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Learning to Listen to a Foreign Language

written by: Eric W. Vogt • edited by: Rebecca Scudder • updated: 2/8/2012

Do you feel that native speakers of the language you are trying to learn speak too fast? This article will help you listen more quickly!

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    As a professor of Spanish, I always hear students complain: “I can’t understand Mexicans because they talk too fast." When I’m in a humorous mood, I reply: “You just listen too slowly."

    Of course, that is just the beginning of a bigger conversation. There are many strategies for improving your listening comprehension, depending on your level. This article offers a few hints – and points to some exciting resources.

    Besides some really terrific software programs you can buy that have voice recognition software, such as Rosetta Stone, foreign language learners today are surrounded by opportunities to hear the language they are studying. Nowadays, my time-worn observation about immersion is truer than ever: Immersion is more psychological than geographical. The resources available over the internet are incredible as well. Programs like Rosetta Stone, for instance, will guide you in all aspects of your study. With a few pointers, you also can learn to use other resources whose content is not necessarily designed for non-natives. The value in that is that it takes you beyond your comfort zone -- at your own pace and according to your own interests.

    Cable TV networks and pay-for-view channels offer round-the-clock opportunities to hear native speakers of the language you are studying using and interacting with each other in natural, culturally “pure" settings. One way to use them effectively is to pick a program or a segment of a program that matches your interests. It could be a cooking show, a soap opera, a talk show, the news, you name it! Record a portion of about 5-10 minutes.

    You now have captured a slice of real language and are ready to exploit all the learning potential it has. Listen to it for vocabulary, to improve pronunciation by listening to it as if it were music – you need only to imitate it without concern for meaning in order to begin making strides toward sounding more native! You can also use it to listen for grammar structures you recognize from previous lessons you may be studying or have studied, thus reviewing old material while trying to master new structures.

    You can use it as a series of dictation exercises – challenging activities, but they force you to isolate words and phrases. In one listening session, you might try to identify all the nouns you can, leaving verbs or other words for a different time. Doing a full transcription will take several sessions and it will begin and develop in bits and pieces, but it will force you to listen critically and learn from context in an oral setting just as one learns new vocabulary from the familiar words around it in a reading passage.

    On the internet, of course, there are links to chat channels, streaming TV and radio, music -- often accompanied by lyrics! Some cites are focused on one genre, such as one based in Argentina which focuses on the Tango, and is a work of art. No matter what resource you select, you are only limited by your imagination and the energy you have to exploit them.