The stubborn ear of the first-time linguist.

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This is an answer to the question received from Grzegorz Siwiec which I’ve answered also where he put it in the Goldlist section, and also I wanted to make an article of it in its own right as it’s a great question. I’ve added a bit more here than in the answer to his question, so hopefully you’ll read it here as well. The additional bit is at the end.

You basically said that when you read English you understand a lot, but when you hear even the same text spoken, you understand a lot less. You asked whether the Goldlist method would help with listening.

OK, so here’s the answer.

Firstly, reading and listening are two sides of the same discipline. They are both the passive sides of linguistic activity. Linguistic activity, like mathematical activity, has four main functions. In maths we have addition, multiplication, subtraction and division. And just as division is like the opposite or passive side of multiplication, so hearing is the passive side of speaking. And just as subtraction is the passive side of addition, so reading is the passive side of writing. And just as it is easier to do big subration sums than it is to do long division without a calculator, so it is that the beginner until fluency is gained will find the passive activity of reading to be easier than the passive activity of hearing.

In reading, we provide in our heads our own “voice” for the words and we “listen” to that. But it is a voice that we have made and therefore it will contain the mispronunciations that we have picked up. We may hear the same word back read by a native speaker and it may sound different because the pronunciation is not what we expected. The Goldlist can help here if you note with words in the goldlist any unexpected pronunciation to an English word if you’re learning English or other not precisely phonetic language.

In the main the reason why we do not understand a spoken text as well is that the tempo it is presented in will be someone else’s tempo. When we read we adjust the speed of the internal voice to match what we are comfortable with. We pause when we need to think about a word, whereas in a spoken text the voice carries on while we still need to chew on an earlier word, and we get lost. We can also see an unfamiliar word and analyse it for etymological clues, and do things that we don’t have time for when listening to a text. If we do get lost we can repeat it.

So don’t expect following a spoken text to be equally easy as following a written one. Not unless you are learning Japanese, that is. And even there, the speech of some speakers, especially male speakers, is quite hard to follow. Bear in mind also that some languages swallow half the letters, for instance French and Danish, and many accents of English. Accents in themselves cause listening comprehension to be much tougher than reading comprehension, especially in languages like German or English which contain strong dialects. In Polish even the Zakopane accent is not so hard to follow – I heard some on the radio this morning as a local was commenting record visitors to the place last long weekend. Kashubian is the biggest challenge maybe, or a thick Silesian, but Kashubian counts as another language and even Silesian is not as far from Polish as some of the dialects around England are from one another. People speaking southern England dialect can follow standard Australian or American with much greater facility than they can follow broad Geordie or Scouser once they get going. Please make sure you are following people who are speaking a form of English that is fairly standard. Many Poles went to Ireland and pride themselves on getting an Irish brogue, but the downside is that they aren’t all that understandable to other native speakers. Irish is a lovely accent when it’s authentic, but it’s not one the foreigner should be aiming to copy for international use if they can help it. I’m not talking Terry Wogan here, I’m talking a strong Irish accent.

So, what tools can one use to improve listening comprehension? In the good old days, in schools we used to be given dictees in French – less so in German as it was more self evident how things were written as long as a person wasn’t speaking to us in Schwaebisch. I understand that ‘dyktando’ was also used in Polish schools. You can actually give yourself a dictation by taking an audiobook and sampling a paragraph at random on the mp3, writing it out from listening to the actor read and then checking it back to the book.

You don’t even need to write it, you can simply listen to an audiobook paragraph by paragraph, then read the original to see if you understood everything, and then mark the words you still don’t know, and then use the translation to get those words, which by the way should be added to the Goldlist headlist. This linguistic Triathlon is a great way to develop both the passive skills.

The best way to go about it is to see if you can get three things for the same novel or short story: first the audiobook read by a good actor on mp3 on or other sources. There’s no shortage of material out there on the net and not all of it is paid, if you get my drift. second you need the English original and finally you need a Polish translation. It probably helps if at least one of the two written ones is in printed form – a print-out if not a book bought or borrowed from the library. By using this method you’ll gradually come to see that you need the Polish translation less and less and you need to read the material in addition to just hearing it less and less. Also you’ll familiarise yourself with some of the jewels of English literature. Take twentieth century literature in order to have a more modern standard – we tend not to talk these days in the way people did in Dickens or Jane Austen, but in due course if you like the process you’ll be able to graduate to them.

If you cannot get into novels and literature, you could choose films. Films with a lot of talking in are preferable. Green Mile, Good Will Hunting, Dead Poets Society, Fight Club – these are all better than pure action movies like James Bond which will take your time up with car chases and sexy women which could more profitably be spent on language learning. The thing to do here is to get DVDs – preferably hiring them, and play about with the soundtracks and titles. Basically when the DVD was born the language lab died.

Here are the additional bits I wanted to say:

The problem which you are encountering is particularly noticeable when learning your first foreign language. Sometimes the ear is slow in reacting to the different sounds of a language, especially when being in a country for the first time and hearing native speakers when all one has had has been other more adavcned foreign learners as speakers. This training the ear to accept strange sounds is different to activation, and can take a couple of months of being in a country. Once one has “broken” this stubborn ear then for subsequent languages the problem doesn’t tend to happen.

The other thing is that as long as you have a small vocabulary, of only a few thousand words, then you will come up against unfamiliar words more often and they will put the ear off track all the more often. A vocabulary of 15,000 words or more means that you are really familiar with 99.9% of what you hear so interruptions to the flow are that much rarer and one’s ability to follow for longer periods that much easier. Therefore working on the Goldlist to gain really large vocabularies will also help the ear to become attuned.

4 thoughts on “The stubborn ear of the first-time linguist.

  1. Hello Viktor, just subscribed to your interesting blog.

    Very slightly off topic I know, but I was wondering what your opinions are on speed reading & the sensational claims made by certain people regarding the ability to photo read & absorb whole books rapidly? I’ve always found that my eye can’t take in more than a few words at one time & any effort to absorb one line at a time by scanning down the page in the centre seems just too hard, never mind the idea of taking in one whole page at a time.

    I’ve pasted a link to a photo reading video on You Tube below.


    1. Russ, I would like to thank you for subbing and welcome you warmly to this blog. I hope I can continue to hold your attention in coming months and years.

      The topic you have broached today is not even off-topic, indeed I’d say that it addresses one of the central themes of the Goldlist method and a lot of the things I’ve been saying and what I’ve discovered.

      The fact is, we know the limits of the conscious mind, but we still haven’t mapped the limits of the unconscious mind.

      The techniques laid out in this video involve the going though a certain process in a relaxed way, not even trying to understand or remember the book, but to focus consciousness instead on a non-related aspect, but allow the content to pass by the unconscious mind.

      At first they make a preview, so that the brain is aware of the structure and the key themes of the book. Essential to that is also purpose, what we want from the book. This focuses attention at first consciously and then unconsciously on certain aspects or content-topics of the book.

      Then the photo reading is done, and at a relaxed pace the book is ‘photo’d by the subconscious mind. They suggest sleep after doing so. I would suggest in addition working in the most at 20 minute blocks. Like them, I would not especially try to read it, but you do have to see it. I’m not sure what that “focussing through the crease” is about.

      Following this, they suggest activation. I personally would leave it two weeks and then do another photo read. I would do another two week gap and then start to read the book in the usual way. I would expect a much greater facility with learning the content after this harmless and not time consuming procedure, and it is absolutely in line with my opinions on the unconscious, which in turn underpin a language-learning method which seems by the response to have help thousands of people.

  2. Thanks very much for your reply Viktor, it’s beginning to make a little more sense to me now. I’ve always been interested in the idea of accelerated learning & utilizing the ability of the subconscious/unconscious, but until now I wasn’t really sure if it ever really worked for anyone or not. Seeing your Goldlist method has renewed my interest in finding better, more natural ways of learning again & I intend to try it for myself very shortly. I’m in several minds as to what subjects or language to focus on first…but I’ll get around to it.

    I only came across your blog from seeing your comments on Tommy Boyd’s own blog page, plus afterwards hearing you phone in as a guest on his radio show on your You Tube videos…all good stuff! I posted a link to the ‘Conspiracy by Default’ speech on his blog because it was so good….although perhaps just behind his Ayn Rand themed soliloquy.

    Cheers Viktor.

  3. “People speaking southern England dialect can follow standard Australian or American with much greater facility than they can follow broad Geordie or Scouser once they get going.”

    How right you are. I’m from Lancashire and many moons ago I was staying at a hotel while working away from home. There were three Geordies staying in the same hotel and I couldn’t understand a word when they were in full swing.

    Later in life, I was courting a girl from Liverpool, about 30 miles from my home, and one night I went out with her brother and some of this friends. Same thing, couldn’t understand a word they said. Saying that they could always understand me.

Your thoughts welcome, by all mean reply also to other community members!