Play it again!
Growing up, I’m sure my mother heard me say that phrase over and over again.
I was obsessed with movies. And with specific movies.
If I liked a certain film, I’d watch it several times a day, memorizing and re-memorizing every line viewing after viewing. And this is despite the fact that I had plenty of movies—VHS tapes—to choose from.
I simply loved to repeat the same cinematic experiences, again and again.
Maybe you had a similar experience. As children, repetition is like reliving.
As adults, well…repetition is less reliving, and more regurgitation. We have less tolerance for repeat experiences, and a greater thirst for novelty.
And now, more than ever, we’ve got novelty in spades. Netflix has thousands of movies and shows to watch, one after another, at the click of a button. Even in an educational field like language learning, we’re so overloaded with choice that we never really need to touch the same resource—perhaps the same piece of audio—twice.
But perhaps the attraction of greater choice as adults has led us to forget something that we knew intrinsically as children—that repetition is key to learning.
What would happen if we were to return to our child-like, minimalist roots, and instead of listening to many things once, we listen to one thing, many times?
A method known as Repetitive Listening may hold the answer.
The Power of Repetitive Listening
I first heard about Repetitive Listening only recently, in a YouTube video published by Jeremy of the Korean-language-learning and motivation site Motivate Korean.
In the video, Jeremy discusses his experience of repeatedly listening to a single sample of Spanish-language audio:
“I’ve listened to the same 6-minute audio clip from a YouTube video, an interview video of Spanish, over 200 times—200, maybe 300 times. And on the 215th time I’m still hearing things like ‘Oh, THAT’s what she said right there! Oh, okay!’ It’s as if the text is getting clearer in my mind: first it’s blurry or not even there, and it gets clearer and clearer and clearer the more I listen to it.”
Though I had never heard the name Repetitive Listening before watching the video, I was surprised to find that the concept of listening and re-listening to the same L2 audio was not new to me.
In fact, when I was intensively studying French in 2015, I had watched a single YouTube video several times a day over the course of a single year. Where at first I had understood nothing, by the end of that year had practically memorized every linguistic detail of that video, including:
- Vocabulary and Phrases (including colloquialisms)
- Cultural Information
- Subtext (Humor, in this case)
Any audio made by and intended for native speakers will be chock full of the above details. The problem is that many of these details are either difficult or impossible for non-natives to grasp upon first listen, so if you listen to a piece of audio just once, they will pass you by completely.
It is only through Repetitive Listening that the deepest meanings and finest details of native-level audio can be unlocked. And not unlocked after five listens, or ten listens—but after fifty, one hundred, or even three hundred listens!
The strength of Repetitive Listening is that it allows you to do more with less. Instead of having to amass a library of content that you listen to just once per track, file, or video, this is a more minimalist approach—perhaps the most minimalist possible—which allows you to get maximal learning value out of a single audio file.
Best Resources for Repetitive Listening
Though any resource that has an audio component is a candidate for Repetitive Listening, your best options will consist of audio that is:
- Spoken by natives – The goal of repetitive listening is to memorize and internalize the language as it is actually spoken by natives, so authentic audio will always be the best choice.
- Conversational – The purpose of language is to transmit meaning from one person to another. By listening to natives in conversation, you gain invaluable knowledge of how the language is used as a social tool.
- Interesting to You – The only way to overcome the monotony of repetition is by listening to material that is of high interest to you. If you are not interested in the audio, there is no chance you will listen to it ten times, let alone two hundred.
Good candidate media for this type of audio are YouTube videos, movies, and audio podcasts.
In the end, remember that finding a good resource is a trial and error process. Ideally, you want something that you will be willing to listen to dozens, if not hundreds of times. But you can never know that from the beginning. So start by finding 3-5 audio resources you like enough to start listening to repetitively, and keep listening to whichever ones are most enjoyable to you.
Though novelty is often the easier and more appealing route when looking for foreign language listening material, there is inherent value in listening to the same content over and over that we tend to overlook.
In particular, when repeatedly listening to conversational, native-level materials, we slowly and progressively gain access to finer and deeper aspects of spoken language that we would otherwise miss. On top of that, the act of listening to the same audio file will help you memorize these same speech features without expending conscious effort on doing so.
Practice repetitive listening, and you may even find that these memorized pieces of native-level language bubble up amongst your own speech patterns, making you sound more authentic of a target-language speaker than ever before.