I was ready to conquer Spain.
I had nearly a decade of Spanish lessons under my belt. I’d brushed up on slang in both Castillian Spanish and Catalan. And I’d dog-eared my copy of Folger’s so many times the pages were falling out.
I stepped off the plane and gulped in a huge breath of clear Spanish air. Spanish architecture was hauntingly beautiful, the food would melt in my mouth, and the orxata would turn the world into technicolor. This trip was going to be perfect.
Instead, that trip taught me one very important thing:
I do not know Spanish.
Or rather, I can speak Spanish. But I can’t understand it spoken. Even basic vocabulary felt became incomprehensible—I wasn’t ready for return of vosotros and the liberal use of “th.” So I nodded dumbly and fumbled my way through most conversations. Once I understood what they were trying to tell me, I could communicate just fine, but deciphering the speech was next to impossible.
Has that ever happened to you? Have you ever listened to a native speaker and thought, “That’s not how that’s supposed to sound! …Is it?”
Good news: You don’t have to be lost forever. These tips will help you train your ear with active listening skills so that you don’t make the same mistakes I did.
DON’T: Listen without paying attention.
I get it. In a perfect world, you could put on an Ich + Ich album and be proficient in German by the time they hit the chorus. In this perfect world, you could play Auntie Boss in the background and become so fluent in Swahili that you could write the next season by yourself.
And we’ve all wondered about sleep-learning. Is it really possible to put on a pair of headphones before bed and wake up knowing a second language?
Unfortunately, the answer is no.
Subliminal learning doesn’t work, which means that passive listening—turning on something in the background without paying close attention to it, hoping that your brain picks up a few things on its own—doesn’t work. It’s a waste of effort (which, let’s be honest, is very little).
DO: Listen while paying close attention.
Practicing active listening requires more effort than passive listening, because it necessitates both undivided attention and active participation. However, it may be harder work, but it’s also smarter work. You can learn more from five minutes of active listening than from an hour of passive listening.
So, what’s active listening? Well, that depends on your learning style.
If you’re a visual learner, you might listen to a Swedish audiobook and draw pictures to illustrate what’s happening.
If you’re an auditory learner, you might belt along to Telugu songs during your commute.
If you’re a kinesthetic learner, you and a friend might roleplay scenes from your favorite Spanish telenovela.
The important thing is that you keep an open mind and pick an attentive listening method that excites you.
DON’T: Force yourself to do something boring.
Eating vegetables is good for you. It is not fun. But you should do it every day.
Listening activities, however, are different. They need to be exciting.
You might be used to the dull activities that you did in high school language classes: listen to thirty seconds of dry audio, understand only 10% of it, and pray the teacher doesn’t call on you.
But that’s not fun and not effective communication. You won’t stick to something if you’re not interested in it. Not only will you give up early, but you also won’t retain much.
DO: Find exciting activities that you want to do.
Languages are nuanced and fascinating. They’re meant to be sung, spoken and shouted. They’re meant to be broken into spoken poetry or bellowed as speeches. With so many options available, why on earth would you listen to something dull?
Quiz shows produced in a country that speaks your target language. Try to answer each question yourself.
Poetry. After you listen to Arabic poetry being spoken aloud, you won’t be able to keep your eyes dry. Challenge yourself by memorizing your favorite lines.
News from around the world. Set a goal. For example, try to understand at least 5 news items from the broadcast and then summarize those items in your target language.
Video games. If you change a game to your target language, suddenly all of the characters will be speaking that language. If you can’t figure out how to understand them, game over.
Board games with your native speaker friends or language partners. Even if the game is in English, establish a no-English rule. Now you’ll have to listen and respond to everyone in your target language. This works especially well for games that require a lot of talking, like Mafia. (Don’t play charades.)
DON’T: Translate into English.
If you’re stuck on a word, your first instinct is to reach for a dictionary. Stop. Put the dictionary down. Close your Google Translate tab.
Looking up a word is easy. Figuring out the word is hard.
DO: Decipher unknown words for yourself.
Use context clues. Ask yourself, “What’s being said in the rest of the paragraph? Where have I heard this word before? What is the tone of voice of the speaker? Does body language and facial expressions help?”
If you’re really stuck, you can look it up, but I generally advocate against looking up more than one word per sentence, or about five per paragraph. If you’re looking up more than that, then you’re probably listening to something that’s too advanced. In that case, find something more on your level; the more you understand, the more you’ll retain.
If you do translate something, don’t write down a word-for-word definition or translation. Instead, draw a picture. Then when you see the unfamiliar word again, you’ll visualize your image instead of reverting back to English.
And to expand your vocabulary, read! Reading is the best way to pick up new words.
Rather, don’t only listen. Even if you do all of the active listening activities in the world, that’s still not enough.
Conversation is key. Link up with native speakers. Talk about everything that interests you. Jot down words you don’t know and ask for more clues in order to figure them out.
If you’re just starting out, you might be tempted to ask your conversation partner to speak very slowly. Resist this urge. The sooner you begin to process the language at higher speeds, the better your listening comprehension will be down the line.
If you can’t understand your partner, they might not be speaking too fast, the vocabulary might just be too advanced—so ask them to simplify their words, and then work on expanding your vocabulary.
If you don’t live in a place where everyone speaks the language, that’s fine! Link up with a local cultural center or participate in a language exchange. Use digital resources such as iTalki and Tandem. These days, everyone is so connected that location is no longer an excuse.
DON’T: Stay comfortable.
Listening exercises and even conversations with native speakers might be terrifying at first. But eventually, they become routine. Easy, even.
When you’re pretty comfortable with your listening comprehension level, you’ll be tempted to pat yourself on the back and stick to your routine. After all, it took you months or even years to accomplish this much.
DO: Raise the stakes.
Whenever you get too comfortable, make it more difficult.
This could take a lot of forms. For example, if you’re comfortable watching a news broadcast, which has captions and images, then switch to just a radio broadcast.
But that’s the bare minimum. The most effective way to learn fast is to jump into the deep end.
Travel to a country where your language is spoken. Challenge yourself not to speak any English.
If your friends are native speakers, don’t text them. Pick up the phone and call. Don’t prepare beforehand and don’t overthink it. Just start speaking.
Go on a blind date with a native speaker. Speak no English.
Enroll in a class taught in your language. For example, if you want to learn Chinese, don’t just enroll in a Chinese class, enroll in a class taught in Chinese. These are usually available at community centers, local colleges or even online.
DON’T: Give up.
Listening is hard, especially if you’re not an auditory learner. When you get frustrated, you’ll be tempted to give up. After all, who really needs to hear a language? That’s what text messages and subtitles are for.
But don’t give up.
DO: Keep going.
Very few people are “naturally” good at listening. Just like anything else, it’s a skill. It’s a skill that you have to sharpen.
So keep practicing. Find the methods that work for you, whether that’s audio books or telenovelas or cold-calling native speakers.
And keep pushing yourself. It’s hard now, but it will pay off!
Post by guest blogger Jamie McGhee: Jamie McGhee is a novelist, playwright and aspiring polyglot currently making her way through East Africa with a backpack.