If you asked me to make a list of the problems people have when it comes to speaking a new language, the first would be, y’know, actually speaking.
The second would be understanding. Listening comprehension. ESPECIALLY when it pertains to understanding native speakers (who talk so quickly!).
In this post, you’ll learn how to train your ear so that you understand native speakers (even when they speak at the speed of light).
The 3 types of Listening Modes
Unfortunately, not all listening is created equal. There are 3 different “modes” in which we listen:
1. Bidirectional: A conversation, in which we and another person(s) trade roles of speaker and listener. This mode is highly active and requires a lot of resources, as you not only have to understand and analyze what is being communicated, but you also have to convey information by speaking, exchanging roles with the other person. This constant cycling of roles is what makes having conversations in a new language so exhausting and difficult: it’s like dancing in new shoes that don’t yet quite fit right.
2. Unidirectional: When you’re the listener. Whenever you watch a video, listen to a podcast, or overhear a conversation, you’re engaging the unidirectional listening mode. This is not an entirely passive experience; we often talk to ourselves (or attempt to have a conversation with the medium) as we analyze and parse what we hear.
3. Autodirectional: Or “directed towards the self,” we engage the autodirectional listening mode when we think or talk to ourselves. The spoken minutes exercise engages this mode. If you learned a language in the classroom, this probably got neglected, but it’s important to develop; after all, both of the other modes pass through the autodirectional mode.
What does this mean for you?
It means that, to truly master listening comprehension, you have to practice all 3 modes.
Bidirectional listening is impossible to practice by yourself. The spoken minutes exercise is a good way to practice the autodirectional mode. So this post focuses on practicing unidirectional listening.
Listening Comprehension Practice: Abilities
When we talk about speaking another language, we mostly care about bidirectional listening; that is, the ability to hear, process, and respond.
One mistake most people make is that they jump to complex bidirectional listening. (In plain English: they want to have conversations immediately.) Then they get frustrated because they lack the hearing, processing, and responding skills.
Ability 1: Listening and Understanding Sounds
Tell me if this has ever happened to you:
You’re in a conversation with someone and you suddenly don’t understand what they said. So you ask for clarification, for them to slow down, and they comply, but you still don’t get it. The gears in your brain are turning, but you still don’t get it.
So you change approach. You ask them to spell, out the word. You repeat the sounds back to them. You ask them to write it down. And then, voilà! It clicks.
This happens to me all the time.
It’s a little thing called encoding.
What is encoding?
Encoding is the process of wrapping meaning into a shared vocabulary. Language is encoding manifested.
Without getting too philosophical, I can say “tree” and we both understand that “tree” probably describes an organic lifeform with a trunk and branches and leaves. But an actual tree and the word tree have nothing to do with each other. It’s just that someone decided that this thing has a name, and that name is tree, and you and I both understand such a thing.
If the word tree is a molecule, then the letters and sounds are the atoms. Our encoding system is complex. (As you know; learning a language is work!) How many years did we spend teaching you this complex encoding system, to read and write and speak, and how often do we still get it wrong? It’s complicated.
I like to break concepts into levels of abstraction:
Meaning –> Sounds –> Letters –> Words –> Sentences –> Paragraphs/thought groups –> Containers (essays, books, films, etc.) –> Intertextuality (how containers relate to each other; references, allusi0ns, and so forth)
The meaning level is intangible and unknowable to us. We have to put a layer of something tangible on top of it. So we use sounds and letters, and those letters combine to form words.
(A language like Mandarin uses sounds and characters. Same concept.)
…what does this have to do with listening comprehension, exactly?
Well, whenever you receive any kind of linguistic input (so, whenever you read/hear words), your brain goes through this entire system. It has to pass through the words –> letters –> sounds –> meaning, in that order, to really get the meaning.
So if there’s an issue with your mental model of the encoding—if your calculator doesn’t do the same math as everybody else’s—there are going to be a lot of mismatches.
How we encode
I do this thing where, when learning a new word, I speak it aloud in my mind. This is called subvocalization. Sub (under) vocalize (to voice; to speak aloud). It means “to speak under one’s breath” or, in this case, to speak in the head.
What this does is it creates a relationship between the written word and how I think the word is pronounced. This is part of the encoding process.
What happens at a subconscious level is: I hear a word and then I try to match it with how it’s spelled. But because my encoding doesn’t match how the word is actually spoken, there’s a mismatch. Therefore, my brain doesn’t recognize these sounds. There’s, therefore, no meaning associated with these sounds in this order. This is why I don’t understand!
If you’re learning a language with new sounds—the Italian gli like in aglio, the Portuguese lh like in olho, or the Mandarin c like in cài 菜—this is a big problem because your brain doesn’t even have the equipment to properly encode these sounds!
…how to fix this?
Fix the encoding.
Yeah, duh. But how do you fix the encoding?
There are two big ways, and you will probably need both, depending on where the encoding is a mismatch.
Really important: we’re not worried about comprehension with this outcome. In fact, the point of these exercises is to train you to recognize unfamiliar words in the language you’re learning.
Encoding Fix #1: Listen and Check
With this fix, you’re going to find a recording for the word or sound that you need to learn and you’re going to compare it with the sound that you confuse it as.
For example, many Japanese speakers can’t tell the difference between the English r and l. They would find recordings of similar words like “be late” and “berate” and listen and check until they can correctly identify the difference with a high degree of accuracy.
When I was learning Mandarin, I had a hard time with the differences between the consonants c- and z-. And also zh- and j-. This is exactly the exercise I did.
This is an input and recognition fix. This is the first half of the encoding problem. Can I accurately represent what I’m hearing?
A more advanced version of this exercise is to be a scribe: play some audio and write what you hear, then check how correct you were.
Encoding Fix #2: Speak and Check
If the last exercise was on input and recognition, this exercise is about output and mimicry.
In other words: can you match the sounds a native speaker makes?
This is hard to practice on your own, so it’s best to do this with a friend who is either a native speaker or who has a trained ear.
Here’s how it works:
You’re going to find those same recordings (or a friend/tutor/teacher who can speak) and you’re going to repeat after them. You’re going to mimic the sounds they make.
And then they give you feedback and you try again.
The next step in this exercise (which you’ll want to graduate to) is to remove the priming: try to make the sounds without hearing the correct version first. If you can do that, you’ve mastered that sound. (For now. As with everything in life, sometimes you get rusty!)
I wouldn’t spend more than 10 minutes on these drills. They get exhausting quite quickly.
One final thing on this.
Be patient with yourself. You’re asking a LOT of your brain, and sometimes it just takes a few days (or weeks!) for the neurobiology to catch up. Just keep at it, even if you’re frustrated and not seeing progress. I promise that your body is doing the work.
Ability 2: Processing and Acting
When you were in school, you got instructions all the time.
In this outcome, you’re going to graduate from simply recognizing sounds to understanding and processing.
Yeah, that’s a big leap. Let’s take it slow.
Remember our lesson on encoding? How our brain hears sounds, recognizes them as words, assigns them meaning, and then arranges them in sentences to create understanding, perhaps not in that exact order?
…yeah, it’s a lot of work when you say it like that, isn’t it?
But as it turns out, processing and acting, despite being much more complex than simply recognizing, isn’t usually more difficult.
Obviously, complex sentences are harder to process and react to. Fortunately, they’re also less common than simple sentences.
How processing and acting work
You already know how processing works: it’s the simple action of decoding meaning. We’re inferring the intangible, ungraspable thing from its container.
When then happens is that you get to make a decision. What to do with this new information?
Well, if it’s a command from a teacher—turn to page 394—you decide to follow the command and you act accordingly. Not much higher cognition involved.
But sometimes it requires new information. And if you’re doing this in a foreign language, the language processing is a lot more taxing.
Fortunately—and maybe I’m an oddball here—when I think, I don’t interface with English, or with language. The majority of my thinking is wordless and subconscious; “talking to myself” is only something I do when my subconscious taps out and asks for an assist.
Processing happens in this black box: you and I aren’t conscious of it. It just happens.
What we are conscious of is how it interfaces with language. That plodding and parsing, turning a word or sound over in your head to recognize it and draw meaning from—THAT is the part I’m talking about.
Processing and Acting Exercises
Games you played as a kid—”Simon Says” and “Follow the Leader”—are awesome at building up that processing and acting skill. (They’re also good for basic body part/movement/direction vocabulary, which is something that I, personally, always find harder than other kinds of vocabulary.)
Another excellent exercise—that doubles as a cultural exploration—is to cook! Find a video explaining a recipe in your target language and follow along. I think that, for your first couple attempts at this, having an English version for reference is perfectly acceptable. (As long as you use it for reference and not as your primary method of instruction, that is.)
A final exercise I like is finding an online exercise or yoga class in your target language—YouTube or that country’s preferred video hosting platform is full of these—and following along.
Ability 3: Listening for Pleasure
At the end of the day, you want to do more than learn a language for necessity. You want to have fun!
Listening for fun can mean listening to a podcast, an audiobook, or watching a television show.
Finding Materials at a Suitable Level
Obviously, you don’t want to listen to something super advanced when you’re still starting out. And likewise, once you get to an intermediate level, the slower, “for beginners” stuff is going to be too easy for you.
Beginners: The Coffee Break podcasts are fantastic for Spanish, French, German, Italian, Swedish, and Chinese. (And English for Spanish speakers.) Arabic is a bit tougher, depending on the dialect, but MezzoGuild has some excellent Arabic resources.
Oddly, I find that music from the 1950’s (think: jazz, simple vocals, and so on) has good pronunciation and simple lyrics. (For French, think like Jacques Brel and Édith Piaf; anyone who reminds you of Ella Fitzgerald or Frank Sinatra’s vocal style—excellent diction, heavy emphasis on the voice and not the accompanying instruments—is a good bet for a beginner’s ear.)
Intermediate/Advanced: I love public radio. You will never run out of things to listen to and if you just want to keep your language in your ear as you go for a walk or something, there’s nothing better. Wikipedia has an awesome list of broadcasters by country and you can tune into any radio station at radio.garden. (Radio Garden also has an app.)
Programming difficulty varies immensely, obviously.
For watching shows, think “how similar is this to Friends?” Sitcoms, comedies, and “formulaic” shows are easier to follow and tend to have less difficult dialogue; I’d avoid dramas, mysteries, and “cerebral” shows unless you want a challenge.
Theatre (and recordings of plays and musicals) follows the same rules, with the added caveat that older stuff will have more antiquated language. That doesn’t mean you should shy away, especially if it’s a show you already know—I attended a production of Mamma Mia! when I was in Brazil, despite only having had about 2 months of Portuguese, but because I knew the story, I could follow along with the action onstage.
Advanced: At this stage, you should continue listening to the radio, but watch some more advanced programming: dramas, films, and older theatre recordings.
tl;dr: Active Listening is Essential
There’s no cutting corners here: listening is a skill that you need to do a LOT of. The only way to get better at listening is to listen.
Of course, you have to be smart about what you listen to and which skills you want to work on.
In the comments below, tell me what you thought of this blog post. Did you learn something new? Is there a listening resource you love that you’d like to share? Post it below!