How to listen to a language at every level of proficiency | The Natural Language Institute

How to Master a Language for Life


How to listen to a language at every level of proficiency

By Victor - 15/apr/2021 #Language and Education

If you’ve read the preceding two posts, you now know that listening is the highest priority and easiest language skill to practice, and you have 8 recommendations for great sources of listening content.

Now, I’d like to give you a general game plan for listening according to your proficiency level.

Just Getting Started

If your target language is similar enough to one you already know and you are able to understand a couple of words every few sentences, you can skip to the next section aimed at beginners.

However, if you’re tackling a brand-new language that is unlike any that you currently speak, you should first learn the meaning and pronunciation of at least the 300 most commonly used words in the language. Tell me which language you plan to learn, and I will help you get started.

At the same time, you may also watch shows on YouTube aimed at toddlers. Toddlers are learning the language just like you are, so these shows provide sufficient visual and contextual clues for you to begin picking up vocabulary as you watch. An example I used while dabbling in Mandarin Chinese was Qiao Hu. Notice how you can learn colors in this video, starting at minute 2:08. I learned numbers, a few Chinese characters, and a host of other vocabulary words the same way.

Beginner Level

Once you’ve learned a few hundred high frequency words, you can get started practicing listening in earnest. Here are my three top suggestions for the beginner level:

  1. Songs

The best source for beginners is music, whose use as listening resource I detailed in the previous post. Study up on the lyrics and listen to a song again and again until you internalize it and can sing along.

However, for this method to be highly efficient, you will need help from a teacher or a native speaker to find songs whose lyrics meet the following criteria:

  • Well written and straightforward
  • Include a lot of commonly used words
  • Do not include a lot of slang or colloquialisms, but rather use standard language
  • Tell a story or give a coherent message

I can help you with English, Spanish, Portuguese, and French songs that meet these criteria.

  1. Videos aimed at young children

If you’re familiar with Sesame Street, you know exactly the type of video I’m referring to. Quality children’s videos can be enjoyable enough for motivated adult language learners to watch and are designed to be extremely educational and/or catchy, thus aiding language acquisition.

Connecting this recommendation with the previous one, you can find endless music videos with lyrics on YouTube. You can watch videos of adult songs that meet the above criteria for lyrics or, even better, you can select songs aimed at children. The best resource that I know for beginners to learn Brazilian Portuguese has just the combination of extremely catchy (maddeningly so) tunes, simple children’s lyrics, and visual cues that make them even very accessible. I’m talking Galinha Pintadinha.

  1. Specialized listening resources for language learners

While I do not generally advocate inauthentic language sources (those where language is adapted for foreign language learners), exceptions can certainly be made for beginners.

There are countless resources in various languages available on the Internet. A great example is the Voice of America news page aimed at English language learners. It is updated daily, has a written version of each article, teaches vocabulary, and, most importantly, is read very slowly with clear diction.

Intermediate Level

Once you reach the intermediate level, your options explode. I now recommend ditching any inauthentic listening source and beginning to select those movies, series, news sources, podcasts, YouTube videos, and audiobooks that you love and that also have a written version that matches exactly. In other words, at this level you can tackle most authentic listening sources by combining reading and listening.

Here are five specific strategies for an intermediate level:

  1. Listen to audiobooks aimed at young readers, after or while you read the text.
  2. Watch movies and series that:
    1. have subtitles that match the audio precisely
    2. you have already seen and love, without subtitles
    3. you have not seen before, without subtitles, contenting yourself with getting the general gist, while perhaps understanding only half of the words that you hear.
  3. Choose podcasts and other sources that have transcripts or that are on topics with which you are very familiar.
  4. Keep using songs to acquire more vocabulary (follow along with the lyrics).
  5. Remember that social interaction always involves listening, so get as much of it as you can in your target language.

Advanced Level

You can now listen to anything and can let your enjoyment and interest be your guide. However, to keep progressing, make sure you listen to a variety of different topics and sources and challenge yourself with difficult material. Here is how you will master a language for life through listening:

  1. Watch movies and series mostly in your target language, without subtitles, until you understand them as well, or almost as well, as in your native language.
  2. Listen to audiobooks on topics that interest you. Eventually, you should have perfect comprehension without having read the corresponding text.
  3. Listen to the news, podcasts, and music in your target language, rather than your native language, as much as possible, until you understand everything—then listen often enough to maintain your mastery.
  4. Make social interaction with native speakers a permanent part of your social life, which will keep your speaking and listening skills sharp.

I hope you now have plenty of motivation, ideas, and a game plan to listen your way to language mastery.


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