The Importance of Listening in Language Learning

(repost from 2012) If you have been following my German learning at all, you may remember my first “real-life” encounter with a native speaker.  If not, here it is:

“There we were, about 10 of us, just chatting away, drinking our beer and somehow it came out that one of my co-workers spoke fluent German.  Turns out, her Dad moved here from Germany and she was raised bi-lingual.  Well, of course I told her I was learning German and she started to speak it to me.  That’s when the crushing blow came…

All of a sudden, I couldn’t remember basic vocabulary.  She was talking and I was not processing.  I tried to speak back and baby talk spewed from my mouth.  What was happening?  I knew this stuff.  She was speaking reasonable, short, basic sentences and I was just not getting it.  She actually asked me “Wie viele Biere trinkst du heute Abend?”  This translates to the super simple “How many beers will you have tonight?”.  My answer?  “Ummm, uhhh, ja (yes) Bier (beer), ummm…”  She looked at me like I had lost my mind.  I hung my head in shame.“

I’m guessing I’m not the only language learner on the planet that this has happened to.  At the time I blamed it on my speaking skills and vowed to drill more sentences for “automatic” recall.  While this is not something I’d discourage, in hindsight it had more to do with my listening than my speaking.

What makes me think that, you ask?  Well, I knew the vocabulary she was throwing at me (super basic stuff), but I wasn’t used to hearing it, I was used to reading it.  Had I been at a listening level that I could have processed the information she was sending my way, it would have been easier to fall back on my speaking skills.  I was spending so much time translating the words in my head (words I wasn’t used to hearing) that I had no time to formulate my responses.

Why this deficiency in listening skills?  Simple:  I didn’t listen enough.  To be honest, I hardly listened at all.  I listened to Pimsleur,  to some Germanpod101 (mostly in English in the beginner podcasts), to Michel Thomas, etc.  What I wasn’t listening to was REAL German.  If my German co-worker had asked me “Wo ist die Goethe Strasse?” or “Möchten Sie etwas trinken?“ then I imagine I would have been quick to answer with well-drilled Pimsleur response.  I quickly found that my listening skills were sorely lacking.

If I could have done ONE single thing differently in my German quest, I would have listened more from the beginning.  Part of me had assumed that if I could speak it, I could understand it when spoken to me.  This is NOT true.  I could understand it if I READ it, but it was a big hodge-podge of junk when I listened to it.

So, what’s the solution?  One might be tempted to jump out and state the obvious “ LISTEN MORE”.  I think this is a little too general for our purposes here.  We should be thinking not only about volume of listening, but also of quality of both material and method.

Basically, we should be looking at three things:

  1. How much time should we spend on listening?
  2. What material should we use for listening?
  3. How can we listen most effectively?

How much time should we listen?

My recommendation would be 40-50%% of your daily language routine should involve listening.  At the VERY least, I would recommend 10 or 15 minutes a day.  The more listening the better, but any less than this may not produce much in the way of results.  Now, this is kind of general “one-size fits all” kind of recommendation.  If you are learning a language in order to watch Target language movies with no subtitles, then obviously listening is MUCH more important and should probably be closer to 80% of your language routine.  On the other hand, if you are learning in order to read books in your TL and nothing else, maybe you should consider cutting listening out entirely.

What material should we use for listening?

Again, I’m going to go with my personal recommendations here.  This may not fit everyone’s language agendas.

  1. Target Language movies and/or TV shows.  These can be dubbed so you don’t have to limit yourself to the (sometimes) strange movies of some target languages.  As an aside, Native (non-dubbed) films can be enormously interesting and a great insight into the culture and idioms of the language.  As a beginner or intermediate student, English sub-titles are fine.  When you find that you are starting to use them as a crutch, switch to TL sub-titles or none at all.
  2. Podcasts.  I would focus on podcasts with dialogs and/or at least 50% or more target language.  There are quite a few podcasts out there for learners and even some designed for beginner to intermediate listeners that are mostly (or exclusively) TL.  Podcasts with transcripts are indispensable.
  3. Audiobooks.  This may be more geared towards intermediate/advanced learners, but beginners could always try tracking down audio for kid’s books or graded type readers.  I would recommend also obtaining copies of the book in your NL and the TL in order to make it easier to check words or phrases that you don’t catch on the first pass.
  4. Native News, videos, conversations, etc.  Try to keep them native so you don’t fossilize any weird accent traits or un-natural grammar structures.

How should we listen most effectively?

To me, THIS is the meat and potatoes of the whole “listening” debate.  I’ve done some research on this and opinions vary widely.  I’m going to present MY method here.  Keep in mind that this is what works for ME:

  1.  I believe in primarily active listening.  By this I mean that my listening practice is focused.  I don’t count passive listening (background listening) as listening practice.  I’m not against passive listening as I do quite a bit of that as well, but only active listening seems to show me any real improvement.
  2. I am not afraid to repeat listening to something, however, I take care not to repeat things to the point of boredom or familiarity.  Sometimes I find that on the 3rd or 4th pass, I may catch something vital that I missed before.
  3. I try not to translate while I listen.  I listen and just try to let my brain absorb the basic meanings.  I find that when I relax and focus on listening without trying too hard to translate, that the words just kind of “flow” into my head.  If I miss something, that’s ok.  The key for me on the first pass is to get the “gist” of the audio.  I can always fill in details on a future run through.  This is also where transcripts come in handy.  Check your comprehension and make note of any new vocab words you think are worth remembering.  DON’T MEMORIZE EVERY UNKNOWN WORD.  Some words are unknown because they are obscure and should not be a priority.
  4. If I don’t understand ANYTHING, I’m probably listening to something way over my head.  I don’t think much good can come from listening to something you don’t understand at all.  If this happens, I pick something else to listen to.

So there it is.  My blog post about listening.  Hopefully, it was at least somewhat helpful.  Let me know YOUR listening thoughts and/or strategies in the comments!