The priority of active listening

TraceyG us United States

I have finished two one-month challenges in different languages since joining LingQ and want to share my experiences because I think they bear upon issues frequently raised in this forum.

Challenge #1: Russian I originally joined LingQ in order to access to a variety of graded materials that I could read and listen to in Russian away from my computer (e.g., on my phone). I have found this feature enormously helpful.

Last year I did a one month challenge as an experiment to see how effective just reading and listening would be. After two weeks it was clear that making lingQs was insufficient to fix Russian words and grammatical patterns in my head. While I learned a few words along the way, in order to turn passive knowledge into active use, I had to do more. I resumed the method that I had developed on my own (i.e., writing sentences with words and patterns that I wanted to use and incorporating them into Skype conversations) while continuing to read/listen for additional exposure and review. This was and still is effective.

The challenge also made clear that the number of lingQs that I created was irrelevant as an indication of what I knew or had learned. A lingq is a word or phrase that I don’t know. Unless it is a cognate of something I know in another language or a conjugation or declension of a word I already know (which I generally do not lingQ), I will not know it by making a single click. A lingQ is only important when I retain its meaning. This generally occurs in steps: (1) when I see/hear it in the same context when I redo the lesson; (2) when I see/hear it in a similar context in new material; and (3) when I use it in writing or conversation. For all basic vocabulary and grammar patterns, my goal was and is #3. As my knowledge increases, vocabulary/patterns that were once in #2, are moved to #3: i.e., my passive knowledge becomes active usage.

A lingQ only indicates what I have learned when it becomes a known word/phrase. Doing this requires effort on my part: repeated exposure and active use. My active knowledge does not “just happen.” The number of lingqs I make says nothing about my knowledge of grammar and my ability to understand native speakers and to speak coherently.

Moreover, I learned that how I make lingQs affects how quickly I learn them if at all. If I read/listened to material in which there are 30%+ unknown words/patterns, I do not remember the meanings of most of them and I certainly cannot understand the lesson by listening alone. By contrast, if I read a longer article in which there are only a few unknown words or phrases on each page, I can use the context to help remember the meanings. The number of new words could be the same in a given lesson (e.g., 50 or even 100) but their distribution [percentage] within the whole lesson is key. I retain the most when the number of new words remains under 20%. If an article is very short and I am very interested in it, I can push myself to lingQ 25-30% new words but this does not increase my retention unless I do additional work to use the new material and turn the lingQs to “known.”

In another post, I noted that I had discovered by accident that significantly increasing my listening by binge watching a Russian TV series had a great impact on my speaking ability and of course upon my listening comprehension. I subsequently tried to increase the time I spend listening on LingQ, starting with things that were easier than those I had been reading. This helped but finding material that was easy to understand without reading it yet was still interesting, was a struggle since I had become used to reading more complex (interesting) lessons.

In retrospect, I had made the common mistake of allowing my reading ability to outstrip my listening comprehension. Yet expecting listening comprehension to magically catch up to that of reading is unrealistic since one’s ability to recognize letter combinations on a page has little to do with recognizing sound patterns uttered out loud at different speeds in authentic speech. Listening and reading are separate skills. Falling into this trap is insidious since it leads one to think that one “knows” a language better than in fact is the case. It can also lead to frustration, “I know tens of thousands of words, why can’t I understand native speakers better? Why can I only talk about only a small fraction of what I can read?” Sound familiar?

Challenge #2: Spanish.

I know Spanish well, having pursued it in college, studied in Madrid for a summer, and used the language afterwards when travelling as well as on occasion professionally. However, since I started learning Russian on my own, I have spent most of my time on it. While I occasionally read in Spanish, I rarely spoke it at length. Indeed, in November when I tried to speak in Spanish, the words that most readily came out were Russian. While this signaled how far I had progressed in the latter, I still didn’t want to lose my speaking ability in Spanish. I thus signed up for a one-month Spanish challenge in December to address the problem. During the challenge, I decided to focus on listening to lessons. I chose intermediate level material at random that I thought I could readily understand without reading. I read through a lesson afterwards to see if there was anything I didn't know precisely.

I was able to zip through the first lessons at normal speed (Spain Spanish) and moved on to longer podcasts on various topics (15-30 minutes). I was struck by how easy and enjoyable this was compared with my Russian lessons. I understood 90% or more of what I heard in Spanish, rarely repeating the lessons because I didn’t need to. I made lingQs if I did not know a word or phrase ahead of time, primarily to flag it so I could use it actively, regardless of whether I had understood it in context. (I don’t lingQ cognates.) I didn’t write sentences with the new vocabulary/expressions because in Spanish how something is spelled is for the most part exactly how it is pronounced (unlike in Russian) and I didn’t need to practice Spanish grammatical patterns. I was listening about two hours per day. In one month I had accumulated Advanced 1 level in known words. This number did not represent the number of new words I had learned in a month but rather the ones I understood in when listening to a native speaker talk at normal speed. The number of lingQs was irrelevant.

My ability to speak fluently in Spanish returned in a week. Moreover, because the lessons were so easy and interesting, I learned – remembered --additional expressions effortlessly. I also found that my speaking improved since the last time I had spoken extensively in Spanish at the professional level. Of course my listening comprehension of authentic Spanish improved. The speed and extent of the transformation astounded me. By week two it was apparent that the improvement was not just the result of listening, but reflected what I was listening to and HOW as well as what I did after listening.

By chance I had happened on two sterling podcast series on LingQ that specifically addressed the issue of listening comprehension and speaking ability. Both underscored that just reading does nothing for listening comprehension and that listening to the target language in the “background” where one doesn’t understand completely what is being said is not a productive use of a learner’s time (something that I had learned from experience as well). Rather, listening to comprehensible input is critical not only to learn proper pronunciation and intonation, but also to fix grammatical patterns and new vocabulary in one’s brain. Listening is of course key to speaking fluently. (Both series include practice sections at the end in which the student is to speak out loud regarding the content.) The teachers also note how common it is for intermediate students who spend a lot of time just reading a foreign language then struggle when understanding speech of native speakers and when having to speak themselves.

Focused listening, the teachers say, is critical so that you in fact understand what is being said and can repeat it or at least paraphrase it in your own words. (BTW, the latter is not easy. Adjust the settings of LingQ on your phone so that only one sentence at a time appears on the screen. Listen to any sentence of a lesson and repeat it out loud, first reading it, then do so without reading it. Can you repeat a sentence with more than six words? How about those with more than one clause? Can you summarize out loud the lesson that you just heard?) These exercises require a closer attention to listening than just quickly reading through content with the definitions of new words on the sidebar. They also require an active use of new vocabulary and a command of grammar. Which is precisely the point.

BTW, some of the Russian teachers have similar advice but in the Spanish podcasts this advice is discussed at length and repeatedly in several lessons.

In short, I found the experience and advice of the Spanish podcast teachers to be spot on regarding the importance of active listening and speaking about what you have heard. If you've been chasing a large number of lingQs but find yourself struggling to understand the spoken target language at normal speed and/or are at pains to speak coherently yourself, stop. Back up. Focus on the quality of listening comprehension and your ability to talk about what you just heard and read, rather than on the number of words you don’t know. Listen to lessons where you know most of the words (80%+), slowing the speed a bit if necessary at first. Can you eventually listen to them at normal speed and understand them (the vocabulary and the grammar) without reading? If you just read an article, can you summarize it out loud? How much detail can you include?

Needless to say, my experiences during the Spanish challenge have changed my approach to learning both Spanish and Russian. I encourage others to try your own challenge regarding active listening and speaking and evaluate their effect upon your ability to use the language.

January 10 at 15:28
  • benscheelings nl Netherlands

    A very interesting article, Tracey! Repeating sentences and summarizing what you have heard …. I will try this!

    "two sterling podcast series on LingQ that specifically addressed the issue of listening comprehension and speaking ability".... could you tell us to which series on Lingq you are referring ?

    January 10 at 17:33
    • TraceyG us United States

      Sure! Español Automático is a series that in general focuses on providing tools to listeners to improve their listening comprehension and speaking of Castilian Spanish. Lesson #72 provides a summary of some points Karo Martínez has made in her other podcasts/lessons regarding listening comprehension. Unlimited Spanish is also an intermediate-level series that uses content about different subjects about Spain to help students speak more readily. A Mi Aire is a podcast series by a Spanish woman who lives in Zurich. She doesn't talk about the process of learning but instead includes a new podcast weekly about two to three subjects relating to contemporary Europe, South American and Cuba. The topics are wide-ranging and her conversational style includes contemporary, useful expressions. There are other interesting/helpful podcast series on various subjects, all in the intermediate-low advanced range.

      Keep in mind that my specific goal was not to increase my knowledge of vocabulary or grammar since I already had a solid foundation in both. Rather, my goal was to refresh my listening comprehension and speaking ability. With a few exceptions, I deliberately avoided newspaper articles and literature since I wanted contemporary, conversational material where I could listen to and understand most of what I was hearing. I did in fact learn new expressions along the way but it was not my priority. Having finished the challenge, I can now delve into some news items and more specialized material that interest me but lack audio. Yet I will make sure to include a good deal of listening without reading and of course I will summarize orally what I read and listen to.

      January 11 at 00:46
  • Administrator
    ericrobertz ca Canada

    "If I read/listened to material in which there are 30%+ unknown words/patterns, I do not remember the meanings of most of them and I certainly cannot understand the lesson by listening alone. By contrast, if I read a longer article in which there are only a few unknown words or phrases on each page, I can use the context to help remember the meanings."

    My experience in learning Japanese (I'm on my 4th month) is similar to yours in Russian. I agree, material with 50% unknown words usually goes in and out of my head and I cannot retain much. But reading it over and over and over again (listening as well), it does help me with material where I know 75% of the content.

    I agree with your other points about passive listening... While it's always good to listen, comprehensible input is by far the best way to go. Content that I find interesting, is maybe a little challenging but I'm still able to comprehend 80% of it.

    Good write, up, this should be turned into an article :D

    Also, glad to hear LingQ has helped you with your Spanish (and Russian!).

    January 10 at 17:51
  • jungleboy pt Portugal

    I understood 90% or more of what I heard in Spanish, rarely repeating the lessons because I didn’t need to.

    That's great, but as I understand it, listening for comprehension is only one part of why listening is important. Listening repeatedly even though you understood it the first time is beneficial, because without having to focus as much on comprehension, you can notice other things from the audio such as the particular language used, pronunciation of certain sounds etc. If you listen a lot, then you can start to anticipate what's coming next, and this eventually turns input into output. At least, that's the way I see it. I'd be interested in hearing other opinions.

    January 10 at 21:08
    • ricardopietrobon us United States

      I agree, meaning anticipation is an advanced skill, certainly above a simpler meaning recognition.

      January 11 at 04:16
  • wcmeyer ca Canada

    Tracy, I liked what you had to say. May I Take your words creat an audio file of it and import it into English for my friend who I am helping improve her English. I read all sorts of things to her currently, and I really liked how you articulated this.

    January 10 at 23:57
  • ricardopietrobon us United States

    Amazing post, thanks for sharing! My experience with lingqs is somewhat different. I find it helpful to see a word that I have previously marked as unknown, since the next time I see it I will either still not know but probably remember the context where I saw it for the first time, or I will be happy to realize that I know it by now. So, I guess what excites me about lingq is the gamification component, but that is just me.

    As for the definition of what "knowing"means, I think that it will depend on your personal goals. For example, I would argue that if my objective is to write a text in the foreign language, then knowing how to express myself on Skype is not really knowing. I am assuming here that writing in a foreign language in a way that resembles a native-like style is the ultimate skill, and usually the one that comes after many years of really hard work. In contrast, if my goal is to read in the language, then speaking becomes secondary and I can say I know the language even if I can't speak.

    I have also fallen prey to the reading-listening trap, and my personal solution was to start listening in two languages, five minutes each. Listening first in a language that I know well gives me the narrative context, which I then use to get more situated when I then listen to the same story in the language I am trying to learn. This alternating style also makes it fun because I get really hooked to the story, it doesn't feel like I am working to learn a new language.

    January 11 at 03:57
    • ricardopietrobon us United States

      One more comment: I completely agree that studying a language you already know well is a completely different experience, especially if you have been focusing on/struggling with a new language for a while. To me one of the main factors for that enhanced experience is that if you couple a reasonable command of the language with some interesting content, then your learning is nearly passive and you are just having fun. In other words, you learn like you would normally do in your native language: reading an interesting fiction or non-fiction book will expand your vocabulary and improve your speaking and writing skills even if those were not your original objectives.

      January 11 at 04:12
      • TraceyG us United States

        As I noted in my original post, paraphrasing the views of the Spanish teachers, "listening to comprehensible input is critical not only to learn proper pronunciation and intonation, but also to fix grammatical patterns and new vocabulary in one’s brain. Listening is of course key to speaking fluently."

        Of course listening helps more than understanding the meaning of the words! That's precisely why the teachers were stressing it, why I myself chose to do a listening challenge for myself (to refresh my speaking ability) and why I shared my experience regarding my experiment. I also prefaced my remarks by describing my prior knowledge and ability in Spanish to make plain why I was listening to the kind of the material I was and doing follow-up oral exercises. For someone first learning Spanish (as opposed to refreshing abilities previously acquired), listening IS key to pronunciation and intonation. However, I personally didn't need that in Spanish since my accent was already accomplished. Similarly, I did not have to learn grammar which clearly is a plus when encountering new material.

        Regarding anticipation, knowing a language well does involve being able to predict grammatically what could come next in a sentence as well as to predict common expressions (as opposed to trying to figure out what each new word means on its own when first hearing it). For example, in Spanish I know that most adjectives follow nouns and what forms of verbs will follow conjugations of "haber" "ser" , "estar" and when a subjunctive form of the verb is likely to be uttered. This all occurs at the subconscious level and definitely helps my comprehension both in reading and listening.

        in my own experience, being able to predict what comes next comes with greater knowledge of and exposure to grammatical patterns as well as familiarity with common expressions. In Russian, I have done "shadowing" to improve my listening and speaking long before I started the Spanish challenge. This involves saying out loud what a native speaker is saying with a second or two delay. I slow the speech of the native speaker slightly to give me a little more time to get the words out. I originally tried this as an experiment and found it very effective but I can only do it where I completely understand what the native speaker is saying ahead of time.

        Ricardopietrobon, to clarify regarding what Karo Martínez has said and I what I myself deliberately did, my listening was not passive. I understand the latter as what happens when you learn the words of an ad or song without trying to do so. By contrast, I was doing "active" listening and orally using the words and patterns I had just heard. This involves considerably more focus precisely because it is "active." If I only wanted passive knowledge, I could have listened without oral response on my part and sought only to grasp the general idea of what I heard which I did not do. Instead, I made sure I understood 100% of what I heard and then used it orally.

        BTW, your description of alternating listening to the same material in two languages (one I am assuming is not your native one) sounds more like "active" (focused) listening to me. Anyway, for me it would not be "passive." :)

        January 11 at 14:32