Monday, 23 April 2018

How to Develop your Listening at Elementary, Intermediate and Advanced Levels

Plus Growing your Vocabulary with Listening

Listening is one of the four core skills that you need to develop when learning a foreign language.

Listening is a skill that can get overlooked, especially when the main sources of your target language are written texts. With modern technology today, however, when video and audio content has become so easily accessible and so widespread, you have to develop your listening skill in your target language, so as not to miss out on lots of opportunities to progress with your study and get access to more content and more exciting content. So, let’s look at how to develop listening at different levels.

A quick note before you jump to your level below: even if your level is not, for example, elementary, I recommend not to skip this information as a lot of stuff that is relevant for elementary level learners is very relevant for intermediate and even advanced learners, too.

At elementary level, when you are just starting to learn a foreign language, your vocabulary is limited, so listening is not something you would do a lot. Still, when learning new words, it is important that you not only read them but also listen to how they are pronounced.

First, listening to separate words will help you get used to the sounds of your target language before you actually start speaking and producing these sounds yourself. If you love how the language sounds, be careful not to get carried away: stick to separate words and short phrases you are able to understand.

As you won’t be able to understand much at this point, listening to larger doses of language doesn’t make too much sense. You are likely to get distracted and start daydreaming about sunny beaches of Italy if you are listening to Italian, busy streets of Morocco if you are listening to Arabic or luxurious spas of Turkey if you are listening to Turkish. In other words, your “listening” will have nothing to do with language learning listening.

Second, listening to separate words will help you avoid some pronunciation mistakes. For example, it will ensure that you put a stress in the right place, catch silent letters and don’t read them, notice certain sounds peculiar to this language and later work on them closely as part of your pronunciation training.

If the spelling of the language you are learning is not phonetic (what you see is not what you read), listening plus using transcription symbols for precision are a must .

Many good dictionaries, as well as a dictionary plugin vocBlocks LookUp, have both audio pronunciation for the words and their IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) transcription. So, it’s worth getting acquainted with the IPA symbols because with transcription you see exactly which sounds comprise this or that word even if you don’t hear them clearly with audio.

For example, it is important for learners of English who can be certain of one thing only: uncertainty that they are reading new words correctly. So, every time you come across a new word and check its meaning in the dictionary, don’t forget to click that sound button and check its pronunciation. You might be surprised even if you are an advanced learner!

Even with languages which spelling is closer to pronunciation like, for example, Russian, you still have spelling rules that dictate that words are spelt not exactly the way they are pronounced. So, a dictionary with audio and transcription is very useful to ensure you learn a new word in all its dimensions and not only how it’s spelt.

However, listening to separate words won’t get you too far, as people speak in phrases and sentences and not in separate words. Well, at least if they are being eloquent and polite and not just shouting to someone to shut up or get lost.

Some languages like, for example, French have such wonder as ellison. Simply put, when speaking, French folks link words to each other so that poor foreigners have trouble saying where one word finishes and the next one starts. I am pretty sure that ellison was invented by French as some secret language weapon aimed at causing headache in foreign heads. So, even if you have been diligently checking audio pronunciation of separate words in French but haven’t had a chance to regularly listen to phrases and longer texts, you might discover that you cannot recognise even familiar words in sentences when ellison happens.

French joys aside, even if words do not blend with subsequent ones in the language you are learning and are pronounced very distinctly from each other like, for example, in German, they still sound different when they are included into a phrase or sentence: neighbouring sounds affect each other and do not sound the same as when they are isolated. Assimilation, reduction, insertion, all sorts of phonetic wonders happen there. You don’t even want to know if you are not a linguist. On top of it, intonation comes into play and some more meaningful words are stressed while others, especially auxiliary ones, are barely audible.

While at the beginning it’s phrases and short dialogues that you might want to tackle, as you progress to intermediate level, you need to increase the length of the audio pieces you listen to. But even at intermediate level, it’s better to stick to the materials for learners as most of the native level stuff is way too difficult for you at this point and your brain might not cope with this ordeal.

Please, kindly respect your grey cells and the language you are learning: your target language is there to transmit information and your brain is there to process it. If neither is happening, the language is just noise. Whether pleasant noise, as in the case with French, or not too pleasant, as in the case with German, but it’s still noise.

By the way, if you adore German as I do, you don’t really get it when people cringe when they hear it. The reason is, when you understand a language, the question whether it sounds pleasant or unpleasant is irrelevant as you don’t just listen to the sounds, you get the information you need. Or don’t need, if your language partner is telling you (for the fifth time!) the story of how he got drunk at his grandma’s birthday celebration.

Even though your listening materials should be suitable for your level, they need to be varied. And I don’t mean just varied content (different genres and areas of knowledge). In addition to varied content, you need to make sure you listen to your target language spoken by people of both sexes, different ages, social and ethnic backgrounds, etc. Obviously, it shouldn’t be native level stuff at this point with some cockney English thrown in, that actually natives would struggle to understand. Still, it needs to be spoken by different people with a variety of individual and group characteristics rather than just by a couple of youtubers whose language learning videos you are subscribed to or by a couple of speakers with perfect pronunciation who recorded audio for the whole course book.

At advanced level you can start gradually moving all your listening to the native level realm. This might be challenging at first but will eventually open up for you a whole host of opportunities to get loads of audio information in your target language. This, by the way, will help you increase your language input dramatically if you don’t have much time for reading but are able to do listening regularly while doing some mundane tasks like cleaning your lovely cosy dwelling, taking your fluffy animal companion for a stroll or taxiing your teenage divas to parties.

As with reading, advanced level is the time for you to focus on the content rather than the language itself, and switch some of your usual listening activities from your mother language to your target one. For example, you could listen to news in your target language or, if you are not too keen on keeping up with reality and are a fan of fiction, you could listen to some radio drama or audio books in your target language instead of in your native one as you usually do.

Listening Immersion

With listening, just like with reading, you need to immerse yourself in the language you are learning. Again, as with reading, by immersion I do not mean plunging into the native level materials: they should suit your level as you need to understand most of what you listen to.

Saying that, if you are not used to listening, you are likely to struggle to understand any material at the very start. Compared to reading, listening is a different path of acquiring information. So, if you have been mainly reading in your target language, i.e. have been taking mainly this path, your listening path lies there neglected and overgrown and you won’t be able to easily use it at first. With practice though you will improve and will be happily striding along your listening path enjoying your walk.

When you are just starting to immerse yourself into your target language through listening, there are some tricks that will help you understand better, so that you persevere with your listening and not give up so easily at the start.

First trick is listening to the same audio more than once. Usually, when listening for the second time you understand more. If you still feel that you are not happy with how much you have understood, listen to it for the third time. And probably fourth. Each time you will be able to catch more and more details, understand the text clearer and clearer.

It doesn’t mean though that you need to put some audio on repeat and bore yourself to tears listening to the same thing over and over again. If you are bored, you are very likely to zone out and even fall asleep, especially if you do your listening just before bedtime. Instead, choose several audio pieces for listening, rotate them, add new ones and drop the ones you have had enough of after a few repetitions.

What you will not get tired of listening to multiple times is songs. Well, at least, if you like the ones you have chosen. When listening to songs, rhythm, rhyme and melody help you remember the lyrics in no time, which is a definite bonus! Just don’t complain if you get an ear-worm or start noticing annoyed faces of your family members whom you have been terrorising with your singing performance in Russian, the language they don’t understand and, eh, don’t like.

Second trick helping you understand better, is listening with your headphones on. This will help you hear more clearly and also avoid distractions if you are listening while doing something else. You can turn up the volume if you still don’t hear clearly enough. Just make sure you don’t overdo it: even developing your foreign language listening skill is not a valid reason for you to go deaf. If your pink Swarovski-studded headphones do not match all of your outfits, don’t worry - you won’t always have to wear them while listening in your target language. Better listening comprehension is a matter of time and practice so gradually you will be able to understand more even when you don’t wear your headphones.

Third trick is sticking to the familiar content when choosing listening materials: you will be struggling with the language (the form), so the content should be more or less familiar to compensate for it. For example, if you are not too interested in politics and haven’t been keeping up with the news in your native language, including news programmes into your target language listening practice from the start is probably not a good idea.

Of course, another trick to aid your listening practice is transcripts. If you have a transcript of the audio you listen to, you can refer to it if you struggle to understand just by listening. But do try other tricks to make out as much as possible before you go ahead and grab the transcript.

Saying that, transcripts are indispensable, when it comes to growing your vocabulary while listening, as it’s not always possible to record a new word for learning when you hear it.

Growing your Vocabulary with Listening

While listening immersion is very useful for you to develop your listening skill and surround yourself with as much language as possible, transcripts are really useful if you would like to grow your vocabulary with listening.

It doesn’t mean that you have to refer to transcripts to fish out every single word you don’t know. If you do it, listening will no longer be an immersion experience plus you might end up with lots of new words 80% of which you don’t have to know at this point and will struggle to memorise.

Instead, I would recommend working with keywords (i.e. words important for understanding of the texts you are listening to) and also with words that you have heard several times.

Thus, you won’t be learning “cold” words which have little or no association for you. If you choose keywords, they will already be familiar as you will recall the context in which they were used. Besides, with keywords, as well as with words you have heard several times already, you will have had several repetitions of these words before you start working on putting them into your long term memory.

If you listen in your target language a lot and pick out several words per audio, it makes sense to automate your vocabulary learning with a spaced repetition tool, such as vocBlocks.

With a free dictionary plugin vocBlocks LookUp you both look up new words by clicking on them in your transcripts and have them saved for learning on a spaced repetition schedule.

We know that context is important when learning new words, so the words you have looked up with vocBlocks LookUp will be saved with the sentences in which they were used in your transcript. So, you will be able to refer to the context when learning your new words to avoid rote learning. And of course, you will have translation, transcription and audio pronunciation of these new words recorded automatically.

Happy listening!

Want to develop all four core foreign language skills? Check out our other posts to learn how:

How to Develop your Reading at Elementary, Intermediate and Advanced Levels

How to Develop your Writing at Elementary, Intermediate and Advanced Levels

How to Develop your Speaking at Elementary, Intermediate and Advanced Levels (upcoming)

Enter your email address at the right to receive updates from our blog and not to miss any upcoming posts.

Monday, 2 April 2018

How to Develop your Reading at Elementary, Intermediate and Advanced Levels

Plus Growing your Vocabulary with Reading

Reading is one of the four core skills that you need to develop when learning a foreign language.

First of all, let’s define what reading is. This might seem like a silly question but reading separate words, phrases and even simple dialogues in your target language, is still not reading per se. What you need to get used to is reading texts. And understanding them of course! So, how do you develop reading at different levels?

A quick note before you jump to your level below: even if your level is not, for example, elementary, I recommend not to skip this information as a lot of stuff that is relevant for elementary level learners is very relevant for intermediate and even advanced learners, too.

Starting to read texts when you are at elementary level is not simple and is very different from reading short phrases and recognising separate words here and there. Reading texts is super important though, as you won’t get too far with your language without it: being able to read and understand texts will take you further from just being able to make an order in a restaurant, ask for directions or sing a happy birthday song to your foreign friend in their language.

Besides, unless your goal of learning your target language is just a little bit for travelling and amusing your friends, you might get bored with “Une table pour deux, s'il vous plaît” kind of phrases after a couple of months of studying such stuff. So, once you have built up your vocabulary and have about 400 words under your belt, you need to grab a book and make it serious.

When starting with reading though, forget about the books for native speakers: they are too difficult for you at this point. And it’s not only words that you won’t be able to understand. Even if you are ok with looking up most of the words in these texts seating comfortably in your favourite armchair, leisurely leafing through a folio of a dictionary and biting off your fruit cake, grammar structures will be way too difficult for you to understand the meaning of the sentences.

What you will need instead is graded readers. These are books specifically designed for language learners. Search for elementary or A1/A2 level books, choose the ones you like and voilà!

Well, actually, even with easy books, this “voilà” of reading will not happen at once. But don’t be discouraged! Taking it step by step or page by page (even paragraph by paragraph at the very start) is absolutely fine. Even with this snail pace of a half-dead frozen tortoise, you will feel elated that you can read and understand some coherent text in your target language! Just don’t be too harsh imposing on yourself a whole chapter or even a few chapters for reading in one go, don’t risk getting fed up with too difficult a task too quickly, keep your reading effort sustainable.

When choosing what to read, you are likely to be not too spoilt for choice, even if the language you are learning is English, German, French or some other widespread tongue. Very often children’s books pop up as an option. So, if you cannot find anything other than books for underaged adventure lovers, you will have to dig out your inner child in you and read on till you progress to the next language level where you will have a wider choice of literary masterpieces. You might actually find reading the books in your target language, that you once read in your native language as a child, really sweet.

If you choose children’s books though, you might want to keep in mind that all these sweet fairy tales and wise fables have a very specific vocabulary. So, unless you are a children's author who has the ambition to translate their books into a foreign language and need to know their dragons, magic wands and fairy dust in this language, you might want to choose very down to earth and contemporary children’s books that tell simple stories about kids going to supermarkets, cinemas and parks with their parents or teenagers getting up to some mischief, making friends and enemies and falling in love for the first time.

Gradually, as you progress to intermediate level, you will be able to understand texts in your target language better and quicker and you will have more books to choose from. Even if you are experiencing language learning plateau, i.e. do not feel that you are developing your reading as fast as you were at elementary level, you need to keep reading in your target language.

First, if you stop reading at this point, there is a risk that your reading skill will deteriorate and it won’t be easy for you to restart reading and build up momentum again. Second, even if you feel that your reading is not as challenging as it was at elementary level and that you are not learning as much, it is important to keep reading as it provides you with your target language input that you need in order to be able to speak and write in this language.

It doesn’t mean, however, that you cannot or shouldn’t step up your reading game. While reading a lot is probably more important than reading more challenging texts at intermediate level, it’s a good idea to introduce new types of texts so that your vocabulary could get more varied. For example, you could start reading a newspaper from time to time (better stick to just one newspaper or news website at first) or some easy history books if you like history and would like to read more and more of such books as you progress with your language.

Once you have built up your language skills to advanced level, you don’t have to search for advanced level books for reading: books written for native speakers should be ok for you to read. Though, of course, it depends on a particular book: even if you are an advanced learner of English, it doesn’t mean that you will be able to read Shakespeare in the original (not every native English speaker can!)

While with elementary level the advice for reading is “Just start!”, for intermediate level, it is “Keep going!”, for advanced level, the recommendation is “Don’t stop!”

So, if you find a particular article or book difficult, it doesn’t mean that you haven’t learnt much or that you will never master your target language. If you try reading an academic article from a scientific periodical in your native language, you might start having doubts that you can speak this language either. So, with reading at advanced level you shouldn’t think about the language too much and focus on the content instead.

Thus, you can switch some of your usual reading, that you do in your native language, to your target language. For example, if you don’t have much time to read for pleasure, your excuse for reading novels could be reading them in your target language. Or you could split the time you allocate to reading news between your native and target languages. A nice bonus of such double news coverage is two different perspectives of the same events.

Reading Immersion

Whatever language level you are at, elementary, intermediate or advanced, you need to enjoy your reading. So, the texts you choose for reading need to be interesting (at elementary level they should be at least not super boring) and not too difficult for you. Thus you will be able to have immersion experience with your reading which is, actually, the whole point of this activity. Immersing into the language when reading helps your brain to get used to processing large amounts of information in your target language.

Sometimes learners use books with parallel translation into their native language to ensure they do not miss any detail of the story when they read it in their target language. For immersion experience, however, reading parallel translation is not too helpful.

First, you have this sharp contrast of total clarity in your native language and “walking in a haze” feeling in your target language, which doesn’t contribute to your confidence as a language learner.

Even if you understand everything in your target language, when you reread the same part in your native language, it feels as if you have just walked out of a haze and, suddenly, what you have read is crystal clear. This happens because your brain is more used to your native language than to your foreign language, it doesn’t mean that your foreign language skills suck. The more you read in your foreign language, the clearer you understand and this feeling of walking in a haze will gradually go.

Second, you are not training yourself to tolerate certain ambiguity and uncertainty which is an inevitable part of reading in a foreign language. So, next time when you don’t have access to translation to your native language for a certain book, it will be quite difficult for you to put up with this ambiguity and uncertainty and enjoy reading this book.

Third, with parallel translation you break the flow of reading in your target language, the translation serves as an unnecessary distraction in this respect.

With this in mind, it is actually ok not to understand all the details if they slow you down and do not contribute much to the general understanding of a plot or a news story. Instead, you need to focus on the story itself and keep reading to find out who the killer was in the detective story you are reading, if Jane will marry the love of her life in the romantic novel you have picked out or why another Hollywood couple decided to get a divorce from an article in Daily Mail.

Having said that, slowing down a bit to look up unknown words, so that you could learn them later, is essential as reading is also a great means of growing your vocabulary.

Growing your Vocabulary with Reading

Looking up and learning unknown words will ensure that you spend your reading time more productively, that you grow your vocabulary.

This is especially important if you don’t have much time for learning your target language and don’t have too much exposure to it through either reading or listening, so you won’t come across the same unknown words often enough to finally work out their meaning through different contexts and remember them naturally. This is, by the way, how you learnt your native language through years of exposure to the language, through multiple repetitions of the same words in different contexts.

However, if you have been struggling with a text trying hard to understand it and not lose a will to live at the same time, the last thing you want is breaking your hard-earned reading flow by looking up words in a dictionary and then recording them for learning.

Luckily, there is technology to help you out. I am not talking about online dictionaries or Google translate. I am talking about a pop up window with translation or explanation of an unknown word you click in the text, that you are reading online, and automatic recording of the words you have looked up, so that you could review them later and choose the ones you want to learn.

So, you don’t have to navigate to a different tab with a dictionary, type in the word, track down the translation among the numerous ads and, five minutes later, return to the original tab with the text you are reading after getting lost in all the open tabs in your browser. What was I reading about again? Duh! Oh, and on top of it, there is copying and pasting of the word and its translation, so that you could save and learn the word later.

So, how do you keep your reading flow and get a pop-up window with translation or explanation (or both in one window if you need them both) plus have them saved automatically? You need to get a free dictionary plugin vocBlocks LookUp.

Once it’s installed, you will be able to Ctrl double-click any unknown word in your text and read its translation or explanation. The tool will save all the words that you have looked up together with their translation, transcription and audio pronunciation into a vocabulary block (vocBlock) and send you an email reminder so that you don’t forget to learn these words by doing various exercises.

Happy reading!

Want to develop all four core foreign language skills? Check out our other posts to learn how:

How to Develop your Listening at Elementary, Intermediate and Advanced Levels

How to Develop your Writing at Elementary, Intermediate and Advanced Levels

How to Develop your Speaking at Elementary, Intermediate and Advanced Levels (upcoming)

Enter your email address at the right to receive updates from our blog and not to miss any upcoming posts.