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“Do You Understand The Words That Are Coming Out Of My Mouth?”

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This article is the first in “The Four Modes of Language Learning” series and will deal primarily with ways to improve listening skills. Language students often frustrate themselves when they began to learn a second language. They develop unrealistic expectations and when they don’t meet these expectations their motivation decreases, increasing the probability of them abandoning their studies. All too often, students try to match their language skills in their first language with their new found skills in their second language. However as you can imagine, this is fallacious thinking. How long did it take us to learn our first language? Some of us began to speak when we were around 1 to 2 years of age. So that begs the question, what were we doing during that time before we started speaking? We were listening, observing and figuring things out based off of the reactions we got from others. The lesson we should take away from this is to be realistic. You can’t expect to take a foreign language class every weekday for 50 minutes or twice a week for 4 or 5 hours for a whole semester or an academic year and expect to be speaking, reading, listening and writing at the same mastery level as your native language. Remember, it took you 1 to 2 years to learn how to speak and understand your native language at a beginner level and that was with 24 hour daily exposure to the language. Concepts such as reading and writing weren’t even introduced to you until later. Now can you realistically expect to effectively cram all that knowledge of a new language in less the time you effectively learned your first language? Not likely, the moral of this story is not to beat yourself up. Mastery will come with patience, consistency and stick-to-itiveness.

It is true that everyone has different aptitudes for different things. You will find that one person may have more of a natural ability for picking up languages and therefore might be progressing faster than another person. However, anyone can acquire native or near native mastery. Regardless of whether or not you are a fast learner or a slow learner, you can utilize these suggestions to help improve your ability to understand what is being said when trying to understand your new language:

 1) Language is very rhythmic and each language has a certain sound characteristic. Some languages have a sing-songy rhythm, others a more harsh sound. You must accustom your ears to the rhythm of your new language; to do this listen to the news, music or television in your new language a little every day. You want to get to the point where it feels normal and natural. At this early stage we are not concerned with comprehending all that is being said. We want to study the inflections, gestures or any other characteristic of that language. Just look at it as if you were learning how to do an excellent impersonation of a famous person. As you improve on other aspects of your language skills, this exercise will help you to not have so much of an American English accent when you speak in your new language.

2) In regards to listening to music, news, television and movies; change the audio to your new language and select English subtitles/captions. Try your best to reframe from reading everything throughout the entire program. Test yourself every few minutes; go from reading to listening to see how much you are starting to understand.

3) Ask native speakers to talk to you in your new language. Don’t concern yourself at this point with trying to respond in your new language. It is okay to respond in English, just concentrate on understanding what it is they are saying to you. These suggestions are not at all a complete list on how to improve your listening skills. They are just few techniques that have helped me in my language journey. Try them and you will begin to understand the words coming out of everyone’s mouth in no time!


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