Years of classroom study of a foreign language may have gotten us to the point where we are able to puzzle out the correct answers to exam questions, hold our own in a face-to-face conversation with a native speaker, and even read a novel.
Still our straight “A” record in the classroom, and years of mastering grammar probably has left us scratching our heads after watching a film or listening in at political rally in a country where our second language is spoken.
This is so because formal language education rarely provides sufficient exposure to idiomatic expression and informal speech patterns. To understand fully how different ordinary speech patterns can be from the written word or from scripted speech, one need only listen to a radio sports talk show. The hosts will use one-word sentences, interrupt each other and themselves, and generally speak in a way that few novices in the study of the English language would have any hope of understanding. Few of us are articulate enough to express anything but a simple thought without constantly changing gears, starting over and rephrasing midway through a thought, using run-on sentences, and trailing off when it seems that a point has been made.
To claim true fluency, one must be able to understand all types of speech, not just flawless speech or speech directed specifically to you as a listener with marginal comprehension. When we speak to others for whom English is obviously a second language we naturally chose our words carefully and express ourselves in the way most likely to be understood. Our foreign counterparts do the same, so we may walk away from a successful one-on-one exchange with a feeling of false confidence.
In sharp contrast to the way we learn our native tongue, reading and writing skills in a foreign language are generally mastered far ahead of listening comprehension skills for a number of very good reasons. The most important reason for this is that when we read or write, we do so at our own pace. We may stop at difficult passages as long as necessary to understand them, whether that is to be accomplished by reference to a dictionary or verb book or through a simple search of our memories.
However, unless we have been fortunate enough to live in a country where our second, third, or fourth language is spoken, it can seem next to impossible to achieve the level of fluency that would allow us to understand a disc jockey, pick up the nuances of a film, join an authentic roundtable discussion, or understand the lyrics of a popular song,
These are skills we must acquire as we acquired our native language as children — by listening a great deal and piecing things together through context. Here are five easy ways to fit first-rate listening practice into our day without taking time away from our ordinary activities.
Use The Foreign Subtitle Options on Your DVD When Watching Films in English
When watching a rented movie at home, check the language options on the DVD menu. Often, you will be able to select subtitles in your second language. This is a great tool, because good subtitles are rarely direct translations of the script. Instead, a skilled subtitle writer will rephrase the dialogue to match the way in which the same idea would be expressed in the language of the subtitles. Because of this, foreign subtitles on an American or British film can be a better learning tool than English subtitles on a foreign film. So while you’re relaxing and watching the latest hot release, you can also painlessly pick up lots of idiomatic expressions and common methods of phrasing that you probably didn’t learn in the classroom.
Make Sound Recordings of Your Favorite Foreign Films
If you are not yet truly fluent in a foreign language, you will probably need subtitles in order to enjoy films in that language. While those subtitles provide useful reading practice, they are less helpful when it comes to honing your listening skills. In fact, they are actually something of a distraction.
On the other hand, once you have watched a favorite foreign film once or more so that you are familiar with the plot and the visuals that go along with it, your memory of those visuals will usually provide enough support when you later listen to the sound recording in your car, to allow you to hear words and phrases that otherwise would have been lost.
Aha, so that’s what they were saying!
Stream Audio From Foreign Radio Stations While You Work on Other Things
There are now so many options available for streaming foreign broadcasts that we all have the opportunity to set a foreign language as our background noise of choice while we are online. Rather than listening to instrumental music, or popular songs from your own culture, filling the environment with constant prattle in a foreign language will allow an increasing level of comfort with the sounds and meter of that language and will increase your familiarity and level of comfort with the language in a way that conscious study cannot. You will be able to focus in and out as the demands of your primary activity allows, but whether or not you give the broadcast your undivided attention, you will be building skills.
Memorize Song Lyrics to master a foreign language
The lyrics to popular songs from all cultures and in all languages are widely available on line. In order to find them, you need only learn a few simple search phrases in the language you are learning. Then comb your music collection for songs you enjoy in another language and listen to them again with lyrics in hand. Soon you will not need to refer to the lyrics as you sing along. Moreover, you will own every single word, phrase, contraction, and expression in the lyrics you have learned.
Get Your News From Another Country
News broadcasts from foreign countries are widely available both on cable television and online. News programming is usually formatted in a predictable way with an introduction to the story followed by reporting from site of the news-making event often coupled with footage of the event itself.
Not only will watching news broadcast from another country improve your language and listening skills, it will give you a new perspective on the way in which global events are viewed outside of your own country and culture.
Just as we never stop learning and improving our language skills in our native tongue, learning a foreign language is an ongoing process that never ceases to be rewarding, especially if we have some fun in the process.