Synergy Part 3 - Listening

Discussion in 'The language learning methods of Big_Dog' started by Big_Dog, Feb 24, 2014.

  1. Big_Dog

    Big_Dog Administrator Staff Member

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    Continuing to expand on Synergy, this post is about the role that listening plays in the language learning plan.

    Listening is perhaps the hardest or most time consuming of all the skills to develop. Therefore you should start listening in the beginning and do a lot of it. I didn’t used to believe this, but over the years I experimented a lot, and came up with some good rules to follow. Let me tell you about my personal experiences with listening, and then make some suggestions.


    My experiences with listening. As I’ve mentioned in other posts, I started studying Spanish when I was young, and leaned it for many years. Over the years I’ve listened to thousands of hours of media and people talking. Tons of exposure and study leads to good listening skills, which is no surprise.

    In Africa, after an intense 3 month study period, I listened to a lot of people talk, and conversed hundreds of hours at a very low level for nearly 3 years, but my listening was only so-so. Maybe B1, just like my conversation. I think this was because I didn’t study, and didn’t use any other skills.

    The first language I learned for fun, Thai, I learned at home, and didn’t listen to anything except my textbook recordings. They were good recordings, but it was really meager as far as listening goes. I really had no interest in listening. I wanted to converse, so that’s all I did outside the textbook. With Japanese, I only listened to Pimsleur in the beginning. For both of these languages, when I started conversing several months in, it was really difficult because I hardly understood my partner at all. Even when they went really easy on me, the number one problem was listening at that point.

    Still not understanding the problem, I started Mandarin the same way. Fortunately, a few months into it I started listening to podcasts, watching dramas, etc. I did this because I had heard so many good things about listening in the forums, and in some research articles I read online. After I started listening, I actually enjoyed it. For the first time ever I thought it would be possible, and enjoyable, to understand TV shows, movies, other people’s conversations, etc. In addition, I started to notice improvements in my other skills, so I was hooked on listening from that point on. I think my listening really helped when I started to converse in Mandarin, but I wondered what it would be like if I had started listening in the beginning.

    Finally, when I started French, I started listening. In conjunction with my normal learning, I used perhaps the best language program ever invented, French In Action (FIA), for listening. 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 graduated so that the learner is always challenged. So the big test came when I began conversing in French for the fist time. I was overjoyed to find that my number one obstacle was no longer listening, but speaking, as I believe it should be when you start to converse.

    For Russian, I had a very solid learning plan, which of course had a component of listening. This time I mostly relied on podcasts and movies with subtitles. And once again, speech was the number one obstacle when I started conversing, not listening. Now for some recommendations.


    In steps 1 and 2 of Synergy, it is required to learn correct pronunciation. So right from the very beginning, you are practicing listening. You need to listen very carefully so that you can pronounce correctly. In the beginning, listen to audio before practicing speech. Don’t try to use reading to teach you pronunciation before you have heard the audio. This could result in incorrect pronunciation.

    Try to listen carefully enough to notice the special aspects of the sounds of the language. Prosody, intonation, rhythm, stress, etc. Recognizing and repeating these things is the only way to have correct pronunciation at the sentence level. Listening and paying attention are crucial at this point.

    Also starting in step 2 of Synergy, you are ready to make listening a solid component of your language learning plan. By this I mean, not only are you listening to audio that might come with your textbook, reading material, etc, but you are going to start extensive listening. As with all your learning, listening needs to be somewhat comprehensible, or i+1. In step 2, you will know very little, so you will need to listen to podcasts that have some L1 explanation, watch videos with some L1 subtitles, etc. You should try to listen to at least 10 minutes of native material a day.

    As your understanding improves, wean yourself off of L1 material. Work yourself up to 30 min/day native material. Here are some suggestions.

    Movies are particularly good, because you have visual context, making listening more comprehensible. I sometime like to turn on L2 subtitles if available to boost the comprehension even more. If you do this, know that it can be more of a reading exercise than a listening exercise. If you have time, watch it first without subtitles, then watch it again with.

    The material should be native material at normal native speed. There is nothing better that understanding normal native material than listening to normal native material. There’s nothing wrong with listening to a little non-native L2 material, or abnormal speeds, but you don’t want to model your speech after it, and you don’t want it to infringe upon this normal listening practice.

    Try to listen to material that has a transcript. This is a very good way to make both listening and reading more comprehensible. If you have time, listen to it both before and after reading. I find myself trying harder to understand the audio if I haven’t read the text. And after I’ve read the text, it’s fun to see if I can pick up and remember the stuff I learned while reading.

    Listen Actively, not passively. When you listen, pay attention, see if you can recognize your known vocabulary, figure out the gist of what is being said, etc. This is why I recommend listening before reading transcripts or subtitles; it helps you pay more attention. Don’t just turn the audio on and ignore it, or get distracted. There is little if any benefit if you do. Listen without pausing. Try to get into the mindset of the language. Focus for the whole time you have allotted.

    Repeat only if applicable. I like to repeat audio once or twice in the early stages. It can be very helpful. But don’t play it so often that you get bored of it, or stop paying attention. It’s better to get some fresh material in that case. After I get comfortable at the 30 min native material level, I only listen to things once.

    Listening in your sleep doesn’t help. In fact, it hurts. It will make you sleep less soundly, which will have a negative effect on all your skills.


    The future - looking for faster methods from B to C. For some reason, more than any other skill, people prefer to use extensive listening exclusively to get from B to C. They will get massive listening exposure, but not really try anything intensive. I will post about intensive vs. extensive learning later, to make these concepts clearer. But an example of extensive listening is watching TV for 30 min every day, and just hoping continued exposure and all the other aspects of your language learning will make your listening improve. And it will improve. In fact, I will even say that without lots of extensive listening practice you will never reach C1/C2. But I will also say that pure extensive listening isn’t nearly as effective as a mixture of extensive and intensive.

    The Corollary to the Synergy Method states you should not merely learn by using all the skills, but you should try to learn new material while using each skill. (I’ll make a post about the Corollary and the importance of new material at another time.) For example, you should sometimes look up a word you hear for the first time. Or you should ask a native speaker about a grammatical structure she used during a conversation. By no means am I suggestion that you do this all the time. You have to practice extensive listening, and just let it flow without worrying about occasional unknown words, especially in the later stages of learning. But I am saying you should do intensive listening some of the time, on a regular basis, regardless of your level, until you reach your goal.

    In the past, I was one of those guys who just listened extensively. Even though I was watching TV regularly, I made very slow progress. I knew there were some intensive techniques for rapidly improving listening. And I saw their results – polyglots learning difficult languages to C1/C2 in 2 or 3 years. For me, listening is the bottleneck that keeps me from being able to do this. So it was time to find something that sounds appealing, and experiment.

    I read about several intensive listening techniques in language forums, and found one that I think applies well to my level, and that sounds fun. I am currently writing subtitles for a Russian TV comedy that I enjoy. I listen to a sentence, and I try to type it. I often don’t know what they are saying, so I have to play it several times. If I don’t know the words, I spell them out phonetically, and try to make sense out of it by using Google Translate, and if that fails I get help from a native speaker. I will let you know how it goes, but it feels quite effective so far.

    In summary, listening is perhaps the most difficult skill to conquer. Practice it early, often, extensively and intensively.
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  2. Bob

    Bob Active Member VIP member

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    Hmmm, I did that too once. Watch nothing but Spanish TV and listened to nothing but Spanish Radio. It helped, but I seemed permanently stuck at a A2/B1 listening level. It was only when I would find some lyrics, for example, and worked it all out that I felt any improvement at that point.
  3. BAnna

    BAnna Active Member VIP member

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    I strongly agree! The following is anecdotal, but in looking back at the first week of my working on the Super Challenge towards watching 100 movies as an A1 speaker of Russian, I have noticed that my concentration is strong for at most the first 30 minutes, but after that, it becomes an exercise in reading the English subtitles......so I'm going to experiment and try some much shorter sessions, maybe alternating subs/no-subs as you suggest. There is definitely a need to build up stamina and to your point, listening should not just be passive. Of course, as a beginner, it can be difficult to find appropriate material. I do have a limited appetite for children's programming, but if it's just for 15-20 minutes a day (and without subs), that could be a way to build up stamina and comprehension.

    With my already-developed languages, I don't have this issue (no subtitles) and I can easily watch an entire film or listen to an audiobook, but keeping a notebook handy to record the infrequent unfamiliar word or intriguing bit of phrasing will be useful to reduce the tendency towards passive listening.
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  4. Peregrinus

    Peregrinus Active Member

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    I started listening shortly after I began German last year, namely after I finished the first Deutsche Welle course, Deutsch Warum Nicht? All the while I was drilling vocab in Anki. I started listening to radio, mainly news type of stations, and started watching Komissar Rex on youtube, which has several seasons available. If I had been listening alone, without continuing other courses or especially continually adding new words to Anki, I doubt I would have progressed very far. News is both easier to understand by listening and reading, so it is a good place to start. The first subject areas I got down pat are traffic conditions and weather in Germany! Now I continue to listen to radio and also watch German shows, primarily documentaries on NDR and Tatort and Sturm der Liebe (cheesiest soap opera ever) on youtube. Tatort was the high bar for listening, like FAZ is for reading news, despite learning quickly the usual Krimi type of vocab (hostage/ransom/corpse etc.). But now it is a lot easier, which easiness parallels my daily Anki use.

    With re to some of your suggestions above:

    -normal pace not slow: I agree 100%. Even though DW has a slowly spoken news component, I have never used it. In the first place it is not necessary for news since that is most often more slowly spoken and clearly enunciated. In the second place once I learned to distinguish the phonetic boundaries of German (i.e. I could hear an unknown word and pronounce and spell it even if I didn't know the meaning), then slow was of no use.

    -active vs passive: Well I hate to just listen or watch and not be doing something else productive. Often I listen to German radio or watch German television while either surfing the web or working on adding definitions to my new vocabulary I have collected for Anki (needing to have multiple windows open makes Windows 8 a non-starter). But active is much better than passive, and I do try to actively listen at least some of the time, and can say it makes a terrific difference! 10 minutes of active listening produces more benefits for me than an hour of background/passive listening.

    -listening with a transcript: This is very valuable but also more time consuming. Actually what I am more likely to do is just read/study the transcript and omit the listening.

    While I am only concentrating on passive skills with German, listening is the skill most often cited by learners for lack of ability to hold a conversation. Whether you have the vocabulary, grammar and general conversation skills to participate with native speakers is secondary if you can't first understand what is being said to you. This is the strongest argument against either holding output more important than input, or even equal to it in my mind.
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  5. Cainntear

    Cainntear Active Member VIP member

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    Of course, by this point you had already encountered many of the basic differences between English and French via another language.

    Spanish gave you the idea of "syllable-timed" language rhythm, instead of English's "stress-timed" rhythm, and the word order in the two is extremely similar. Some of the consonants are similar too (particularly T and D).

    Some of the French phonemes not present in either English or Spanish are similar to phonemes in Thai or Chinese, so you've got a head start.

    I'm not sure this is something that a beginner would be able to replicate.
    I disagree. Whether it's written or spoken word, I always recommend "long form" literature. A novel is better than a short story, as there will be more repetition of language, and the language will be less dense. The same goes for TV serieses vs movies -- I think you get a lot more from watching the same people talking about the same sort of things for hours on end.

    Native material, definitely, and that implies immediately that the speech is at native speed. But I wouldn't let that stop you slowing the video down in software (VLC is good for this) so that you get time to perceive more of the nuances of the language. (I did this by accident in French, as my copy of VLC was still set for slow playback from me using my laptop to show videos in classes.)

    I'm the same. In fact, what I've found is that by reading the lyrics to one song on an album (by a single artist), I find my comprehension of the other songs increases. With each song I learn from the album, my understanding improves of all the other songs. I did this with two albums in French, and in both, I understood almost everything after learning 3 songs. What I didn't understand after that was just words and phrases I'd never learned.
  6. Peregrinus

    Peregrinus Active Member

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    I agree for TV series, but not for novels. TV series are self-contained shorter units, but a novel is not. With novels, going from past posts on HTLAL and at least one study I remember reading (think it was one of Nation's), there is a LOT of vocabulary that is used only once or twice in a novel. Naturally if one reads multiple novels by the same author, then it is more likely one can encounter again that low frequency vocabulary.
  7. Cainntear

    Cainntear Active Member VIP member

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    That may be true, but I find it hard to believe that there won't at least be more repetition than in short form writing. Besides, one of the rules of thumb in reading is not to look up every word. the first thing to do is to make a quick evaluation. "Do I need to know this word to understand the sentence?" If not, don't look it up. Unless, of course, you've already seen it several times, in which case you're likely to see it again, so you might as well learn it, so look it up!

    I suspect a large part of the unrepeated vocabulary will be descriptive, and not vital to understanding the story. If "her eyes shone with a glow like a redondonese phlilibut", you automatically understand that neither redondonese or phlilibut is useful information in terms of the story, so you skip them, and it is no skin off your nose that there are no further references to redonda or phlilibucy in the book.

    I may be wrong, but I'd have to see the evidence before changing my opinion, because raw numbers never tell the whole story.
  8. Peregrinus

    Peregrinus Active Member

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    That is very true regarding descriptive vocabulary as to the gist of the story. But without such fine details it is hard to get the nuances of the characters and plot, to me at least. The real problem though is that if you don't look up a word, you can't know for certain how important it is. With German I sometimes read the FAZ, which is high-brow register for newspapers. If there are 10 German synonyms for a word, they will all get used in the course of a year by an author, and unless the derivation is obvious, you can't know what it means unless you look it up (which fortunately is easy with my Firefox popup addon). And it is very annoying to realize that you already know several more common and perfectly good synonyms for such a word.

    Since this thread is actually about listening, unless one is listening to audiobooks, the use of such low frequency vocabulary is less in spoken discourse, than written, which is reflected by the listening lexical threshold being less than the written for English (6-7K word families for spoken vs. 8-9K for written).
  9. Big_Dog

    Big_Dog Administrator Staff Member

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    Sure I got help, and you're entitled to your own opinion. I think by following synergy, when the learner starts to converse, the number one obstacle will be speaking, rather than listening. That's been the case for French and Russian. If it doesn't work for Korean, I'll take it back:)
    I didn't mean to say that movies are better than TV series. I wrote about movies because I've found it easier to get L2 subtitles for movies. But I agree with you - for an equal subtitle situation, TV series are better. I've been using them a lot more recently. I need to update the OP.

    This doesn't contradict what I've said, but I'd be interested in hearing more from you about listening at different speeds, either here or in a different post. I have very little experience with it.

    Me too, and that's why I mention transcripts and subtitles. Synergy is about doing everything at once, and that sometimes gets lost when I separate out a skill to post about.
    Last edited: Jul 2, 2014
  10. Bob

    Bob Active Member VIP member

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    Could you describe your "stages" of listening? when you do break over from say, doable to automatic? How does this match up with the CEFR levels?
  11. Big_Dog

    Big_Dog Administrator Staff Member

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    First, keep in mind that I'm only at C1/C2 in 2 languages, English and Spanish. English is my mother tongue and Spanish was started so young and learned over so many years that talk about method isn't very helpful. Rather than trying to define doable and automatic, I'll answer this way:

    In my opinion B1/B2 listening is understanding one-on-one conversation about 50-100% at the sentence level, but understanding TV, movies and other people talking 10-90% (huge range). I think C1/C2 listening is understanding one-on-one conversation about 95-100%, and understanding TV, movies and other people talking 90-100%.

    It don't think it takes much listening to get to the bottom of the B range; a few hundred hours should do it. But I think it requires about 2000 hours to reach the C listening level threshold though.

    That being said, listening isn't as effective unless all the other skills are "saturated", so what I wrote above is for a synergy-like program where the other skills keep up with the listening. In other words, you need a certain amount of reading hours to optimize a certain amount of listening hours, etc. I don't know what the actual numbers are, but reading what most language learners have to say, listening and vocabulary acquisition are the long-poles of language learning. I would therefore expect that less time is needed in the other skills to optimize listening and vocabulary acquisition.

    In addition, reading a transcript of the thing you are listening to, writing about what you listened to, discussing what you have heard, and other such common-focus skill development learning seems to be more beneficial. I wouldn't do this sort of thing all the time; I need practice listening to stuff at random too. But a certain percentage of this type of listening is more effective than not doing it at all, imo.

    Beyond these things, numbers seem pretty hard to nail down.

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