Here’s another of those articles inspired by a conversation I had with a student.
A different one this time, but the problem is still listening.
The student’s an Italian manager, one of the top guys in his company.
He’s learning English because he needs it for negotiations with international partners.
He’s unusual in that he actually follows the advice I give to everyone (but which is usually ignored), namely:
- read a lot
- watch TV series
- focus on what you can understand, rather than on what you can’t
- smile and nod, even when you don’t understand
- and always ask for the details in writing before you agree to anything!
So he’s on the right track, and seems to be improving week by week.
Amongst other things, he has a subscription to The Economist, which I suggested because its app includes full audio versions of the articles.
You can listen to the magazine articles as well as, or instead of, reading them.
And he does.
But, like everyone else I teach, he complains that his listening “never seems to improve”.
There’s a lot of pyschology in teaching and learning.
In particular, it’s useful to understand expectations.
We begin a language not understanding very much.
We’re happy to be able to pick out the topic of the conversation, and perhaps some basic details.
But as our level improves, we become more able to follow.
It’s more like when we’re communicating in our mother tongue.
Except it isn’t, because we become increasingly oppressed by the parts we miss!
The comparison between what we are able to do in our mother tongue (I’ve spent nearly 50 years praticing mine) and in the foreign language (just the twenty years) is glaring.
As a consequence, the most advanced students are invariably the ones that are least happy with their listening skills!
“I watch movies in the language that I’m learning but can’t understand EVERYTHING!”
Oh, and that surprises you?
Anyway, yesterday’s student, who as I mentioned is showing a rare and impressive improvement in his level, was saying this same basic thing.
Whatever he did seemed to make no difference. The situation is desperate. He’ll never be able to understand. What should he do?
I asked how he was measuring the improvement in his listening skills.
This student works with numbers. In effect, he manages money for a living. Lots of money.
So it seemed like a reasonable question.
What “benchmarks” are you using when you conclude that your progress with listening is “zero”?
None. It was just an impression.
So I asked how he recorded these (subjective) impressions, so as to see the trend over time.
Did he, for example, write down a score on a scale from 1 (impossible to understand) to 10 (understood everything) each time he listened to an Economist article?
Well, why not?
After all, that would focus him on the listening process and confirm or contradict his feeling that his listening skills had plateaued.
I suggested starting a spreadsheet:
- URL of the article
- score from one to ten
That would also allow him to go back and review material he’d already heard.
But no, that would be too subjective, apparently.
So I suggested some more objective ways to measure progress with listening comprehension.
The most obvious ones were to
- Use exam material at a particiular level: A1, A2, B1, B2, C1, C2. Amazon has plenty of books of Italian exam practice past papers. Do an audio test occasionally, so as to benchmark and measure your progress!
- Develop a graded readers habit! Start with the level below your current one and move up only when you feel more confident. Repeat.
But no, exams were a turn off, and he was already doing plenty of reading.
What else could I suggest?
I improvised a final idea, which he noted down.
This one is ideal if you have a source of NON-GRADED. authentic material, such as the Economist audios or, say, the TV news.
Or it could work for a set of material at a particular level.
Anway, this is what you do:
- Find an audio you haven’t already heard
- Get a piece of paper and a pen
- Set the timer on your smartphone to 20 seconds
- Press ‘Play’
- Write down as many words as you can make out, ignoring all the stuff you can’t
- When the timer rings, press ‘Pause’
- Repeat a second and third time
- Now check your (probably very incomplete) text against the article or transcript
- Circle any words that you heard correctly, cross through those that were wrong
- Count the number of words in the piece you listened to (say 100)
- Count the number of words you heard correctly (you decide whether spelling is important…)
- Work out the percentage of the text you managed to write down correctly
- Record the percentage and the date
The idea is to have some sort of data over time, always gathered in the same way, so as to see a trend.
Obviously, the difficulty of particular texts will vary.
But hopefully a trend will be visible, if for no other reason than that ‘taking down dictation’ gets easier if you practice.
Hurrah! You now have a benchmark for measuring progress.
Now, if you want to moan to your teacher that your listening skills “never improve”, you’ll have some evidence to back you up.
And you’ll be able to move on to talk about solutions and strategies, rather than focusing on false perceptions and unrealistic expectations.
Want to give this a try?
Here are a couple of FREE listening tracks with NEW tasks.
I can’t attest to the level, but they’re sure to be suitable for experimenting with…
Or, why not try the ‘graded readers approach’ I mentioned?
At EasyReaders.Org we have a ‘bundle’ of Eighteen Italian Easy Readers, all with full audio, covering six different levels from beginner to upper-intermediate.
By buying a whole bunch of them at once, you have a ready-made ‘listening skills development syllabus’ all set out for you to follow.
No matter how good (or weak) you are, start with the easiest level and aim to do all three at that level before moving up to the next.
At one text a week, in four to five months you’ll have done the lot.
Bet you’ll notice the difference!