What Alex had been trying to do was improve too much, too quickly. He wanted to understand complex native-level materials, but he just wasn't ready yet.
To help Alex succeed, I needed to shift his mindset. I needed to convince him to change his listening routine so that he could learn, and improve at the proper pace. Without this shift, I feared he would keep getting frustrated, and possibly stop learning.
Everyone's level is slightly different, so this is hard to quantify in objective terms; however, I would say that comprehensible input is any audio source of which you can already understand at least 60-80%.
It may seem counter-intuitive to listen to material that is just above your skill level, but it is actually extremely important.
This is because if you listen to things that you mostly don't understand, you'll spend the majority of your time frustrated and confused. You may decipher a few words here and there, but you will struggle to piece together the gist of what is happening.
This is what was happening to Alex. He really wanted to understand movies, podcasts, and online videos, so that's what he tried to listen to. However, these native-level materials were so far above his level that they only slowed his progress, instead of supporting it.
To reach the kind of high level that Alex aspired to, it is necessary to build a "ladder" of comprehensible input. Start with what you understand, and then gradually listen to harder and harder audio material as your level increases.
For example, this is why I always have my students begin learning with a solid listening and reading routine. It’s the best method I’ve found for improving listening skills from day one of your learning.
Understanding most of what you listen to is the fundamental step to improving your skills. Once you have that in place, you then need to decide exactly what kinds of comprehensible content you will practice with.
This is important because relevant and interesting material will always be more enjoyable to listen to compared to other resources. If you enjoy what you listen to, you will have more motivation to continue listening, and be more resistant to stopping, or losing focus.
In real terms, this means that you should be very picky about what you do and do not use as a listening resource.
Just because your textbook has a lengthy audio dialogue about going to the airport or going shopping at the mall, you shouldn't feel obligated to listen to it. Be selective, and make sure that most of your practice time is spent with audio material that you look forward to listening to, and that matches up well with your goals and interests.
To make matters worse, you can't usually "go back to the beginning" to recover information you've missed; most of the time, you'll have to make people repeat themselves, which can cost time and energy, and cause frustration. Even when you can "rewind" (e.g. with recorded audio) the exact information you missed can be hard to identify.
Because of all of this, it is paramount that you focus on "the big picture" when listening, and that you avoid getting distracted by small details.
When I say "big picture," I mean the gist, or general message, of what you're listening to. If someone says to you, "What kind of movies do you like?" you can get the gist merely by understanding the words "what," "movies," and "like," or even just "movies" and "like." Those two words can give you most of the key context of the sentence, even if you don't understand the five other words alongside them.
Native speakers speak so quickly and fluently that learners often don't have the time to mentally break down the sounds, words, and meaning of what they're hearing—and even if they do manage it, the native speaker is usually on a whole other topic by then.
To be able to listen to native speakers at normal speed, you can't just dive in head first and listen at full speed right away. Speed, like vocabulary, plays a factor in comprehensible input. Because of this, you will likely need to listen at slower, more comprehensible speeds first, before you can gradually ramp things up to native speed.
- When listening to a recording, you can play it back at a variety of speeds, including 0.25x speed and 0.5x speed. The availability of playback options depends on which media player you are using, but free resources like YouTube, Audacity, and VLC media player all allow these kinds of speed adjustments.
Of these options, the second is usually most convenient for learning. Simply take any audio file, and adjust the playback speed until you can understand what is being said. Listen to it a few times at the slower speed, and then bump the speed up step by step until you reach native speed again.
As learners, it is easy to view listening as an exclusively passive activity. Unlike speaking, reading, and writing, you don't really need to do anything at all to listen; you just need to be within earshot, and the sounds will enter your ears on their own.
The passive quality of listening is great for when you just want to sit back, relax, and listen to a piece of music or dialogue in a movie. It is not so great, however, for productive learning sessions.
You see, learning happens best when it is active—when you, the learner, are engaged in what you are doing and take action to process new information. If learning is not active, you will absorb less information, and even run the risk of quickly forgetting what you learned.
To get the maximal value from your listening activities, you need to turn passive listening into active listening, which will greatly increase your comprehension and retention rates. One of the best ways to do this is through taking notes while listening.
When working on your listening skills, take out a notebook or piece of paper, and do the following:
- Write down the topic of the audio
- If there are multiple speakers, write down their names, or come up with labels for each (e.g. Speaker 1, Speaker 2)
- Write down the gist of what each speaker says, including any main points they try to communicate
- If you frequently hear a word you do not understand, try to write it down so you can look it up later
- If there's a word or sentence you find interesting, write it down so that you can practice using it in your own conversations.
For any language learning routine to be successful, it needs to keep you interested. For long-term success, you need to be engaged in a variety of different activities that challenge you and make you want to keep learning, day after day.
Test out as many variations of listening activities as you can think of. When you've found some that you like, you can then work them into your routine by varying the activities you practice based on the day of the week.
Even from the very beginning, I could tell that he was in a rush to learn Spanish well. He studied so hard, and always tried to dive right into high-level materials, even before he was ready. And as you know, it didn't really work.
Listening skills, like all good things, take time to grow and develop. They depend on a wide variety of factors (including time spent learning, amount of listening done, and depth of vocabulary), none of which can be accomplished through shortcuts.
If you can be consistent, and maintain such a routine for months, and years, you will find soon enough that your listening comprehension has grown exponentially. If you're not patient, and can't do that, your listening will grow at a much slower pace, if at all.
In a short time, he was able to:
- find listening material that was slightly above his level;
- focus on content that he found enjoyable and interesting;
- listen for the main points in the audio he listened to without getting distracted by what he didn’t understand;
- practice listening at slow, moderate, and fast speeds;
- take notes while listening to improve comprehension and retain vocabulary;
- test out a variety of different listening activities;
- practice patience and trust in the learning process.
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