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The Right to Care Less: Language Listening for Beginners

I spent this week on an EU Study Visit – we were discussing implementing ICT in language learning. The topic and the discussions were so great that I’ll probably have enough to write about for months to come – but today’s inspiration comes from another source, although it’s also connected to the visit. I’ll start with two stories, and when they’re done, I hope to show you a more relaxed approach to listening to a foreign language, especially useful for beginners.

 Story 1

We were travelling back from a discussion session. The entire group was on a bus, some were chatting, some – merely listening and relaxing after a hard day. This included me: I found myself listening to a conversation in Dutch involving three of my colleagues.

At first, I took much delight in being able to listen to the melody of the language without having to understand it (I don’t speak Dutch). It provided a nice, meaningless soundtrack to my journey, rather like ambient music which you play when you don’t want the lyrics to disturb you.

After a while, however, the “delight in incomprehension” was replaced by a much more curious experience. I began to understand things. It became obvious that Dutch shares a lot with English and German, and these languages I’m familiar with. Out of curiosity, I started listening to see how much I would be able to understand.

Here’s the funny part. After a few minutes, I knew what my colleagues were talking about and I could, If I wanted to, join in their conversation. It wasn’t that thorough, complete and instant understanding that you get when speaking your mother tongue: rather, through sounds, structures, similarities and shared contexts, I was able to deduce what the conversation involved, where it came from and where it was going.


Story 2

A few days later, we went to visit the Cristopher Columbus’ House in Las Palmas. The entire visit and tour was in Spanish. Again, it’s a language I don’t speak. And again, soon I discovered that I don’t need the interpretation: by watching the tour guide, looking at the illustrations and props, I was able to deduce what the talk was about (it helped, probably, that I’m a keen sailor).

The best thing was this: I was not the only one. There were several of us there, we had hoped for an English guide, but got the Spanish experience – and ended up understanding most of it! I could see my colleagues nodding when I nodded, smiling when the tour guide told a joke…

What was going on? Only a few of us spoke Spanish, and there we were, understanding it all of a sudden!


What’s at Stake Here? Understanding Without Giving a Damn

Now, imagine another story. You’re taking part in a conference call in a language you know very well. You’re discussing your common budget for the next year, and are just about to finalise the document you’ve been working on.

It is likely that you would ask for clarification a lot of times. You would want to make sure you understood things correctly. You would ask three times if it was “fifteen” or “fifty” that your interlocutors meant. Most likely, you’d be nitpicking, rephrasing and going over things which you heard correctly the first time.

The difference between the budget scenario and my two stories is simple. It involves two different answers to the crucial question: what are the stakes of each conversation?

In the budget scenario, everybody is keen to get things right. If they don’t, the document is faulty, unbalanced or useless – their departments get absurdly underfunded, and it takes a lot of time to set things straight again. They’re hard at work, and the work matters. That’s why, even though they may be proficient in the language they’re using (or even using their mother tongue!), they’ll still make extra sure that all is understood.

The stories I shared with you are completely different. If I don’t understand my colleagues’ discussion, nothing happens. If I don’t get what the tour guide has to say about La Pinta, the world doesn’t end. It’s not my job to understand this – it’s not my responsibility to know what’s going on. If this conversation breaks down, all parties walk away and on to the next thing. No biggie.


Lowering the Stakes to Increase Understanding

Here’s where language learning comes in. And for most of us, along comes pain and frustration, in various shades and intensities.

Your listening experiences, especially early on, can be quite stressful. You’re given tasks, asked for feedback, and corrected when you get things wrong. Worse still, you’re tested from time to time: suddenly, everything becomes more difficult, and you’re not sure of your answers any more!

Language teachers are very good at raising stakes. They’re not the only ones: your boss may be expecting results on the lessons the company pays for, your parents may criticise you for every mediocre mark, and your language exams may take the joy and excitement out of the whole process. Now, I’m not saying that high demands in language learning are a bad thing: there are plenty of benefits to having a demanding language teacher.

What I am saying, though, is that language is not always a matter of life and death, it’s not always a win-or-lose affair. You will have plenty of chances to care very little about the language happening around you. And these will also be your opportunities to enjoy the language. When was the last time you appreciated the melody of your Portuguese? Or listened to a poem in Chinese just for the fun of it? If the stakes are always raised for you, these moments are probably few and far between. And if so, I think you’re missing out.


Ten Easy Tricks for Low Stakes Listening

Here’s a cheat-sheet that would help you move towards a more relaxed and enjoyable way of listening to your foreign language. Use responsibly, discuss this with your teacher, and have fun!

1. Listen to a mock-exam task with the mission of NOT answering ANY questions.

2. Turn on a foreign language TV or radio station, with the intention of just letting it play in the background.

3. Eavesdrop – on the metro, in the market square, in cafes.

4. Read up. Getting context clues from material you prepared in advance would make you more at ease.

5. Ask your teacher if the recording you’re about to hear will be repeated. If so, close your course book, close your eyes – and just listen.

6. Try to “estrange” your own language: what does it sound like? What’s its melody, rhythm? How does it make you feel?

7. Smile when listening. A panicked, stressed face will prompt the speaker to explain even more – probably louder and with more gestures. A polite, relaxed face will send two messages: either “I get it” or “I don’t get it, but that’s OK.”

8. Imagine more. If it’s a CD recording, try to picture the setting and the speakers in your head. If it’s a song, try to imagine the videoclip. If it’s a live conversation, try to invent a story around it, maybe even “dubbing” the things in your head. Who cares if it’s not the correct interpretation? Not you, not now!

9. Have an exit strategy. Do you smile and walk away? Do you get another drink? Explain to the teacher that you just didn’t really get it, but that you’ve quite enjoyed it? Do whatever works for you, and know when you want to do it.

10. See things in perspective. Will this conversation matter to you in five years’ time? Will your speaker remember you forever, will this test determine your whole future? If the answers are “yes,” then it’s not the right moment to use this cheat-sheet. But they very rarely are.


Here it is, then: a call to take things easy. Listening to foreign languages can be fun. How else could you make it happen?

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2 Responsesso far.

  1. Hi Wiktor, I really agree with the whole idea of this post and your ten easy tricks for listening to a foreign language are great! The more relaxed you are, the more receptive your mind is for decoding new sounds and guessing their meaning. Your tricks can also apply easily to “speaking in a foreign language.” People become extremely anxious about speaking up. I’m a language teacher turned start-up owner of GamesforLanguage, and believe me, from the feed-back I get, your “care less” message is right on!

  2. Wiktor K. says:

    Ulrike –
    It’s so good to hear from people who deal with similar problems, and comforting to know of new ideas like yours. Checking out GamesforLanguage right now. Best of luck!