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Listening from the beginning

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 Message 1 of 70
11 May 2011 at 1:52am | IP Logged 
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 this forum 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.

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 heard about 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; my Mandarin still wasn’t so great 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, are designed for the complete beginner, and are 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. Yes, it was French. Yes, I’m fluent in Spanish and English. So it’s not a fair
comparison 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. 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.

Now you know 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

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 is a desirable, but leave that for later. In the early stages, listen to native speakers
only. Listening 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 thing 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. To represent this
mathematically, say person A learns without listening for 3 months, and reach level = 1.0 in her studies. And say
person B listens in a vacuum for 3 months, and reaches a level = 1.0 in listening. Finally, person C studies with
listening for 3 months, and reaches level = 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.

Edited by leosmith on 13 May 2011 at 3:05am

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 Message 2 of 70
11 May 2011 at 6:14am | IP Logged 
My thoughts on listening:
When reading, you can stop and look things up. You can't do that in conversation. Therefore, good listening
skills are more important than good reading skills. When speaking, it's enough to be able to express
something in one way to get your messgae across. You might feel a bit monotonous, but you'll be able to
communicate. With listening, you need to understand whatever way the other person chooses to express
herself. If you have some bad grammar when talking, it will interfere less than if you have problems
understanding the other person. Thus, listening is more important than speaking. These reasons combine to
show why listening is more important than writing.
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Studies: Italian

 Message 4 of 70
11 May 2011 at 3:01pm | IP Logged 
You know how sometimes a whole lot of people are all giving you the same advice and you're going "yeah, yeah, yeah, whatever..." but you're really rejecting it?

And then someone comes along and tells you the same thing, but somehow they get you to look at it differently and suddenly you realise that it's really a very good idea?

Well that just happened to me.

Thanks leosmith.

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 Message 5 of 70
11 May 2011 at 8:00pm | IP Logged 
Thank you for this post Leosmith, I've been listening to podcasts thinking that listening passively would be enough, but I've changed my mind now after reading your post.
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Lucky Charms
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Studies: German, Spanish

 Message 6 of 70
12 May 2011 at 4:21am | IP Logged 
This is just what I needed. Based on my own personal experiences (I made the same
mistake as you did with Japanese, and I believe it still affects my accent to this day)
and the advice of people whom I respect on this forum, I agree 100% with everything in
your post. However, these ideas were just kind of floating around nebulously in my
head, and it took me seeing them brought together and laid out in print for me to
realize what the next specific, concrete step for me to take for my beginner-level
Spanish is.

So having just completed my first Beginner podcast series, I'm going to listen to the
all-Spanish Intermediate series, twice for each episode, with my full attention but
without giving up if I can't catch every word (and of course, this will be in addition
to my already-planned regimen of reading, Assimil, another podcast aimed at beginners,
and a little bit of explicit grammar study). Thanks a lot!

Edited by Lucky Charms on 12 May 2011 at 4:25am

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 Message 7 of 70
12 May 2011 at 1:32pm | IP Logged 
Thank you leosmith. I really appreciate your posting this. Do you have any suggestion for a certain time-frame in which one could expect to see big improvement? In listening comprehension that is.
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 Message 8 of 70
12 May 2011 at 4:22pm | IP Logged 
I definitely agree with the idea of listening early and often, and this was a good presentation of that idea.

I experimentally tried one of the "extreme" methods listed, that being a long period of listening. I spent around 200 hours on watching Japanese TV and movies more or less before any other efforts. It resulted, as you described, in boredom and frustration. At the time I thought I wasn't enjoying it simply because I don't really like watching things, but that was only partially the issue. I would have ended up in a much better position for the amount of time if I had balanced it with actual study, both in terms of ability and level of enjoyment.

I do believe that a limited period of prelistening may provide certain benefits. I expect that it can result in better pronunciation and will give a boost to listening abilities. As to how long such a period could last before it becomes ineffective, in my experiment, I found no noticeable benefits whatsoever beyond 100 hours, but that time's still far too long, I think. My gut suggests that 10 hours may be an effective period of time, especially if done using a medium with denser audio than video programs. If one finds it too boring, though, I don't think there's any reason to prolong it especially--as long as you keep listening along whatever else you do, as leosmith recommends.

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