however satisfying it might be as a language-learner. Life is not a dictation! So why prepare for real-life conversations as if it was? Listening in such a way as you could repeat word-for-word what you’ve heard is actually quite unusual. Conference interpreters do something similar, but otherwise?
But as I was saying, ‘understanding’ is not one thing, as many learners imagine, but a collection of sub-skills. This page summarises it nicely ( http://www.bchmsg.yolasite.com/listening-sub-skills.php ). Look at the first three, in particular.
Many of our club members’ comments above refer to #3:
3-Listening in detail
It is the intensive listening for scanning. This is when we listen we listen very closely, paying attention to all the words and trying to understand as much information as possible.
Example: A member of a jury listening to a statement from a witness.
Now in my personal opinion, that one, sub-skill three is NOT what you are normally doing when you listen in real life, in conversation, to the radio, in shops. In fact it’s actually quite rare, and rather advanced.
1-Listening for gist:
It is extensive listening for skimming. This happens when we listen to get a general idea about a topic.
Example:listening to a summary of the day’s news on the radio.
2-listening for specific information:
This is when we listen to something because we want to discover one particular piece of information.
Example: Listening to weather report to discover the weather in your city.
are much more typical of what we actually DO with our foreign languages. It’s therefore those first two sub-skills that we need to be practising the most, and that are also, in fact, most achievable for learners!
Spend your time on #3 and it’s going to be a.) hard b.) potentially demotivating, and c.) not very helpful for picking up foreigners in bars.
Whereas focus on #1 and #2? Now you’re talking! Those are the skills you need to figure out what’s going on around you, to be orientated, to be aware, to be involved.
Modern language exams mostly test #1 and #2, because those are the ones that are needed in real-life situations.
Testing #3 happens too, of course. But it’s not the whole of listening, just a sub-skill.
Here endeth today’s lesson!
This article ‘Five essential listening skills for English learners‘ is an accessible read, and has practical suggestions for improving each sub-skill (just substitute ‘Italian’ for ‘English’ as you read it.
Want some homework?
Go back up this article to the section with the club members’ comments. Read each one again and decide which sub-skill their suggested approach most applies to.
Knowing that, you’ll be able to evaluate if/when their advice is good, and when perhaps it might be the opposite of what you should be doing!
A lunedì, allora.
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Have you listened to and read Thursday’s bulletin of ‘easy’ Italian news, yet?
If so, and based on the above, HOW do you think you should be listening to it? You can read what I think here.