Language Learning, Article 10 - Listening and understanding: How not to get frustrated along the way. By David Bolton
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Listening and understanding: How not to get frustrated along the way

A few years ago, I had an English pupil who was a bit out of the ordinary. Most of my students are college-aged, or, if they are older, they are professional people who need English for their work. Luis, on the other hand, didn't necessarily have to learn English, he simply liked doing so. He was 46 years old, and an officer in the Spanish Army. Not surprisingly, he always learned in a disciplined manner, and preferred to progress as methodically as possible. He had been learning English on his own for only about two years, yet I was surprised at all he knew about both grammar and vocabulary, and at how well he could speak - but then, as you already know, discipline, patience and perseverance will always get you far!

    The reason he wanted to have classes with me is that whenever he watched an American or British film, he was frustrated since he couldn't understand everything. Of course, if you have never had much practice speaking, and have never lived in a country where your target language is spoken, comprehending everything you hear in a film is certainly not easy: the actors speak quickly, they don't always enunciate well, they employ colloquial expressions that a foreigner wouldn't know, and so on.

    I told him in the beginning that a couple of months of classes (only twice a week) wasn't going to enable him to understand everything in a film, but that he should continue to listen to as much English as possible between classes - films, radio, tapes, whatever.

    A few weeks later, his frustration seemed to have lessened as far as "total comprehension" was concerned. He explained to me that he had merely changed his attitude: instead of intensively trying to understand every single word he heard in a film (or on an audio tape), and thus never being content, he had decided to be happy if he simply understood something - maybe a complete sentence here, a few words there - without worrying about knowing everything that was said. After listening to a tape once, he'd then listen to it again the next day, and maybe a couple of more times during the week. He said that each time he listened to it, he picked up more of what was being said, until he could understand at least the gist of it.

    Indeed, sometimes we can make life a lot easier by not demanding too much of ourselves. True, our final goal is EXCELLENCE. Yet when learning a language, besides our "grand goal", we should have lots of little goals along the way: learning so-and-so many new words every day, systematically learning the elements of grammar, etc. And on that path, we should not confuse our final goal - excellence - with our daily goal - doing something, however small, in order to make definite progress.

    It would be an unrealistic goal for Luis to expect to understand everything he hears in a film. But it is a very realistic goal to expect to understand something. And if you approach this in a relaxed way, you will often be surprised at how much you can pick up.

    Take me, for example, in my many-year quest to learn French. I had about a year of it back in college, back in the 70's; after that, I returned to it a few times, yet never had the opportunity to live in France, or to have long conversations with French people. As a result, though I can get by with what I know, my spoken French is lousy. I sometimes listen to an audio book in French, or a TV show, to see what I can grasp. Whenever I really actively try to understand, I find that I get a bit tense, frustrated, and am sorely tempted to change to another channel. But when I simply relax and listen, I understand a lot more.

    The more you listen to your target language, the more you will pick up, especially if, at other moments of the day, you are learning your daily "quota" of new words, expressions, verb forms, etc. Allow yourself to be pleased with what you already know, instead of getting totally frustrated about how much you don't know. (You'll note that I say "pleased", not "satisfied", for if you are satisfied, you might not keep on learning!) When you get a chance to spend a few months in a country where your target language is spoken, you'll find that you will progress very rapidly... that is, assuming that you make it a point to associate with the "natives", and don't spend all your time hanging around with English speakers!

    That last point is of supreme importance. I can never understand why some people put out the money to go to a foreign land to learn the language, and yet spend the better part of every day with friends from their own country. Well, okay, I do understand... psychologically, it's a lot more comfortable being with people like you, who speak your language.

But when you make the leap and go to another country, ALWAYS REMEMBER that you are there to learn a foreign language, not simply to feel comfortable. A bit of initial discipline in this respect will reap you magnificent rewards: by speaking only your new language with native speakers, the progress you make week by week will be notable, and after about a month or so, even though you will still be having some difficulties, you will find it quite natural to converse in that language. At this point, you will be well on your way to being truly bilingual. And that's definitely worth the effort, isn't it?
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