Climbing the Listening Ladder to Learn Another Language

Have you built a personal listening library?

As a language learner, it is important to engage with your target language through all four language modalities at all stages of the language learning journey.

Whether you are a beginner or an advanced learner you need to be reading, writing, speaking and listening on a regular – even daily – basis.

I have written about the importance of this before, this “multi-entry” into the language, but today would like to focus specifically on listening.

As a learner you will want to find  and create a growing library of listening material that parallels your growing proficiency in the language.  You will want your listening material to climb the ladder toward mastering the language with you.

Preparing Your Ears

I was sitting in on a teaching about language learning last week and heard the story of the speaker’s use of Suzuki Piano to help her daughter learn to play the piano.  When they signed their daughter up for lessons, the piano teacher’s first instruction was for them to get the tape of the first lesson book and to have the daughter listen to it for an hour everyday – for a month!   Then, they could bring her by for the first lesson.

The piano teacher wanted the then five year old little girl to develop the ear for what beautiful music sounded like.  When she sat down at the piano for that very first time, she knew what the music was supposed to sound like.  She only had one concern – learning to will here little fingers to make that beautiful music.

As you begin learning another language, it can as well be a great idea to spend time acclimatizing your ears to what your target language sounds like.  By spending time just listening to the language spoken by native speakers, you allow your ears and mind to get used to the sounds, the rhythms and intonations of the language.  You begin to get a “feel” for the language.  Then, when you hear the language in a learning situation, your focus can be singular – comprehension.

The Comprehensible Corpus

In his must read paper for every serious language learner (Building a Corpus of Comprehensible Text), Greg Thomson suggests that language learners work toward building “a corpus of fifty hours of tape recorded text with which the acquirer is well acquainted.

Thomson’s statement has three main ideas that I would like to focus on before we begin to climb the listening ladder.

First is the idea of fifty hours.  

Fifty hours is quite a bit of listening material.  When Thomson wrote this, he was having to create the vast majority of his listening materials.  There was no Internet then.

I would encourage all readers to continue to focus on creating their own listening content.  In terms of comprehensible input, listening materials that you create will be the highest quality you can find.  In our super connected Internet world though, there will be copious amounts of listening material that you can find online.

We live in an amazing time in this regard.  I have yet to find a language for which I have been unable to find at least some audio content on the Internet.

In that regard, we might better set our goal at one hundred or more hours of listening material with which the acquirer is well acquainted.

Next is the idea of tape recorded text.

When Thomson wrote this article in the early 90′s he was using a tape recorder.  Most readers under thirty have probable never even seen a tape recorder, but the technology has obviously changed.

Today, most cell phones have recording capabilities and where as Thomson probably had fifty or so cassette tapes on which he had recorded his fifty hours of materials, we can put hundreds, even thousands of hours on an iPod the size of a wallet.

And so while the technology has changed, making the recording process much easier, the idea remains the same.  Learners need to take the initiative to create listening content.

Finally is the idea of content with which the acquirer is well acquainted.

If you are well acquainted with a listening text, it is comprehensible.  Thomson’s encouragement is to fill your corpus of listening material with content that is comprehensible.  Comprehensible input is the key here.

Here is Thomson in his own words:

The content needs to be of native speakers using the language and it needs to be content of which you understand the majority of what is communicated.  It needs to be comprehensible.

To add to the idea of comprehensible input, Thomson reminds us of the importance of the recordings being done by native speakers of the language.    And preferably it should be a native speaker whom other natives speakers would say sounds good.  You want to avoid heavy accents, regional dialects or other speech differences that might lead you to sound different than the average native speaker.

A Few More Thoughts Before We Begin

Creating this comprehensible corpus of listening material is important because it allows you to integrate the review of what you are learning into the everyday fabric of your life.

If the goal is massive amounts of comprehensible input, it won’t happen if you don’t have an iPod filled with the language so that you can take advantage of the five to fifteen minute transitions in your day.

You absolutely want to be out in the community interacting with native speakers as much as you can, but life is busy.  There will be countless hours every week doing chores, standing in lines, waiting in traffic.

Creating a listening corpus creates a convenient, time sensitive system of review that will help you maximize your language learning journey.

As you begin to collect and create this listening material I want to give you three important rules:

  1. Organize.
  2. Organize.
  3. Organize.

Without a system to organize your listening materials, much of your hard work will be thwarted.  If you take the time up front to create folders and categories to organize your listening materials, you will be far more likely to use it.

Systems of organization makes your listening material accessible.

Some of you may be wondering how in the world you will be able to make recordings of native speakers when you live in your home country and there are no native speakers around.

Well first of all, there may be native speakers around that you do not know about.  If you live in or near a city of any size, it probably has native speakers of many languages and certainly all of the major languages of the world.

You can also find native speakers of your target language over the Internet.  Then, using a program like Audacity or Audio Hijack you could record them for later listening.

In the event that you cannot find a native speaker to help you, you are not out of luck.  There are two great platforms that will help you make your listening dreams come true.

The first is Lang-8.  Lang-8 allows you to submit written text for correction by a native speaker.  For example, you can write a short paragraph in the target language, submit it on Lang-8, and get corrections made by native speakers.  Now you have a grammatically correct text that you created, ready to be recorded.

And for that you will want to visit Rhinospike.  Similar to Lang-8, Rhinospike allows you to submit a written text to be recorded by a native speaker of your target language.  So taking that writing you had corrected on Lang-8, you can get an audio recording made of it on Rhinospike.

(Note:  Both of these fantastic platforms are community driven.  The idea is that you too will make some corrections and recordings for those working to learn your native language.  Be sure and take the time to help other learners as well.)

Okay, now that we have removed all available excuses, let’s start climbing the listening ladder.

The Beginning Stage

As I wrote above, the beginning is the time to listen to lots of your target language in order to acclimatize your ears to the new sounds of the language.  This is important.

But even more important is that you begin at once to listen to audio recordings that are comprehensible (i.e. you understand the majority of the content.)

This can of course be a challenge at the very beginning – you don’t yet understand very much after all.  But it is not impossible.

Begin with recordings of the many phrases that are necessary for your survival in the new culture.  You can probably find recordings online of greetings, leave takings and many of the phrases you will need in order to buy food, ask for help, inform your listener that you don’t understand and find the bathroom.

Start where you are at.  If you are learning a certain grammar form, write 10 sentences with that form using all the vocabulary that you know.  Get them corrected and then recorded.

Continue this process of writing, correction and recording every week.  Expand what you are writing as your language proficiency progresses.  I did this from the very beginning and while my early Turkish journals are quite simple and very rough, I learned a lot in the process.

You could also find simple children’s stories to record.  Read through the story with a native speaker making sure that you understand what each sentence is saying in regard to the picture presented on the page.  Then record a native speaker reading the story.

Another idea that employs listening with a visual element – increasing your chances of comprehension – is to find children’s cartoons to watch that have been dubbed into the target language or that are made in such a way as to provide a lot of comprehensible input.  These usually involve a lot of narration by the characters who constantly tell viewers what they are doing.  Dora the Explorer is a good example of such a cartoon.

At the beginning stage you will really need to be creating a large amount of your own listening content in order to create comprehensible input.  It is in this way you can begin to build your personal library of target language listening material.

Intermediate Stage

As you progress in proficiency you will want to continue to create a fair amount of your own listening material.  It will inevitably become more lengthy and more complex and you will begin to find more and more listening content online that you will be able to use.

Remember, you want to be able to understand the majority of what you are listening to.  You don’t need to understand every word, expression and grammar form, but you do need to understand the majority of it.

Hand crafted content – content that you create – is still going to be the listening material that provides the most bang for your buck.

Continue to write and record your edited journals with a native speaker but begin to expand a bit to by writing fun stories, retelling traditional stories in your own words and recording your native speaking friends telling their own stories.  For these last ones, you’ll probably need to listen through the recording section by section to make sure you understand everything that was said.

As you progress as a learner you will also want to begin to find high interest, context rich listening materials online. This could be anything from your favorite audio book translated into the target language to a podcast about the World Cup. 

You’ll have to do some searching and you will probably want to enlist the help of native speaking friends to know where to look, but there are literally hundreds, if not thousands of resources available.

At this point you will still need to have a high degree of background knowledge on the subject to make it comprehensible.  For example, I am looking to get the audio-book The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe  in Spanish because it is a story I have read many times in English and  twice in Turkish. 

I know the story well.

Advanced Stage

By the time you are an advanced speaker of the language you should probably have 20 – 30 hours of quality listening material with which you are well acquainted.   By listening regularly – in conjunction with getting out in the community on a daily basis, regular lessons and regular study time, you will build a solid foundation in the language.  

You will be climbing the ladder and your listening material will be climbing it with you.

As an advanced speaker of the language, finding listening material gets easier and easier.  It is still important to listen back through all your old materials though.  There are loads of vocabulary and expressions packed into those early recordings and only hearing them again and again will move them into your usable language.

So don’t be afraid to go back and listen to the oldies!

As an advanced learner though you will also want to continue to stretch yourself.  You have the proficiency to understand most of what you could listen to and to learn the new words and expressions you don’t know from the context. 

Continue to dive into audio-books, podcasts, talk radio and other listening material that would be interesting to you.

This can also be a good time to stretch yourself and dive into some topics that you are not yet familar with in order to continue to expand your vocabulary and your command of the language.  You have to keep pushing yourself if you want to keep growing.

And this is when you get to fifty hours and beyond!

Onward and Upward

If you work hard you can easily build up to fifty hours of quality listening material in your target language. 

But don’t stop there.  The ladder continues onward and upward.

Keep going.  Keep recording and by all means, keep listening.

How has listening been a positive part of your language learning journey?

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