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Ineffective Listening March 5, 2007

Posted by Edwin in Listening.

“You need at least 400 hours of ‘effective listening’.”

This was an advice given to me by an advanced French learner in regard to improving my listening. After pondering the meaning of ‘effective listening’ for a while, I found it more fascinating to think about ‘ineffective listening’.

I have been spending most of my time for my French study engaging in repeated listening exercises. According to my iTunes log, my most played French clip has been played 53 times. Imagine how much time can potentially be wasted if I am not doing it in an ‘effective’ way. Eliminating the ineffective elements thus becomes crucial in speeding up my learning progress.

I have identified 3 common mistakes contributing to ineffectiveness that we should avoid when engaging in listening exercises.

1) Repeatedly listening to materials that you don’t understand
When trying to make a sense out of a piece of material by repeatedly listening to it, I don’t think we can get anymore out of it after 3 or 4 times of listening without additional aids. What we understand remains understood, and what we don’t understand remains incomprehensible. Any additional listening attempt is considered to be ‘ineffective’.

Remember, after a few times of listening to the material, if you still want to understand more, you either need a direct translation or a transcript from which you can look up the meanings of the words. Otherwise, don’t waste your time.

2) Trying to get the meaning instead of the words
This is a subconscious mistake I often make. I often have the delusion of understanding a complete sentence even when I can get only 2 or 3 words out of it. What am I thinking? I have read the transcript! I have looked up the words. I already know the meaning! I should not try to understand the sentence again by repeatedly listening to it!

Remember, the whole objective of the repeated listening exercise is to identify each word you hear, not to understand the sentences. You already know what they mean.

3) Not referring to the transcript enough
Often depending on the environments in which we are doing the listening exercises, we might not have the transcript with us. We would keep listening to the material again and again, even realizing that we cannot get more words out of it. What we actually need is to do at this point is to refer back to the transcript. And we need to do this frequently.

We must allocate times to study the transcripts, and also times to simultaneously listen to the material and read the transcripts. I find this difficult myself, but there seems to be no shortcut.

Please feel free to share your thoughts on any ‘effective listening’ tips that you have.



1. Mike - March 5, 2007

1) Identify a subject of intense interest – i.e. sportbikes and/or this season’s coverage of AMA Superbike, MotoGP and World Superbike road racing activities.

2) Let’s say you can’t find foreign language podcasts dedicated to this subject; or, the audio content is rarely updated. Instead, subscribe to multiple RSS feeds of the interest – in your choice language – and convert article text content to MP3 files. Any TTS (text-to-speech) product can accomplish the conversion – i.e., see TextAloud at http://www.nextup.com/index.html. DISCLAIMER: The variety of languages are limited; and, yes, speech appears better-rendered with 16- or 22-Khz voices.

3) In listening to such files, context will eventually build itself. And, with an MP3 player, you have your own portable radio station of foreign language, subject-specific content. This way, you can still be a polyglot without sacrificing the maintenance of outside interests.

Thanks, edwinlaw, for creating your site. 🙂

2. 米蘭 - March 6, 2007

This was an excellent post! I can relate 100% to what you have said. I have done for nearly 1 year exactly what you have recommended and it works very well.

3. edwinlaw - March 6, 2007

Mike, thanks for your comment.

Although the technologies have been producing high quality voices in recent years, I still don’t feel very comfortable listening to synthesized voices.

I do listen to synthesized voices occasionally, such as AgoraVox which reads new articles in French.

4. edwinlaw - March 6, 2007

I have been making these mistakes myself from time to time. So, I speak from my own experience. I hope others won’t make the same mistakes.

5. Portable MP3 Players « Tower of Confusion - March 16, 2007

[…] Lyric display As described in my previous post, I believe listening with transcripts is a very effective way to improve my listening. Many […]

6. Donal Elsted - June 14, 2008

I can understand what you’re talking about. Repeating a text again and again doesn’t help to understand when the words are not clear. However, I think there are other reasons for not repeating the listening material to death. It’s just plain boring.

I live in Germany and came here not knowing a word. I never had German lessons and watched TV and listened to radio with a dictionary in the hand. After six months (at the latest) I put the dictionary aside and just listened. You can’t stop and rewind TV and radio and if you don’t understand, well tough luck. However, what I understood increased quickly and a word I could make out in one situation but didn’t know what it meant suddenly became clearer in another context. Then, when I heard the same word again in another context it went PING and the word was learnt.

My tips:

1. See listening as much about tuning the ear as understanding. Get used to the sound of the language, of dfferent accents, the speed, the ellision, the intonation, the mannerisms, the filler words, etc.

2. Get a language audio course you understand and use the transcripts to get the words into you. I like memorising the phrases, trying to match the intonation and speed of the original speakers. I understand others don’t like this. My course is also a reference for me. I return to it periodically and am amazed how time helps it stick.

3. Listen to native language speakers via the internet but choose what you’re interested in. I am now learning Italian and listen to a radio show which I mostly don’t understand but just keep listening to new podcasts. Not all of the subjects are interesting to me and I understand more when the subject is known to me. I am not interested in audio books and stories. I’m an unapologetic news junkie. listen to the podcast a few times then move on.

4. Listen actively and passively. Have it on in the background while you’re doing something else. I have them on while in the gym or walking the dog, or cycling, or cleaning (where would we be without the iPod). Then occasionally dip in to it to concentrate a while. 90% passive to 10% active is okay.

5. Do not assume good listening skill equals good speaking skills. it doesn’t. Only speaking improves your speaking skills but the listening and reading provides the input (no input, no output). My german is “perfect” but my speaking is not on the same level of fluency. I totted together how much practice of speaking I have compared to listening. In our modern world, it’s amazing how little we need to speak on a daily basis. But reading and listening you can’t survive without.

Hope my tips are useful.

7. Edwin - June 14, 2008

Hi Donal,
It gives me a funny feeling when I reread this post which I wrote more than a year ago.

I generally agree with your tips, with a minor exception that I would refuse to listening to anything which is in most part meaningless to me for a prolonged period of time.

I find listening to meaningful materials important. I would only listen to materials that I understand a lot of it (say at least about 70%). If I don’t, I would try my best to find out the meaning before continuing. If not, I skip it as I find it wasting my time.

My French listening is now up to the level that I would say I can listen to anything in a familiar topic that is spoken at moderate speed and understand at least 70% of it. But as for my Spanish, my materials are limited, and I would still need to work with transcripts.

8. Donal Elsted - July 11, 2008

Hello Edwin,

I can understand that you don’t like listening to audio you don’t understand but I would warn against advising other people to only listen to material they understand and then placing the 70% figure on it. There are people who are quite happy to listen to audio when they don’t understand because the aim is to focus on the melody, the speed and so on. I think the most important thing is what the individual feels comfortable with and for you it is when you can understand 70%. I know a guy whose aim is only 30%. Me, I’m listening to my Italian and can only understand individual words – but it’s just so nice to hear it that I have no problem with it. And, because it’s free, I select the subjects I’m interested in. In the back of my mind is the feeling that I may not understand it now but I will understand it if I keep at it, and this helps me to overcome any negative feelings associated with not understanding at the moment.

A chinese friend wanted to do a high level test in English even though she had hardly spoken English and never listened to it – just learned it in China through texts and grammar exercises. She listened to English radio and watched English TV on the internet solidly for two months (she was living in Germany at the time), day in, day out, including having the radio on in the background when she was cooking, and letting it run when she was in bed. After one month of not understanding, she suddenly realised she could understand everything and could easily follow stories. She passed the test. What helped is that she already understood the grammar and had a high vocabulary, just couldn’t understand native speakers because she’d had no exposure – no surprise there. Her “extreme lsitening” story is proof that anything is possible. Everybody must find the best way for themselves. Ciao!

9. Edwin - July 16, 2008

It is pointless to disproof experience from other people. One counter-example I would like to provide is the fact that a lot of people living in a foreign country, while being surrounded by the language all the time, but they don’t pick up the language. I believe the main reason is that all these sounds are unintelligible to them. There is no way they can learn the language without understand what it is being said.

10. Donal - July 20, 2008

Hello Edwin,

I agree entirely with your comment that you can’t learn a language without understanding what is being said. There is absolutely no doubt there. What is at issue is your belief that it is impossible to understand words you hear that you didn’t come across in a written form before, for example in a transcript. I understand that this is how you work and I know that everyone is different in how they work with audio. I can however only repeat what I inferred before – it is possible to understand and learn new words through listening – and I know because I did it like that.

I live in Germany and learned German through reading and listening. Through sheer laziness, I gave up on the dictionary after six months and what I didn’t understand at first I didn’t bother to look up. Soon, I found that words suddenly became clear to me because I remembered them from another context where I had an idea what they could have meant but wasn’t so sure. In other cases – typical of German – word combinations became clear due to the context (I knew both words individually and the context gave me the meaning of the two words together). By the way, I have never had a German lesson!

I lived before in Portugal and hadn’t learned Portiguese before I arrived. I remember being on the bus to work and only hearing Portuguese like a “swishing” sound and couldn’t make out any words. But over the weeks, words just came out of nowhere and soon I could fill in the gaps and infer the meaning of words by the context.

By the way, there are other reasons why people who live in countries often don’t learn the language. For all intents and purposes, they may physically be in the country but mentally they are not. Often, these people live in closed communities of people from their former country and have no contact with the local language or people, only read their own newspapers (in some cases they can’t read, which only makes the problem worse), watch their own TV over satellite and just wish they were back in their home country. I have a lot of US colleagues who see no point in learning the language except for the basics (such as 2 beers, please). In the back of their mind is the attitude that they are not going to stay, so what’s the point.

Happy learning of the languages.

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