by Liz Rothaus Bertrand
I’ve noticed a recurrent worry among some of my beginning French language students. As they start to gain confidence with their new language skills, they suddenly feel defeated when they hear a native speaker and can’t understand.
It is a frustrating experience, familiar to many people learning a second language.
As uncomfortable as it is, rest assured this is a very normal stage in the learning process. Think about how children learn. For most of us, it took about 18 months before we understood enough to string together a couple of words in our first language. To get to this point, we were immersed in the language—through words, conversations, commercials, images, music, traditions and cultural experiences—which aided in the process of language acquisition.
As language learners, we must continuously practice our listening skills by recreating elements of an immersion environment—inside and outside the classroom.
If this sounds hard or boring, it shouldn’t be. There are so many resources available and your own interests can help guide you to the best experiences to keep you motivated.
Do you love watching films? Are you a die-hard music fan? A news junky? Are you always on the go? What are your passions? From cooking and sports to pop culture and home improvement — there are endless possibilities for practicing your listening comprehension. (See end of this post for resource suggestions.)
So, what do you need?
A bit of time, an internet connection and a computer, tablet, or smart phone are all it takes to get started. Short bursts of language immersion daily will add up and help improve your ear. They’ll also help you build your confidence. See what happens if you put 15 minutes a day into it. Like anything, the more effort you put in, the faster you’ll progress.
Even if you’re busy, it’s easy to listen to a podcast, the radio, or have a TV show playing in your target language while going about your daily activities. Here, the goal is developing an ear for the speed, intonations and common expressions used by native speakers.
Your goals will differ, of course, depending upon your experience with the language, familiarity with the subject, and the format in which it is being presented.
Here are a few possibilities to get you started:
Take a few minutes to think about your upcoming listening experience. What do you already know about the subject? What could be some useful words to look up in advance? What are you going to be listening to or watching? Is it a comedy? Is it a news program? Is it teaching skills — like cooking or home improvement?
Research has shown that taking time to focus on expectations before listening, determining whether the content matches those expectations while listening, and finally assessing comprehension post-listening helps learners more effectively develop their listening skills.¹
You’ll be amazed by how much more you’ll pick up each time you listen to the same audio. Over time, the language you hear will start to sound more like words and less like a jumble.
If you hear something unfamiliar, jot it down phonetically and note the context. That way you can look it up later or ask a knowledgeable resource (like a language teacher or native speaker) for aid.
The best way to improve is to practice. Take advantage of opportunities to interact with native speakers whenever possible. Check out businesses run by, or which attract, a native speaking population. Participate in groups where people speak the language you’re learning.
Daily French Pod: free podcasts with supplemental materials, including transcripts, available by subscription. This excellent podcast is almost entirely in French. It focuses on a short conversation by native speakers and then is explained entirely in French, using alternate French expressions.
Newsinslow.com: a subscription service (free samples are available) that presents the week’s news and current events in a slower version and provides supplemental materials to build vocabulary. Available in French, Spanish, Italian, and German.
tunein.com: free access to live radio from around the world. Also available as a free app.
Radiolingua.com: podcasts for language learners of varying levels in French, Spanish, German, Italian, and Chinese [free lesson samples available on the website]
Radio Olimpica: Practice your Spanish by listening to this station based in Colombia. You can also download the app to listen on the go.
Lyricstraining.com: This free website uses international music videos to create fill-in-the-blank templates segmented by beginner, intermediate, and advanced levels. It includes English, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish among its language offerings.
Netflix.com: This is an excellent tool for language learners and not only for the extensive list of foreign films. Netflix now offers alternate language audio and subtitles for many of its other programming too.
Youtube.com: Search for practically anything from cartoons and TV shows to songs and workouts in the language you’re studying.
International House – Check out their free weekly, bi-weekly, and monthly conversation hours in 11 different languages, including Italian, Portuguese, French, Spanish, and English.
Meetup.com – Find groups hosting local events for people who speak the language you’re learning.
Various cultural and business associations in Charlotte host events throughout the year, including Alliance Francaise, Alemannia Society, Latin American Coalition , and several International Chambers of Commerce.
¹ Larry Vandergrift, Facilitating second language comprehension: acquiring successful strategies, ELT Journal Journal Volume 53/3 July 1999, © Oxford University Press 1999
Looking for more ways to learn and practice a new language? Check out carolinalanguage.com for info on small group classes and private lessons.