Response to reader’s question “How long until I understand the language I am learning when spoken?”


''Note that in this diagram, sensory memory is...

Yet another diagram from the net about long-term memory that kind of misses the point and can even be dangerously misleading (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m grateful for this question. It surely affects most learners at some stage – especially when learning a language for the first time, or doing it on your own for the first time/taking it seriously for the first time, as opposed to school learning.

It’s not really a question of time but of the presence of certain ingredients in your brain. If you have done at some stage a Pimsleur or some audio course so that you know what the words and phrases you are goldlisting are supposed to sound like in a pretty standard version of the language you are learning, and you have goldlisted about 10,000 words or more and taken them through to the end of silver if not gold levels, then you can do the following activity with a much higher assurance of success.

You need to get hold of an audio book for a book you can read in that language, and where there is a translation in English. The best place for this is Audible, where the app allows you also graded speeds of listening to the same material – and you can start off with a slower speed and build up. Listen to the same piece of 10 minutes long with short, ten minute breaks about three times over. This is not a long-term memory exercise it is an ear exercise and so you are perfectly OK using short-term memory techniques for this, they are quite appropriate. This is not the point at which you learn the words, you should have learned most of them before. This is where you push your ear and get it to go “aha”.

Once you have done this, you are likely to find that some parts of the spoken text have become a tad clearer and some still baffle you. You then open the book and read the text, which you should not have done before this point.

Having read the text, if there are any words that you do not know, please mark them and find them in the English text, please also make sure that anything you get from the English text which you didn’t get from the original – work out if that’s the fault of your lack of nuancing or too much freedom on the part of the translator. Add any missing knowledge back into your headlist and put it through the Goldlist system in due course.

You then should read the text while listening to it at normal speed. You can do this a couple of times if you feel it needed.

You should be able to speak along with the recording now, while reading the text. If this is hard at first, use the pause button and precede each recorded sentence with your own attempt.

Then finally you can go back to just listening but use higher speeds, like 1,25 or 1,5* normal.

You then move on to the next chunk of text, rinse and repeat.

But every so often you go back and listen to what you heard before.

Not only will this improve listening comprehension, but also accent.

Nevertheless, it is not a way of learning to the long term memory, it’s an aural fitness routine. You therefore, like I said at the beginning, should only start to do this once you are really nearing your goldlist target.

It is a way of getting to speaking fluency as well around the “listening” route described in my articles here on my Four Function Diagram.

This activity will increase the time to fluency but you need to vary the voices you hear. In due course listening to DVDs in the language which have subtitles will be useful, and then gradually listening to news reports. Start with TV ones, and then move out to radio ones where you do not have the crutch of the image.

Many thanks again for the question.

About David J. James

52 year old accountant who loves languages, literature, history, religion, politics, internet, vlogging and blogging and lively written discussion. Conservative Christian, married to an angel, we have three kids, and live in Warsaw, Poland. I can help you with company set-up, bookkeeping, payroll, tax, audit and due diligence all over Poland and the region.

Posted on 05/10/2013, in Answers to your questions, Gold List Methodology, Languages and Linguistics and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. I learn spanish for 3 months.
    I can read, write but hearing….damn it.
    I think you just have to study like crazy – Rosetta Stone, Spanishpod 101 & Hugo Spanish Complete Guide

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    • Most folk in the Polyglot community don’t think too highly of Rosetta Stone. I’ve used Hugo in the past and I do quite like it. Spanishpod I don’t know. Have you thought of trying Paul Noble? This is very cheap on Audible by the way.

      Welcome to this site, by the way. I hope you’d like to read more of the articles.

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      • Paul Noble? I absolutely hate his method. I don’t see anyone speaking fluently through those techniques. Of Rosetta Stone I like because they offer no explanation any translation just pictures, a very one up. Of Hugo Complete Spanish Guide I like because the exercises and drills they have cannot be completed with 90% effort. Of Spanishpod 101, is th same as leaving the country. One up for the invite.

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        • Well it’s quite true that nobody will speak fluently after Paul Noble because just like I said these audio courses are for the first 5-10% of study. Anyone expecting to achieve fluency in 10% of the study time is like I was when I was a kid trying to get a suntan on one of the few days England had sunshine during its famously poor summers. Instead of lying in the sun for a few hours and seeing if I had a glow in the evening, like I would now, I would come back every ten to fifteen minutes and check my progress in the mirror – in vain, of course. That’s what the learner is like who is trying to activate only 10% of the lexical knowledge he needs for normal life.

          If you like the pictures to words approach then there are various picture multilingual dictionaries, you don’t even need expensive software. Nevertheless, we all have different tastes in materials and it is rarely the material itself which is the reason why people fail to learn from them, but the approach taken to memorizing them, namely, whether the approach we take is switching on the wrong kind of memory.

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    • Yeah, you’re in the same exact boat as me with the same language, though I’ve moved from where that’s useful. I did the whole Rosetta Stone for it too. It’s good at what it does but it’s not a cure all. People on the “street” certainly don’t talk that clearly. The best I can come up with is to record Spanish TV (not dub) and see if you can get some closed captioning on it, and watch it several times.

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      • I just realized how true that statement is “People on the “street” certainly don’t talk that clearly.”

        I tried watching family guy the other day with subtitles and those subtitles were on some ferrari style movement.

        You would probably laugh at what I’m doing now which is repeating the whole of Rosetta Stone with completing each unit and level with a score of %100 as well as the Spanishpod 101 & Hugo Spanish Complete Guide & watching Cartoons. This must work!

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