A few weeks ago, I was able to take a trip to Berlin and put my mid-year German skills to a test, in order to get a sense of my progress. It was also a perfect opportunity to identify my weak areas, so I can focus my attention on them for the remainder of the year.
It came as no surprise to me that my weakest area was listening comprehension. This is always the area where I struggle the most, for two reasons: first, unfortunately I have persistent tinitis so listening is something for which I have to work harder than most, and second, because I live in the United States where very few other people speak German and there are few reasources for me to practice. There is little I can do about my hearing problems, but fortunately there are still many ways that I can work to resolve my lack of German input!
Recently I received the following email, which I found quite timely:
_I would like to know your take on how to improve listening skills, because it seems to be a controversial issue. Some people believe we only should listen to something we understand, say 90 to 95%, what it is said. Otherwise, would be a waste of time. Others, however, say we should listen to virtually everything, even not understanding much, just to get acquainted with the intonation and rhythm of the language, as long as the subject is interesting to the listener. The thing is, how to find something in between: nothing so easy that gets us bored, but nothing so difficult that leaves us with the feeling we don’t know anything?
Apparently I've been lucky enough to miss the controversy on this issue. But it only takes me about 5 seconds time to form a pretty strong opinion, which is this: If you're only listening to things you already understand, what are you learning?
I've mentioned game theory in the past, and I see it as very relevant here. You learn the best when you're given some things that you already know, along with a few small challenges.
For example, if you feel comfortable with 85-90% of what you hear, but there are a handful of new words, that gives you the best chance to learn those words. The portion you already know is positively reinforced, and it also serves as context for figuring out the portion you don't know. Sometimes that may be pronunciation. Sometimes it's a word or two that you've never heard before. And sometimes it's learning to recognize when that wasn't a word at all, but a name of a person or place.
If you have access to a teacher, a friend, or a conversation partner who is aware of your skill level, this is probably the best way to slowly improve your listening comprehension, because this person can tailor the things they say toward the things that you know.
But if you don't have this kind of excellent practice partner, there are still other ways to improve your comprehension...
Whenever I first try to watch a movie in a new language, I find myself constantly fighting the tendency to just zone out. There are so many new sounds coming at me so fast, I can just switch off my brain and fail to understand any of it. But slowly, over time, it starts to make a little bit of sense.
I've searched the foreign films section of Netflix and added several German films to my queue. Early on, I watch them with the subtitles on, and usually end up spending most of my time reading the subtitles just to keep up. But often, even over the course of a single movie, I'll find myself starting to get comfortable with the voices, accents, and intonations of the main actors, and by the end of the film I'm starting to understand short phrases and sentences without having to read the subtitles. This can seem frustrating and slow at times, but usually near the end of each film, I find myself feeling more encouraged and positive about my progress.
But the next part is even better: After I've found a few films that I like, I watch them again. The second time through, I don't have to pay such close attention to the subtitles because I already know what's going on. Now, I can try to just listen to the dialog, try to understand what was said, and then peek down at the subtitles to see how close I was. Sure, there will still be a lot of vocabulary I don't know, and there will be a lot of things I should know but that I will miss. But each time I re-watch a movie I've seen, I recognize phrases — even start to predict them coming — which is exactly what we do in our native language!
In my opinion, transcription is one of most effective means of improving your comprehension, and especially helpful for highly phonetic languages. This can be done with a teacher or friend, or you can do it alone if you can find audio recordings that also have transcriptions. Music videos are often a good source for this.
You start by playing a little bit of audio: one sentence, or the beginning of a sentence, or even just a few words. Play it over and over until you feel like you know what's being said, and write that down. Then continue. Do this until you've finished your audio sample.
When you're done, pull up the actual transcription and compare what was said to what you thought you heard. The first few times it will likely be terribly off-base, often comical in how wrong it was. But who cares? You're learning! Now, take a break, and then try it again with the same audio. This time, having seen the right words, how much better is your ability to write down what you hear? Usually quite a bit better! Do that a few times and you'll be amazed at how quickly your comprehension improves!
Build your vocabulary
Finally, an important part of building comprehension skill is building our vocabulary. Each word is a pattern, a set of sounds, and when you know more patterns you'll recognize more words. This is where frequency lists become one of your most valuable tools.
Native speakers of a language often have a vocabulary of anywhere from 20,000-30,000 words, even to upwards of 60,000 words, and I guarantee it takes many years to reach that. But if you don't want to be disheartened, you can easily learn the most commonly used 2,000-3,000 words in a year or less, and quicky propel your comprehension to that 80-90% range. (In my Russian year, I found time to learn almost 5,000 words, which was a key to my ability to reach a useful skill level in just one year's time!)
So while it may not seem immediately obvious, one really great way to improve your listening comprehension is simply by... reading! Get some dual-language readers, or spend some time on blogs, news sites, or whatever else interests you, and get to work on building that vocabulary, in order to reduce the number of sound combinations you don't recognize. I like to read to myself aloud, so that I'm associating some sound with each word, and it doubles as pronunciation practice!
Train your ears for a foreign language
When you're learning a new language, one important and difficult task is learning to correctly hear and identify the sounds of that language. Their s doesn't sound like your s, their r rolls differently than yours, and their accent and intonation make it difficult to understand what you hear.
When learning a new language, I spend a lot of time and attention on training my ears. Basically, this means listening to the language being spoken, and then making sure that what I heard is the same as what was said. There are a few exercises I use to do this.
Perhaps the most useful exercise, especially in the beginning, is to look in a dictionary and find the meanings of words you hear. Simply keep a dictionary at hand (for me, that's an app on my iPod), and as you're listening to music, or podcasts, or watching a movie, listen for words you don't know, and look them up!
Not only does this help you to improve your vocabulary, but it helps you to notice phonics, intonation, and stress patterns, it gets you to pay attention to subtle sounds, glides, elision, and more.
Another exercise that can help with this is to watch movies or videos in the target language, with subtitles. As you listen along, try to reason out what you hear, and then glance at the words on screen to see if you were correct.
And finally, after your vocabulary improves, transcription is an excellent way to improve your hearing. Listen to a short bit of speech (like those I share in my guest readings and try to write down everything that you hear. If you have the original text, you can compare when it's done. If not, try using Google Translate to see how close you were.
All of these exercises will help you to be a better speaker and listener. And, the more time you spend practicing, testing, and improving your comprehension, the better you will be when you encounter speakers with strange accents, odd voices, or speech impediments.
What other tricks do you know? I have no doubt that there are some other people out there with some excellent comprehension exercises that I've never even thought of. Take a moment to leave some comments below!
Want to see my favorite language resources and courses?
I listed them here.