January 2007 Newsletter
The Magic of Listening
Often people ask me "what is the secret to learning languages?" Or "how can I learn English quickly, for my job or for my TOEIC test etc." Many people want to learn a new language, or need to improve their English for various reasons. All too often their experience of language learning has been uninteresting and unsuccessful.
My answer is simple. "Listen, but listen a lot! That is the secret. Now go away and start listening, every day, every free moment that you have. Listen! That is what I do. That is what I have done for Cantonese, Korean and Russian, all of which I learned after the age of 55." Immediately people will reply. "What about reading? What about speaking? What about learning vocabulary? What about improving my written English? What about grammar?" And I just say. "Just start listening and you will see!" All the other skills are based on listening.
What about reading? As pointed out by the famous expert on the brain and learning, Dr. Paula Tallal, (http://www.forbes.com/businesswire/feeds/businesswire/2006/12/07/businesswire20061207005012r1.html) the speed with which we process sounds is "crucial to learning, reading and speech and can be improved via training" Reading skills depend on our ability to recognize sound quickly. If we do not already have a good ability to recognize the sounds of words in a language, we will be slow readers in that language. You will need to read a lot, so you had better learn to be a fast reader. Repetitive listening will help you.
In learning a new language like Russian or Korean, I only read material that I have listened to many, many times. When I listen, I repeat phrases to myself. This helps me in my reading. It prepares me. It gives me familiarity with the text and a sense of rhythm. It helps me to understand. It helps me to associate the written words and phrases with sounds and with meaning. It helps me to create links in my brain. Only once I have achieved a sufficient level of comfort in a new language do I read material that I have not listened to at least five times.
What about speaking? Someone who understands a language easily when it is spoken at normal speed in a variety of situations, either is already a good speaker of the language or will become one quickly when the need arises. Work on your listening first, the speaking will come. Of course if you have the opportunity to speak, take advantage. But often language learners are not surrounded by native speakers. In many cases learners do not speak well enough to carry on a normal conversation in the new language. So focus on listening. Your chance to speak will come, and then you will be ready.
What about learning vocabulary? When I come across new vocabulary, or when I review vocabulary, I am usually reminded of when I heard the word in my listening. If I do not remember having heard the word I am probably not ready to learn it. But I listen so often that eventually I will notice the word in my listening and make the link between the word (or phrase) and the sound. I only try to learn vocabulary from content that I have listened to and read.
What about writing? Listen to the language! Listen to the rhythm of the language! Learn to notice the natural phrasing of the language, which is a part of the rhythm. If you listen enough, when you want to write, you will find that the words just flow out. Not all your structures or word usage will be correct, but words will flow. The more you write, and the more you continue to listen, the better your writing will become.
What about grammar? Listen at least one hour a day and hopefully two hours a day. Do this almost every day. Listen on your MP3 player every time you have a free 5 minutes. Sometimes repeat to yourself while you listen. At other times just enjoy that feeling of all of a sudden understanding the language better than you did before. This feeling does not come easily. It comes from a lot of listening, reading what you are listening to, and reviewing the words and phrases you are trying to learn.
Yes, all of the activities at The Linguist are important, but listening is the key. Listening is magic. And if you choose content of interest, listening can be fun. It is important that it be fun, because the journey to achieving fluency in a language is a long one.