As I mentioned in a recent post about comprehension skills, in order to develop my own comprehension level, I have started listening to Italian radio – Radio 1 – which has some music, but a lot of phone-ins about topical social and economic issues affecting Italy. It’s early days yet, but while I have no real problems understanding the presenter, I cannot always follow what the callers are saying. I think my comprehension difficulties are down to the speed with which certain, not all people, speak. It appears that I cannot distinguish between individual words and the detailed meaning becomes blurred, although I can grasp the sense of what is being said. I also find that I need to concentrate more to follow what is being said – which is probably a good thing as it should have a positive effect on my ability to understand and interact with Italian speakers.
There seems to be something of a paradox here. When you start learning a language you are not encouraged to listen for exact details, but to try to grasp the sense or gist of a conversation. However, once you are able to understand quite well, if you are a self-taught speaker like myself, you seem to lack the ability to hear all the words and, while you can often grasp the sense, you cannot always understand more precise details. There are other factors too – trained speakers are easier to understand than non-trained speakers (probably due to the fact that they pronounce words clearly), such as members of the public. Certain accents, surprise, surprise, cause comprehension problems too. Advanced level language courses teach learners how to develop comprehension or listening skills and often include activities designed to raise the ability of a learner to understand as much detail as possible.
To an extent it is possible to develop your listening skills on your own, especially if you reside in the country in which the target language is spoken. This can be done by honestly asking yourself what you have understood. You can try paraphrasing the spoken discourse heard in the language you are learning in your mind – talking to yourself – but in your head, not out-loud, unless you are comfortable with this. Radio has to be the most effective tool, in that you are forced to listen and you do not have images which can provide you with points of reference. You can listen in two ways: Let the radio play in the background while you are doing something else, working, for example and see how much you are able to pick up from this ‘passive’ listening, and, stop what you are doing and try to concentrate on what is being said and see just how well you can follow the details of the conversation.
The passive listening will help to familiarise your dear old grey matter with the ‘sound’ of the language, whereas the active listening should help to activate your passive skills and lead to an increase in your ability to understand the spoken word. My own knowledge of Italian vocabulary is quite high, so listening regularly should help me to recognise the same words when they are used by different speakers. In turn I should find that my ability to understand and interact with a wider range of speaks becomes higher. That’s the theory. I’ll let you know how I get on. Oh, and sorry about this long-winded post, but I do find that writing things down helps me to focus my thoughts better and also understand whether what I am thinking about is plausible.