Have you ever tried to converse with a native speaker of your target language but found that despite being able to speak pretty well you can barely catch a word of what he/she says?
It’s not that they’re speaking too fast. They’re speaking normally.
The problem is your listening comprehension skills need a lot of work.
One of the most difficult parts about learning a new language is listening comprehension (being able to grasp and make sense of what you hear). You can be an excellent speaker and be able to read really well yet still not understand more than a fraction of what other people are saying.
The reason for this is that speech is a series of sound units that are connected together quickly when spoken by a native speaker and they’re difficult to distinguish with an untrained ear.
There’s no shortcut around this unfortunately.
The only way we train our ears to distinguish sounds in foreign speech is by lots and lots of exposure. Listen, listen and listen some more. And this takes time.
There are a lot of people around who claim to master languages in extremely short amounts of time and I don’t doubt that they can speak extremely well, but I’m always skeptical about their level of listening comprehension in that time.
My own experience with listening comprehension
Next year (2012) marks one decade of my journey with the Arabic language. I started studying this language and some its dialects when I was 18 years old and I’m still working at it.
Despite my relentless determination and enthusiasm in my first year of Arabic, it wasn’t until about 3 years after I had started this journey that I one day had this incredible epiphany moment during a conversation with some Egyptian friends.
“Oh my God! Everything you’re saying right now makes perfect sense to me! I don’t even have to try to understand you – I just get it.”
It really did happen like that for me. It was just a sudden, defining moment of realization – almost like my ability to comprehend another language changed overnight. This is how it felt even though I knew it was a gradual process over a long time.
How you can improve your listening comprehension skills
As I said, there are no shortcuts to this. You need to have a lot of exposure to real, native speaker conversation in order to get better at it.
It took me 3 years, but that was a lot longer than it needed to be. I neglected this area of focus for a long time. It doesn’t have to take that long provided you’re determined and proactive about training your comprehension skills.
Music actually isn’t ideal for this. It helps, but what you need to do is to listen to a lot of real, natural conversation. For this reason, radio talk shows, television and movies are much more beneficial.
Here’s one highly effective method that I use to get the most out of listening material to train my comprehension skills:
Let’s say you’re studying French. Take a good French movie and find a short scene that you like in the movie. Here’s one from Amélie that I’m watching at the moment:
It’s good if the scene in the movie has a short dialogue that’s not too difficult for your level.
Use a video editing program like VirtualDub to cut the scene from the movie into a smaller video file to make it easier for you to use.
Go a step further and use an audio extractor like AoA Audio Extractor to strip the audio track from the video and make an MP3 file out of it for your iPod.
Now you’ve got your favorite foreign movie scene for easy listening while you’re driving, walking or doing the house chores.
Listen to it over and over. Do it until you can clearly distinguish the different sound units.
If you find it hard to make out certain words, try using Audacity to slow down the speed of the MP3 so you can hear it better.
This was written by Donovan Nagel.
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