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Listening when understanding nothing

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13 messages over 2 pages: 1
TerryW
Senior Member
United States
Joined 4831 days ago

370 posts - 783 votes 
Speaks: English*

 
 Message 9 of 13
24 August 2008 at 8:09am | IP Logged 
This is why I shake my head when people recommend to complete beginners to watch "French In Action" videos .   I think that would discourage and frustrate them much more than it would help.

BREAKING THE GIBBERISH BARRIER

If the listener does not have at least a basic knowledge of vocabulary and sentence structure of the language, and wouldn't understand a sentence even it was spoken VERY slowly and clearly (and/or written), it's a huge waste of time.

Rhythm shmythm, what good is knowing the rhythm of gibberish? if you study using a course with audio, for sure you're going to learn the rhythm anyway, but much more effectively.

If you DO know the basics, you can learn to understand the spoken language with a lot of repeated exposure over time. But it's slow going at first.

At an advanced beginner/low intermediate level of Spanish, I watched Telemundo and Univision on cable for stretches at a time. At first all gibberish, understanding nothing. There was somewhat of an entertainment factor though, in the video content and in trying to gauge any improvements over time.

What happens with repeated exposure over time, is that you get on frustrating plateaus of seemingly no progress, only to jump up a small level at some point. Small, but noticeable. The satisfaction of realizing that you jumped up a level can encourage you to keep going, since you proved to yourself that it's not impossible, even if it's only a "drop in the bucket."

I found the commercials to be the first thing where I began to get a glimmer of understandaing. Very often there are written words on the screen "Gratis" (free), "Llame ahora mismo" (call right now), "Los mejores exitos" (Greatest Hits), etc.

If you don't know the written words, you can look them up, and you're learning them in context of the commercial. An ad for a car dealer will have "No money down," "Low monthly payments," etc.

Plus, the 1/2 hour infomercials for "Crema de Concha" (will cure any ailment) and a magic charm (will solve your health, money, and love problems) are often the same 6-minute segment repeated over 5 times, so you get some reinforcement.

Watching the different types of shows (news, comedy, game show, soap opera), you will find some that you can pick out some very basic words in the mix. The soaps (telenovelas) almost always have somebody say "No te preocupes" ("Don't worry"), and you will eventually be able to understand small clusters of words like that without having to translate the words in your head.

Then, at one point, I noticed that at some speeds, I could actually "hear" all of the words that were spoken. Still way too fast to process the meaning, but very noticeable as another level of understanding. It was no longer gibberish, but I could imagine the spelled words as they were said. And I could "grab" a small section of spoken words in my mind, and figure it out, either knowing it, or being able to look up some of it. Another level.

Just a couple weeks ago, I got the Harry Potter ("Piedra Filosofal") CDs. Way, way too fast for me to understand. The speaker (Eduardo Farelo for the Spain version. There is a Latin Amer version read by Christopher Smith. Both follow the Spain text of the book, just accent difference) went at such a fast clip, sometimes in a whisper to be dramatic.

Copying the first track onto my PC (4 minutes 39 seconds, covering the first 2 and a quarter pages), I would set the player on repeat, after going back and forth between the English and Spanish books, to make sure I knew "what's going on."

After 3 days of many repeats and no progress, I figured I just cannot and will never understand the lightning-fast speech as it was spoken. Just could not get it, even with the books and repeated listening. But after a few days, I could grab the meaning from phrases here and there as if it was spoken in English. Then I didn't think I could get past that level, but a few days later was picking up more.

I'm now up to instantly understanding maybe 60% as it is read. Some sentences are clear as a bell now. And some are clear as a bell under water. (Some sentences are still too hard of a sentence structure to pick up every word in it and understand.) But it's no longer gibberish, and none of it seems lightning-fast. Like a magic transformation.

It can be frustrating knowing it's taking me weeks to learn 2 lousy pages. Will it take 5 years to go through the whole book? But I'm pretty sure that it will get easier and easier to progress, by picking up new vocabulary and sentence syntax along the way, and especially by breaking "the gibberish barrier" with the first 2 lousy pages.



Edited by TerryW on 24 August 2008 at 8:42am

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Volte
Tetraglot
Senior Member
Switzerland
Joined 4913 days ago

4474 posts - 6725 votes 
Speaks: English*, Esperanto, German, Italian
Studies: French, Finnish, Mandarin, Japanese

 
 Message 10 of 13
24 August 2008 at 8:40pm | IP Logged 
TerryW wrote:

Just a couple weeks ago, I got the Harry Potter ("Piedra Filosofal") CDs. Way, way too fast for me to understand. The speaker (Eduardo Farelo for the Spain version. There is a Latin Amer version read by Christopher Smith. Both follow the Spain text of the book, just accent difference) went at such a fast clip, sometimes in a whisper to be dramatic.

Copying the first track onto my PC (4 minutes 39 seconds, covering the first 2 and a quarter pages), I would set the player on repeat, after going back and forth between the English and Spanish books, to make sure I knew "what's going on."

After 3 days of many repeats and no progress, I figured I just cannot and will never understand the lightning-fast speech as it was spoken. Just could not get it, even with the books and repeated listening. But after a few days, I could grab the meaning from phrases here and there as if it was spoken in English. Then I didn't think I could get past that level, but a few days later was picking up more.

I'm now up to instantly understanding maybe 60% as it is read. Some sentences are clear as a bell now. And some are clear as a bell under water. (Some sentences are still too hard of a sentence structure to pick up every word in it and understand.) But it's no longer gibberish, and none of it seems lightning-fast. Like a magic transformation.

It can be frustrating knowing it's taking me weeks to learn 2 lousy pages. Will it take 5 years to go through the whole book? But I'm pretty sure that it will get easier and easier to progress, by picking up new vocabulary and sentence syntax along the way, and especially by breaking "the gibberish barrier" with the first 2 lousy pages.


Thanks for posting a nice demonstration of "how to break the gibberish barrier" using intensive work on a small amount of material (even though it was after watching some fairly-incomprehensible native material). I found it quite interesting to hear that you made as much progress as you did, since there are a lot of languages which only have small chunks of learner-friendly material (like translated books) available.

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Iversen
Super Polyglot
Moderator
Denmark
berejst.dk
Joined 5177 days ago

9078 posts - 16471 votes 
Speaks: Danish*, French, English, German, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, Swedish, Esperanto, Romanian, Catalan
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 Message 11 of 13
25 August 2008 at 5:08am | IP Logged 
I see two strategies for the beginner. The first is using comprehensible input from the beginning, and in the very beginning that means single words or very short expressions in short conversations - such as those of a tourist who can't speak a certain language, but who learns how to say beer, no thanks, where is the toilet (ladies/gentlemen), go away and I want your money from the local people. The second is using listening-reading techniques where the use of translations and spoken words together gives you the opportunity to sort of understand some genuine utterances which are objectively seen above your level. Listening to somebody speaking an unknown language is not totally idiotic if you have an idea about the content from a written translation because you can to some extent pinpoint where you are in the text based on loanwords, intonation and other factors.

When you have absorbed the 'sound' of the language to the extent that you can pronounce the words you may think that the next step would be to understand the meaning of what is being said. But no, the next step in understanding a foreign language in its spoken form is to be able to parse the stream of words into single words and grammatical structures, and while you are training that you don't have time to ransack your memory for the meaning of words or idiomatic expressions. You have to know something about the pronunciation and know at least the most common words to perform this task so it is not for the absolute beginner, but you can do it before you understand the meaning in detail. Some day - if you keep up your efforts to learn new words and expressions using whatever techniques you prefer - the meaning will suddennly pop up into your mind without any particular effort. In other words - learning how to parse spoken words and and learning words/expressions should not be seen as one task, but as two, that will eventually merge.

With written texts the situation is easier because you can read at your own pace. You can do intensive reading where the goal is to understand every word or expression and every grammatical feature, morphological as well as syntactically, and you can gradually introduce extensive reading where you don't let minor problems of understanding deter you from hammering through the text. The smart thing to do in the beginning has for me been to do literal translations, if necessary with the help of bilingual texts, followed by intensive reading where I just skip writing down the transation but demand the same level of understanding. If I have worked my way through a text in this way (using the unknown words in word lists) then that text will be useable for extensive reading until I get to the level where I can directly attack new genuine texts. In this way I can avoid having a teacher speak baby talk to me which is one thing in this world which I absolutely can't stand.


Edited by Iversen on 25 August 2008 at 5:23am

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Cainntear
Pentaglot
Senior Member
Scotland
linguafrankly.blogsp
Joined 4485 days ago

4399 posts - 7687 votes 
Speaks: Lowland Scots, English*, French, Spanish, Scottish Gaelic
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 Message 12 of 13
25 August 2008 at 11:25am | IP Logged 
The problem I have with the idea of absorbing the sound of a language is expectation.

The brain looks for the minimal meaningful differences. This is why you often can't tell identical twins apart for the first few times you meet them: your brain's first choice of identifying features happens to be the same for both. Your brain quickly learns to distinguish the two by more subtle differences -- but only because it already knows that they're different people. If you met them one at a time and they decided to play a prank on you, it take longer to catch on to the differences.

Then you've got to look at Judas Priest's Peppermints.

Judas Priest were taken to court for alledged subliminal backwards messages encouraging suicide in their album "Stained Class". After being told what they were about to hear, the courtroom listened and everyone heard the claimed phrases. The defense counter-claim was simple: they took another section and said "you're about to hear 'I asked her for a peppermint/ I asked her to give me one.'" And sure enough, you could hear it. This not only demonstrates the power of persuasion, but more importantly for us as language learners, it demonstrates that the brain likes to distort input to fit known patterns -- we hear gibberish and we want it to mean something, so we change it to fit our expectations. No amount of listening will help my Spanish friends distinguish "ship" from "sheep" -- their brains reduce the two to one automatically and will continue to do so until some internal mechanism forces the two apart.
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Volte
Tetraglot
Senior Member
Switzerland
Joined 4913 days ago

4474 posts - 6725 votes 
Speaks: English*, Esperanto, German, Italian
Studies: French, Finnish, Mandarin, Japanese

 
 Message 13 of 13
26 August 2008 at 2:47am | IP Logged 
I've found it extremely easy to learn to distinguish sounds. I'm yet to find a minimal pair that, when listened to repeatedly (for instance, "ship / sheep") for less than an hour, I remain unable to distinguish.

Listening does indeed help, at least if done this way.



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