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.
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 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.
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