(Note - This article was first published on the HTLAL Forum, May 10, 2011. I have fixed some grammar errors and done a little clarification.)
My purpose for writing this post is to convince beginning language learners to start listening from the beginning of their studies. To explain why one should do this, I will tell you about my personal experiences with listening from the beginning vs delaying for a while. I will also suggest how, how long and how often one should listen, in the form of listening tips.
I have read posts on forums and elsewhere about the role of listening. For beginning language learners, the range of importance placed on listening is wide – from people who want to get through a language program or text before starting to listen, to those who think it unwise to do anything but listen for several hundred hours.
Another thing that solicits a wide variety of opinions is quality of listening. Some prefer to just have something on in the background, while others listen so intensely they go as far as stopping recordings and looking up unknown words, playing material many times, only listening to things they have transcripts for, etc. These are the extremes of the issues I’d like to discuss, and offer my opinions on.
My experiences with listening as an adult solo-learner.
For the first languages I studied mainly on my own, Thai and Japanese, I didn’t listen in the early stages. I had a recording for my Thai text book, which I listened to, but it was so meager, and so repetitive, unnatural, etc, that it doesn’t really fit my definition of normal listening (which I will give shortly). With Japanese, early on the only thing I listened to was Pimsleur, which also doesn’t fit my definition of normal listening. In both languages, my true introduction to listening was through conversation practice with native speakers. This came 6 months to a year after I started studying, and not having listening skills made the early stages of conversation, which is the most intense part of language learning for me, much more intense. Still not having a clue, I started Mandarin the same way. Fortunately, a few months into Mandarin I finally started to use podcasts, and watch dramas and believe in the importance of listening.
Part of this enlightenment was due to all the recommendations on the forums, and part of it was due to the research I read regarding the importance of listening from an early stage. After listening regularly, there was no turning back. Never again would I study a language, at any stage, without listening regularly. But I still hadn’t experienced the true advantage of listening from the beginning. My listening practice greatly improved my ability to comprehend. It was much better than just trying to pick up the skill by accident, or as a consequence of other studies and language usage. But I wondered what level my listening would have been at if I had started from the beginning. Enter French.
French was the mother tongue of my grandmother, and I had always wanted to learn it. I don’t really know why I all of the sudden decided to learn it; I hadn't yet achieved my goals in my last language, Mandarin, at that point. But I was all gung-ho, and decided from day 1 to use the best language program ever invented – French In Action. For those of you who don’t know, FIA is a complete “immersion” language program that is most popular for it’s 52 half hour TV shows. These shows are all French, designed for the complete beginner and expertly graduated so that the learner is always challenged. I vowed to watch one show a day until I was ready to move on to native material. So that’s what I did. I should point out that I was doing other language learning at the same time; it wasn’t purely learning by listening. But listening was a regular component of my language program.
This time, 5 months in, when I started conversation, I understood almost all of what was being said to me. I was still awkward at first, but it was as if some big hurdle had been taken out of my language learning. I don’t miss that hurdle. I went on to visit France at about 1 year, and I understood pretty much everything that was going on. It was not without challenge, but comparing this with my other 3 languages, it was a huge improvement.
Now let me release the elephant in the room. Yes, it was French. Yes, I’m fluent in Spanish and English. So it’s not a fair comparison with my previous languages at all. But relying on my extensive experience with language learning, I felt there was a huge advantage to listening from the beginning over not.
So now I’m learning Russian. For some reason, this language was really hard for me. I couldn’t believe how hard the first few Pimsleur lessons were. But I started listening from the beginning. Beginner podcasts. And I feel it has really helped. About half way though Pimsleur 1, since there is no “Russian in Action”, I decided to try something different, and start watching movies with subtitles. I got a real kick hearing all my new words used right away in native material, so I bought a bunch more movies. Compared to French, I have very little time to devote to study; work is crazy busy, and I put in 60 hrs per week. And Russian is much harder than French. But when I started Russian conversation, at about 8 months in, again I understood the majority of what my teacher was saying. Maybe the most notable difference between listening from the beginning and not – speech production becomes the biggest challenge in beginning conversation, rather than listening.
Those are my personal experiences, and why I’m so eager to recommend listening from the beginning, and warn against avoiding it. Now I’d like to define Normal listening – listening to native material at normal speeds. This can be a conversation partner, a movie, radio, podcast, etc. This is the type of listening I recommend below.
9 Tips for getting the maximum advantage out of listening
1) listen for at least 10 min per day
There is nothing wrong with listening for more than 10 minutes, but if you find your intensity falling off, you are better served doing something else at that point. If you have no problem paying attention, then the time limit should probably be a percentage or your total study time. For example, if you have 3 hours for study, 30 – 60 min of listening is reasonable. 10 min is a little low for that much study time, and 2 hours is high, if you’re goal is a well balanced language plan.
Less than 10 min is a mistake, imo. And it’s pretty easy to squeeze in that 10 min, with the advent of mp3 players and such, so no excuses please.
2) material should be at normal native speeds
There are many advantages to listening to materials at slower than native speeds. And even some for faster than native speeds. There’s nothing wrong with including that in your language plan, but don’t count it as part of your 10 minutes of listening. Nothing beats listening at native speeds to improve your understanding of language spoken at native speeds.
3) material should be somewhat comprehensible
I realize that by definition it’s impossible to find comprehensible material for a true beginner. In those early stages, I recommend listening to beginner podcasts. It takes a lot of beginner podcasts to reach 10 min of native material, but do your best. It shouldn’t be too long before intermediate podcasts and movies are comprehensible enough for you to use.
You are probably wondering why I’m talking about intermediate podcasts and movies already. That’s because my “somewhat comprehensible” threshold is pretty low. What we’re shooting for at this stage is extensive exposure. We want to hear everything we know in use, and we want to be able to guess a low percentage of words by context. Intermediate podcasts are great because they give translations, and make the whole thing comprehensive. Movies are more challenging in one sense, because they are real native material. But they can be made more comprehensible by subtitles, and have the huge advantage of visual context. So “somewhat comprehensible” doesn’t have to be i+1.
On the other hand, listening to material that is too far over your head is inefficient. You are better off finding stuff that you understand a little bit, pick up on things you already know, and get wide exposure to lots of other stuff.
4) listen actively
Although I don’t consider it damaging to listen passively, I do consider it to be very inefficient. So include it in your language plan if you want, but don’t count it towards your 10 minutes. What I mean by active is concentrating and doing nothing but listening. You should clear you schedule of other things, and really get into it. Try to think on the fly – recognize your vocabulary, but don’t mentally shout out the definition or nag yourself about the meanings you can’t remember. No internal or external translation; just let it flow.
5) do not stop the recording
There are many language programs that encourage you to stop the recordings and think about things. And those are fine. Include them in your language program if you want, but don’t count them as part of your 10 minutes. A nice 10 minute stream of native language is your goal. As mentioned elsewhere, this is hard to achieve in the first few weeks, but should be your goal shortly after. You will eventually want to be able to listen to hours of native speaking, so you need to build up your endurance by not stopping too often.
6) repeat the material occasionally, but not too often
There are many good reasons to repeat material. I recommend repeating your listening at least once, especially if your material isn’t very comprehensive. But the repetition doesn’t count towards your 10 minutes. 10 minutes of new native material is your goal. This maximizes your exposure. And too much repetition can be a bad thing. Besides offering diminishing returns, it can bore you, and fail to grab your attention. When this happens, you get very little out of listening, and it seems to facilitate disregarding your target language, which is a very bad thing. That being said, this doesn’t always happen during repetition. Just pay attention to your own state of mind, and act accordingly.
7) material should be all native
It’s hard to avoid non-native speakers, and I agree that fine-tuning your ear to be able to pick up even poorly spoken or accented target language is a desirable, but leave that for later. In the early stages, listen to native speakers only. Listen to how the language is supposed to be spoken. Listening will affect speech also, so it’s good to model yours after a native.
8) transcripts are a big plus
Transcripts allow you to read what your are listening to. They make the material much more comprehensible, and thus will allow you to listen to more difficult things. There’s a synergistic relationship between all 4 language skills, but the one between listening and reading seems to be particularly strong. Listening and reading the same material allows you to improve more than different material.
There has been some recent advice in the forum to only read things for which you have a recording. As long as you have enough material at your level to pull this off, I think it’s a good idea. Conversely, it would be nice if we had transcripts for everything we listened too, but this might be wishful thinking.
9) don’t listen in your sleep
Sleep is necessary. All else being equal, sleep well, and you will be at your maximum efficiency. Trying to learn while you sleep is detrimental to your rest, and negatively affects your overall language performance.
My opinions on extreme listening strategies.
Ok, I admit some of these aren’t very extreme. But I would like to give my opinion on both ends of the listening stick, if you will.
First, those who don’t want to listen to the language until they have achieved a high level in other skills. This is bad, in the same way that delaying any of the 4 skills too long is bad. Understanding may be the hardest skill to develop, so it’s best to start early. Listening will reinforce your other skills, so if you hold off, you will miss out on the synergy. Synergy – the idea that whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Expressing this idea mathematically, let’s create 3 imaginary people. They each study for 3 months for the same total number of hours. Person A learns without listening, and reaches level 1.0 in all other skills. Person B does nothing but listen, and reaches a level of 1.1 in listening only. Person C studies everything, including listening, and reaches a level of 1.1 in all skills. That’s what I mean by synergy. Don’t miss out on it by leaving out the listening component.
Next, those who do nothing but listen for hundreds of hours before they do anything else in a language. This is bad because they miss out on synergy again. Most people who attempt this fail, sighting reasons like boredom, frustration at not being able to do the things that they want to do with the language, etc. I also recommend against this because I don’t believe in the claimed advantages. I doubt it will produce native-like accents. The few statistics I’ve see on this strategy are unimpressive, and testimonials I’ve read have generally been negative.
Regarding quality of listening, passive listening seems to be quite a fad these days. I find this less harmful than a time waster. But if it is truly passive, I suppose it doesn’t waste your time. You’ll just keep on doing what your doing without paying any attention. No harm. No advantage, but no harm. The time wasting thing is a potential issue though. If you’ve got on music in L2 while talking to your girlfriend on the phone in L1, in the time that you’ve set aside to study L2, you’re wasting your study time. On the harmful side, some people believe passive listening leads to ignoring L2. I think this unlikely for most, but if you feel this is happening to you, switch to active listening. Problem solved.
Finally, really intense listening. Actually, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with this. Stopping recordings, memorizing all unknown vocabulary, listening repeatedly until it becomes recognizable, these are all good things. You will eventually need to listen without stopping, but I think this an excellent way to hone that skill. I liken this to intensive vs extensive reading, which gets so much play on this forum. So I’m for intensive listening. My only suggestion is no matter how much intensive listening you do, always get in that 10 minutes of normal listening, because, after all, that is the skill you are trying to develop.