On listening

On Listening – part 1

4 January 2018

This article was written by Mark Delta, writer, translator and language teacher, and published on this site with his consent.

Many students say that it is difficult for them to understand unadapted oral speech. Here are two tips that will help you improve your listening skills. Every person is different, of course, so I can’t guarantee that they will help everybody. However, the students for whom I developed this advice have successfully passed the Listening section in the IELTS tests, and to others, these tips helped understand news reports and films – in Hebrew or in other languages they were learning. These tips are applicable even for Latin – as strange as it may seem, there are videos in that language too.

Suppose you are watching a video and it goes too fast for you to understand what is spoken in it – however, the same text would be quite clear to you if you read it. Why exactly can’t you decode the speech as quickly and efficiently as when you would do it when reading? Most often, it is one of the reasons listed below – depending on the person.

  1. A habit of translating every phrase into your first language. Try to analyze your own cognitive process when listening to a fast flow of speech. If you discover this habit in yourself (not everyone has it but a lot of people do), try to pay attention to it and take a firm decision to turn off this internal dilettante interpreter.
    A translation of some phrases in a strictly defined learning context may be (but not always is) useful. It makes sense to translate specially chosen phrases in certain conditions and with certain limitations, when nothing distracts, and only in one direction – from the first language to the one you are studying.
    But when you need to comprehend the unadapted fast speech of native speakers, your attempts to build phrases in your first language in your head in parallel take an enormous amount of time and energy. They are fatiguing and counterproductive.
    You need a conscious effort to get rid of that. Acknowledge that you have a habit of translating the speech in your head (if you have it) and turn off your internal interpreter every time you notice his or her working. Remember that translation is a very tough and complex job, and leave it to professionals.

You don’t need a translation to understand a phrase made of the words you know according to the rules of grammar you know. You can absorb phrases without building sentences in your native language in your head in parallel.

Let us give it a try:
Es un libro. Do you need a translation to understand it? Let’s extend this a bit: Es un libro interesante. It’s still clear without a side-by-side translation, isn’t it? Es un libro interesante en inglés. The sentence is a bit longer, but we still can perfectly understand it. And, extending it even further, we can get: Es un libro interesante en inglés escrito por la periodista Pamela Travers cuando dejó Australia para irse a Inglaterra. – a really long phrase, and yet we can understand it without having to look for the necessary English words to translate it.
Now, as we are learning Hebrew, let us do the same exercise, going from short sentences to longer ones:
זה ספר.
זה ספר מעניין.
זה ספר מעניין מאוד באנגלית.
זה ספר מעניין מאוד באנגלית שכתבה העיתונאית.
זה ספר מעניין מאוד באנגלית שכתבה העיתונאית בשם פמלה טרברס.
זה ספר מעניין מאוד באנגלית שכתבה העיתונאית בשם פמלה טרברס אחרי שעזבה את אוסטרליה.

  • When we are listening to a continuous flow of speech, we often get distracted, not only by random thoughts. Most often, our attention is distracted by what we have just heard but could not understand. And in this case, instead of keeping on listening, we are frantically thinking: “What was that?! Two short words or one long one? Was there a z or an s? Looks like there was a verb in the beginning that I learned some day. What a scatterbrain I am, can’t remember anything well! But wait, that was not the verb I thought of, I have never seen that word before. Should look it up in the dictionary. But I’ll forget it before I open the dictionary!”
    While this thought process was happening in our mind, we have completely missed the next big fragment, and are now desperately trying to focus again on the speech, and we don’t understand anymore what the lecturer is talking about or what the movie characters are discussing.


The best solution to this problem is to develop a habit of real-time listening. If you didn’t understand some phrase, just keep on listening. It’s not important why exactly we didn’t understand something – whether it’s because we knew some word and forgot it, or didn’t know it at all, or didn’t encounter it in that context, or didn’t correctly decipher the sounds, or to any other reason.


It’s important to listen to what is being spoken right now. Then, even if you don’t understand everything, you will understand much more than you will if you continue thinking about the words and sentences that were said before. And the probability that you catch the general meaning will improve considerably. Even if some of your assumptions about the meaning prove to be wrong, the accuracy of your understanding will improve over time.

To develop this ability to “listen in real time,” I propose a mode of listening which I call GM, since its purpose is to improve the understanding of the General Meaning.

  • Imagine that you have just listened a piece of audio where you have perfectly heard all words and expressions and never got distracted. One can think that in such a situation there can be no problems with understanding the meaning at all, but this is often not the case. The reason is that you don’t have enough time to make sense of all the words you’ve just heard. One of the obstacles is the already mentioned propensity to internal translation. But not the only one. Getting rid of the habit of translating, we will make it easier for ourselves, but the flow of speech may still be too fast for us.

In this case, it’s not the pace of speech by itself. Remember that we are considering the case when every word is perfectly heard and understood. The problem is too short pauses between words and parts of sentences, and because of that we still do not have time to fully understand the content. To accelerate my ability to “collect meaning” I propose a second type of listening. Let’s call it UA, because its purpose is to understand not just a common sense, as in the first case, but Understand All.

I recommend that you do these exercises one by one, but not too long (more on this later), as these exercises are rather unusual and therefore very tedious, and fatigue often comes unnoticed.

Since regularity is important in any activity, it is necessary to ensure that every time before starting the exercises, we would be enthusiastic, and not discouraged, for example, by the fact that we too tired from studying over the last three days. To this end, it is useful to praise yourself for any, even a tiny success (hurray, I understood a phrase that I could not understand before!) And in no case you should blame yourself. We need motivators, not demotivators.

In order not to forget to do this, you can accustom yourself to some kind of gesture. For example, which is quite natural, a thumbs up. Personally, I imitate Kyle McLachlan as agent Cooper in Twin Peaks. It seems that no one so contagiously performed this gesture, like him.

How exactly these exercises are done, how to pick the training material, what software can be used (on a PC or on a tablet or a smartphone), is the topic of the next part.

The original version of the article is available here.

On Listening – part 2

7 January 2018

The best way to learn to understand and speak a language is to converse in it as much as possible. However, not everyone has the opportunity to do that.

The two listening methods I propose below are intended for those who do not have access to the environment speaking in the languages they are studying for one reason or another, as well as to those who have such access but cannot immerse themselves in the new language completely and isolate themselves from their first language environment. In addition, the often-recommended abstinence from using the first language is a serious challenge for many people.

If done daily or almost daily, 5 to 15 minutes long listening sessions can help to achieve satisfactory progress. Even better if you can do two or three such sessions per day, with several hour breaks between them. Modern technologies can facilitate a lot of processes, and it would be unwise not to use them.

If your day is busy, it would be easier for you to schedule one continuous time slot per day for the exercises. In this case, you can do both of the exercises below in succession. I would recommend you to decide which of the exercises is harder for you and to start with it, and to relax a little when doing the other one. However, the exercises are so different that just switching from the one exercise to the other one gives some sense of relaxation. Still, don’t do any of the exercises for too long, as fatigue will accumulate.

Method 1: UE (Understand Everything).

Objective: understanding a text you have analysed upfront when it is played back at a fast pace.

Choose short audio or video fragment (up to one minute) – of course, it should not entirely consist of music and silent scenes. The best choice would be a video with subtitles.

You should first completely understand the text. You can do it either in advance or immediately before the exercise. You can use dictionaries, ask the people you know in case you don’t understand some parts, ask questions here or on our Facebook page, etc. To put it in a nutshell, you must completely understand the text’s meaning. It’s not obligatory to understand all the grammatical details and learn the words by heart, as our objective is different. If the passage turned out to be impossibly difficult for you, take another one, with a simpler text.

Of course, I help my students analyse the text and I explain the grammar to the extent that is the best for each individual student. For one student, it’s the best to correct him when he says ti’er instead of תֵּאֵר ~ תיאר te’er, without saying anything about the effect of guttural radicals (he will lose focus instantly!). With another student, I can browse through verb tables and the etymological dictionary, as that’s interesting to him and helps him to remember the material better.

After the text is analysed, start listening. Pick up a playback speed at which you can understand everything without looking at the text or subtitles. You may have to slow down the playback significantly to achieve that. Make the pauses between the words as long as your brain needs to understand what you are listening to, even if that means playing at 25% of the original speed. See the recommendations regarding the necessary software below.

When you find the playback rate at which you completely understand the text without effort, listen to that text over and over. At each repetition, raise the playback speed slightly – in order for your brain not to feel the difference and to understand everything perfectly.

For example, you can increase the speed by 25%. If you understood everything, that’s wonderful. If that’s too much, take smaller steps. For many, a 10% speed increase at each repetition is the best. The difference in speed between one repetition and the next one is almost imperceptible, and you can still understand everything.

In several minutes, we will reach the 100% playback speed – that means that we will effortlessly understand the fragment played at the speed at which it was recorded. However, you should not stop here! We want not only to teach our brain to make sense of the words when listening to a fast flow of speech. We also need to remove the fear of fast speech and get rid of the sort of an inferiority complex that we have in relation to the native speakers (if such complex really exists). You should increase the playback rate until it reaches the speed of the birds’ chatter – so that even native speakers have trouble understanding it. But you will still understand everything: from the very beginning, you have increased the playback rate in small steps so that your brain didn’t notice the increase.

If you are working with learning materials, try to reach around 200% playback speed. If you are listening to an unadapted speech, it should be at least 130% or, even better, 150%. In total, this exercise should take no more than 10 minutes. In several days you will find that you do it in 5 minutes or even less, as your brain adapts itself to fast speech, and the step of playback speed increase can be bigger, and the total number of repetitions can be reduced.

How can you make sure that you have achieved good results with the fragment you have taken? From time to time, after another repetition at an increased speed, try to listen the fragment at its original rate (100%). When you will not only understand everything, but also be bored with such a slow speech (which may have seemed too fast to you in the beginning of your studies), the job is done. Congratulate yourself.

This last step is the most psychologically important in the whole routine. You should understand the text you are listening so easily and so well that listening to the recording at its original rate would be terribly boring. Now, recall that only 10 or 15 minutes ago at the 100% playback rate you thought that the characters speak too fast. Now, you definitely hear that they talk too slowly.

In fact, I told the same thing in the two previous paragraphs, and have already started the third one. This is because it is too easy to miss the last step in this method. You can reach the 200% speed, understand the birds’ chatter and call it a day. However, I suggest you spend several seconds more and do this last step. And after that, give yourself a thumbs up and congratulate yourself on your achievement!

Method 2: GS (General Sense).

Objective: listening ‘in real time’, guessing the general meaning, even if some words and expressions cannot be understood.

Pick an audio or video piece 2 to 5 minutes long. In case you worked with a fragment of a long movie in your first exercise, you can keep watching the same movie – but in a different fashion. Turn off the subtitles, if the movie has them. If you cannot turn them off, try to not to look at them. You can also place the window in the video player so that the subtitles are hidden below the bottom of the screen.

Don’t change the playback speed and don’t take the text apart in advance. Be prepared to encounter words and expressions that you don’t know or don’t remember at the moment. Just hope that you hear something that you can recognize. Listen once or twice to the fragment you have picked. You can listen to it more times if you want, but don’t bring yourself to exhaustion with your enthusiasm. If you are passionate about the film’s content, you can go on (it’s interesting to know when Don Pedro gets his memory back, isn’t it?). But as soon as you feel even the slightest fatigue, stop everything until the next day.

The target of this exercise is to listen at every moment to what is being spoken right now. If you find yourself not understanding something and trying to understand it post factum – and thus you risk missing the part that is being said right now – immediately turn your attention to what is being spoken presently. Try to understand the general meaning, reconstructing it based on the words and expressions you could hear and understand, as well as on the non-verbal information.

In this regard, a video is much better than an audio piece. Visual information helps us reconstruct the topic. Imagine the following: in the middle of the night, a married couple is woken up by a phone call. The husband picks up the phone and hangs it up immediately. The wife asks him who has called. He keeps evading the question. We don’t understand half of their quarrel, but we take it easy. In any case, we have a general idea of what is going on.

It’s possible that the subject of the video clip was entirely different from what we thought. It’s not very important. Your objective should be to teach yourself to listen and pay attention in real time – to think about what is being said right now, and not about what was said ten seconds ago. If you want to know whether you guessed the story correctly, you can read the subtitles after you are done with the exercise – but that is optional and not part of the exercise.

Video Software

Now, regarding the software, and also which materials are better, and where to get them.

For the UE exercise, it is important to be able to rewind the video by several seconds and to change the playback rate to very slow or very fast without losing the sound quality.

On a desktop or a laptop, VLC Media Player would be a good choice. It is available for free download. You can download it from a number of sites, but it’s best to download it from the official VLC site to be on the safe side.

After you install it, open the View menu and turn on the Status bar option. A status bar will appear in the bottom of the player window, and you will be able to change the playback rate by clicking on it (it will be set to 1.00x by default). Note that this window will appear only after you open some file. You can rewind the video in small steps by pressing Shift with left or right arrow keys.

To watch a movie (or a clip) in VLC, you need to download it as a file. If that film exists only on YouTube (we will omit the discussion whether and how, technically and legally, it can be downloaded), you can do the UE exercise directly on YouTube. If you click on a cogwheel in the bottom right corner of the video, you will see a small menu in which you can change the playback rate. The choice of different playback speeds on YouTube is not very rich, however – you can’t move in smaller steps than 25%, but if the fragment is not very difficult, that will be fine (in VLC, it’s very convenient to move in 5% or 10% steps). There is no sound on 0.25x playback speed, so you will have to start with 0.5x or faster.

When doing the GS exercise, you don’t need to change speeds or rewind the video multiple times, so you can use any video player you like, or you can watch them on YouTube.

On Video Materials

What kinds of materials are best for doing these two exercises? In principle, any videos with subtitles will do. Some people like comedy sketches, some people prefer TV series or melodramas; some people can watch everything.

Note: at least at first, it makes no sense to use the automatic subtitles which are added in some YouTube clips (you can turn them on in the same menu where you change the playback rate). These titles are made not by people but by speech recognition algorithms, which often incorrectly interprets what is spoken.

I believe that everyone is skilled in searching and finding everything they need on the Internet, so my advice is not much needed. However, I will still say a couple of words regarding study materials for Hebrew, English, German, French and Spanish – pick the ones you need.

Hebrew

If you are learning Hebrew, I can personally recommend the witty comedy sketches of the band קצרים Ktzarim (or החמישייה הקאמרית Ha-chamishiya ha-kamerit, or “chamber quintet”, as they were called several years before they became Ktzarim), as well as the newer comedy series היהודים באים Ha-yehudim ba’im “The Jews are coming”.

For the UE exercise, you should look for clips with subtitles (there are a lot of them), and for the GM exercise, clips without subtitles (there are a lot of them too), or take a clip with subtitles but don’t look at them when doing the exercise.

English

For English learners, the situation is even better. You can found a million films and series with subtitles in any language or without subtitles by just searching something like “TV Shows in English with English subtitles”.

You can also find a movie and then download subtitles separately. For example, if you need subtitles to the episode 15 of the 3rd season of Twin Peaks, google for “Twin Peaks s03e15 english subtitles”, where s is for season and e is for episode. When both the video and the subtitles are downloaded, launch the video in VLC and then use your mouse to drag the subtitles files to the player window.

Finally, there is an enormous amount of videos on special sites, like Ororo, which also has subtitles that you can turn on or off as you wish. Also, there are a lot of lectures and talks on the TED website. Unfortunately, there is no storyline like in TV series and comedy sketches, so not everyone may like them, but there is nothing better to learn rich, proper language with a sprinkle of slang. Here is a list of several lectures in English with subtitles. Also, I can recommend the BBC Extr@English series.

German

For German language learners, I have some unpleasant news. Unfortunately, in German videos, the subtitles are often paraphrase what the characters say, but don’t match the speech word-for-word. Same thing concerning Austrian videos. Very often, verbal tenses are not preserved. For example, the simple past can be used in the subtitles when the compound past in used in speech. For example, a character says: “ich habe dieses Buch nicht gesehen”, and the subtitles read: “ich sah dieses Buch nicht”. The subtitles can still be helpful if you take this into account – to an extent.

If you want specialised study videos instead of ‘real’ films, try Extr@Deutsch by BBC with German actors. The videos are humorous and fun, and the subtitles match what the actors say. Also, there high-quality exercise audios on YouTube under the title Deutsch lernen durch Hören; part of them comes with subtitles.

It’s difficult to find the film’s subtitles or script for German films as a separate file. I have found them only for three films, definitely not of German origin (The Lord of the Rings trilogy), but professionally dubbed in German. These films didn’t quite work out for me: too much music and noise.

Spanish and French

In Spanish and French internet segments, there are not many subtitled films either. However, I have still managed to find some movies. This is a channel with subtitled fragments from Spanish and Latin American movies, and this is a list of French videos with French subtitles.

There also are English-language films with French and Spanish subtitles, and also Spanish-language and Francophone films with English subtitles. That does not work for everyone, but may still help.

There also are decent learning materials, like Extr@Spanish and Extr@French by BBC, voiced by Spanish (and French, respectively) actors. The storylines of all Extr@s are similar, and they are funny.

Don’t also forget the TED talks: here are lectures in Spanish with English subtitles, and here are lectures in French with English subtitles.

The original version of the article is available here.

Author: neaseno

I was born on Powers Bluff in Wood County, Wisconsin, into a traditional community of Neshnabek. I was raised speaking only native languages, and learned to speak English upon entering school at the age of 6. As of this writing, I am one of 5 remaining Heritage Fluent Speakers of Potawatomi.

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