Reading time: Ages!
This from Krista in response to Monday’s article, ‘What to study?’:
…do you have a suggestion for Italian TV? Like, where/how to access? I’ve tried the RAI app for podcasts and I’ve found they speak waaay too quickly for my intermediate linguistic ability.
And my reply, with the important parts highlighted in bold:
If you want something ‘easy’, make sure to listen to our EasyItalianNews.com – the first 2019 edition will be tomorrow!!
For TV, too fast is normal at first.
Put in the hours, try different programs, and you’ll find you start to tune in – slowly at first, then almost magically quickly (but most people give up way before that…)
Adjust your expecations so that you’re OK with just listening and not understanding. Do that for a few weeks, and you’ll see what I mean. The brain adjusts.
www.raiplay.it (if the geoblocker gets you, consider a VPN.)
Or try radio. I prefer it, as I can do other things at the same time. And there’s no geoblocker with radio: www.raiplayradio.it
Hope that helps.
So let’s talk a little today about listening comprehension.
If you’ve already sucessfully learnt a foreign language, you should have a good idea about what’s normal, what to expect, what to do, and what NOT to do.
But most people haven’t, so…
Students, and sadly, often teachers, focus on grammar and vocabulary first, speaking second, and reading/listening/writing skills third, perhaps barely at all.
The expectation is that being able to understand will magically follow once you know enough words and grammar.
Working in a language school, we commonly meet people who have studied for years, hundreds of hours in total, but have no practical ability to communicate. They might be able to speak some, but the listening will lag behind because they have barely practiced at all.
If listening practice took up as large a part of a typical curriculum as, say, grammar, or testing, or even speaking practice (which IS useful), then people wouldn’t be so unprepared when it came to hearing the language they’re learning actually being spoken.
Sadly, it usually doesn’t.
What to expect?
When we teach English to beginners (teaching English is a bigger business than teaching Italian, with more money allocated to research and to materials production), listening tasks are integrated from the very first lesson.
The students are asked to focus on extracting information from what (we teachers know) will be a flow of fast speech, impossible to understand in entireity.
For example, a platform announcement in a railway station:
“This is an announcement for travellers to London. The train to London Paddington will depart from platform 13 at 15.30. All passengers wishing to board this train should proceed immediately to platform 13.”
The task will have a picture of a train in a station above it, along with a grid to fill in.
In the grid, there’ll be an example, with some of the missing information already entered in a handwriting-like font so there can be no misunderstanding about what is required.
The teacher will SHOW the task beforehand (not explain it – this is lesson no. 1, remember?)
She’ll point at the speakers, then at her ear, make a listening sign by cupping her hand, pick up a pen and the course book, mime filling in the missing information, and so on.
It should be obvious to the students what will constitute success.
They should know before they begin that ALL they have to do is complete in the gaps.
Destination: London, Platorm: _____ , Departs at: 15.30
We could make it harder by gapping two or all three of the pieces of information, rather than just the platform number.
Typically, the audio would give information about two or three trains leaving, and the text would show all the information for the first one, some for the second one, and less for the third one.
The listening task would be both obvious and would increase in difficulty as the students ‘tuned in’ to the audio.
Destination: Manchester, Platorm: 16, Departs at: 15.00
Destination: Bristol, Platorm: 12, Departs at: 15._____
Destination: London, Platorm: _____, Departs at: _____
Imagine it’s your first English lesson and you’re played an announcement lasting, say, 60 seconds.
All you’ve studied so far are numbers.
To complete the task successfully, all the linguistic knowledge you really need are numbers from 1-20, plus recognition of a few common British place names.
But if the task has not been introduced appropriately, the students will not KNOW what is expected of them, and so will naturally focus on the flow of language that they cannot reasonably be expected to understand.
They will panic, complain, become de-motivated, and very likely fail to complete the task at all.
Though they would have been able to do it (having learnt and practiced the numbers) had they understood the purpose of the exercise.
Expectations are EVERYTHING.
What to do?
There are two obvious strategies:
1. PRACTICE WITH GRADED MATERIAL
If you’re a beginner, use listening material designed for beginners. If you’re advanced, choose listening material that has been produced for advanced learners.
The tasks should, in theory, have been designed to help you build the skills and strategies you need for future success, based on the vocabulary, grammar and background knowledge (what train stations sound like, names of English cities) that you can be expected to possess.
If you’re intermediate but have lousy listening skills, start with low level material and work up gradually, which’ll fix the problem in almost no time at all.
In fact, working up through the levels of graded listening material is pretty much guaranteed to produce results, as you’ll be spoon-feeding your brain exactly the sort of ‘content’ it needs to develop its capacity, gradually and over time.
2. USE AUTHENTIC MATERIAL AND ADJUST YOUR EXPECATIONS ACCORDINGLY
I like beer.
Suppose it’s Saturday night, and I’m locked in a prison cell in China, but with a fridge full of cold Chinese beers to sample, and a widescreen TV!
Things could be worse.
Unfortunately there are only Chinese channels.
And there’s no reading material, and no one to talk to.
So the options are:
1. TV and no beer
2. No TV but beer
3. Both TV and beer
Knowing I’m not going to understand a single word of the audio, I channel hop to find a film, ideally something western, that I recognise.
Yo! ‘Toy Story 1’!
Remember that? I watched it in Polish once, in about 1995.
Couldn’t understand a single word of it.
But after five minutes I completely forgot that and enjoyed the film anyway.
So that’ll do. Where’s the bottle opener?
Putting in the time listening to authentic materials will, gradually, help. Suppose I was in that prison cell for a couple of years?
I’d pick up a lot, watching TV sixteen hours a day.
Graded materials work in a more predictable way, because that’s what they’re designed for.
But authentic materials are useful too, and great preparation for all those ‘real life’ situations when you really don’t have any control over what you are hearing.
You absolutely will need to develop the skills to pick out whatever you possibly can from normal-speed, normal-complexity speech, and to form hypotheses about what’s being said and to listen to verify your hypotheses.
You likely won’t understand much, maybe nothing at first. Your hypotheses will be way off, or impossible to confirm.
But with time, over hundreds of hours of practice, you’ll be amazed at the difference.
Gradually the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle will come together. The picture will start to take shape.
N.b. In all probability, the picture will never be complete. But it’ll be good enough to get the idea, which is what you need.
A dog sitting by a vase of red roses! So, the dog’s nose is missing. But hey, you can imagine that bit, right?
Incidentally, the importance of ‘cultural knowledge’ to success at listening and reading is HUGELY understimated.
I spend loads of time listening and reading in Swedish.
At first, I had no idea what anyone was on about, not ONLY because I didn’t know much of the language, but because I didn’t understand the references.
Places, names and surnames, famous people, foods, popular newspapers and TV programs, which sports people watch and play, the royal family, nationally-important museums and institutions…
S, SD, KD, L, C and M, for example, are political parties.
E4 is a road. One of the principal ones, which was blocked this morning when a (truck? I’m not sure…) slid on ice and caused long tailbacks.
SMHI is the Swedish Meteorological and Hydrological Institute, and they’re saying that more bad weather is on the way.
Those are just from sixty seconds or so of the morning news…
Imagine how much there is to KNOW about the country or countries where the language that you’re studying is spoken.
And think how difficult it will be to understand any sort of media without having that basic information.
What’s the tax authority called? How does the health system work? What are the rules about alcohol? What’s the speed limit? What are house prices doing this year? Which are the best universities?
The more listening/reading you do, the more cultural knowledge you’ll have, the easier listening/reading will be, the more you’ll understand.
It’s a virtuous circle – put in the hours and you’ll get the benefits!
A combination of graded and authentic material is great, by the way.
What not to do?
Give up before you’ve really started.
Get distracted with stupid stuff.
Like grammar you’ll never use and couldn’t understand it you heard it spoken at normal speed by a native speaker.
The passato remoto, for example, which is mostly used in narrative texts. If you’re a reader, you’ll notice it and figure it out in no time. If not, you’re wasting your time, 100%.
And what about all those words that you really think you ‘should’ know?
But that are so INFREQUENT that they’re hard to remember, and therefore offer a poor return on the investment of time it takes to memorise them?
How many words are there for parts of the body, for example?
Students spend loads of time learning ‘eyebrow’ and ‘finger’, as if it was a rite of passage.
Then they open the newspaper and read about brain chemistry and heart attacks and colon cancer and womb transplants and stuff.
The best way to learn the vocabulary you really NEED, given that everyone’s needs and interests are potentially different, is to hear or listen to it in an understandable context.
The more your hear/listen to any particular word, or grammar structure, or piece of cultural information (E4, SMHI), the more meaningful they will be, and so the more your brain will naturally take note and allocate resources to remembering them.
Put in the hours (not doing stupid stuff) and, as I wrote to Krista, wait for the magic to happen!