Even though I started learning Italian in 2016, I did mainly reading for over two years, so my reading level got ahead of my listening level. In December 2018, I started listening to Italian audios for about 30-60 minutes a day. I soon discovered that listening requires very different skills than reading, and that I needed to start at the bottom.
Here are the strategies I have been using for listening so far…
(1.) Use listening materials that have a transcript.
Having a transcript really helps me to know that I am understanding the audio correctly. I usually read the transcript before listening for the first time, but sometimes I like to listen to the audio first, just to get an idea of how much I already understand.
The first time I listen to a new audio, I will follow along in the transcript. After that, I listen with my eyes closed, and afterwards I look at the transcript to see how well I understood it.
(2.) Use listening materials at a slower speed.
I have analyzed some Italian audios (authentic materials), and on the average they speak at about 150-160 words per minute. LingQ is one of the best sources of audios for Beginners, because they have some super-slow audios that are 60-80 words per minute. I needed to start with those super-slow audios, and even they were a bit challenging at first! It is easy to calculate the speed of the LingQ audios, as they provide the total number of words and the audio time. I am now able to listen to audios at 100 words per minute, and even short (20-30 seconds) audios at 120 words per minute.
While I prefer using MP3 audios for my regular listening practice, there are a lot of interesting Italian videos on YouTube, Facebook, etc that I occasionally watch for fun. I installed the Video Speed Controller add-on to my web browser, which allows me to change the speed in 0.1x increments. At this point, I watch at 0.80 speed, which is around 120-130 words per minute (my current upper limit). I find it helpful to start out at normal speed, and then slow it down. When I slow it down, I am surprised at how much more I understand, and at how many of the words I am familiar with. If I slow it down to below 0.75, the sound quality is too poor.
(3.) Listen to short audios.
I started out listening to audios that were about 1 minute in length. If it was much longer than that, I would have trouble following it after a while. Now I am able to listen to audios that are up to 3 minutes long.
If an audio is too long, then I use the Audacity editor to break it down into smaller pieces.
(4.) Listen to audios in short sessions, about 10 minutes at a time.
I use the following guidelines from Italiano Semplicemente, which is based on Stephen Krashen’s input hypothesis.
Listen to the same audio 30 times.
Listen in 10 minute sessions.
Listen several times a day for 30-90 minutes per day.
Listen to an audio daily for a week, if necessary two weeks.
During my 10-minute listening sessions, I usually listen to one audio for 5 minutes, and then a second audio for another 5 minutes. When I was listening to 1-minute audios, I would listen to an audio for five times in a row, then switch to another audio. Now that I am using 3-minute audios, I listen to an audio 2-3 times, and then switch to another audio.
I have up to eight different audios that I am currently listening to on a regular basis. I listen to the most challenging audio first, when my mind is fresh.
(5.) Listen with my full attention, but stay relaxed.
The ideal is to be in a state of relaxed concentration. Listening requires the highest level of concentration I can muster. While I have practiced meditation over the years, I never attained the level of concentration I now have while listening to Italian audios!
My listening practice is like a form of mindfulness or meditation, training my brain / mind to understand the Italian language. When I use the terms “mindfulness” or “meditation”, I mean the following:
For “mindfulness”, even though I am concentrating on listening to the audio, there is a part of me that is observing the process and noticing things. After a listening session, I can reflect on my listening experience.
For “meditation”, I am referring to listening to an audio with 100% concentration.
I think that as my listening level increases, I will eventually be able to listen to easier audios in the background.
(6.) Listening comprehension comes in layers.
When I first started listening, I realized that it was too hard to get it all at once, I needed to focus on one layer at a time. So, my first listening goal is to be able to understand what they are saying – not understanding the meaning yet, just understanding what words they are saying. This goal is a lot more attainable than understanding the meaning.
After listening to a new audio a few times, I notice which parts of the audio I am able to understand, and which parts I am having trouble with. Then, when I listen to the audio again, I can anticipate where the hard parts are, and laser focus on those parts. When I laser focus, it is sort of like zooming in on that part of the audio. I have noticed that when I laser focus on one part of the audio, then I often hold onto that part of the audio for too long, and so I miss what follows that part for a while. However, once I have laser-focused on a part and understood that part, then it requires less focus to understand it when I listen to it again later.
Eventually, I get to the point where I can listen and understand to the whole audio with a relaxed concentration (without needing to focus hard). It seems as if the audio is slower, with more space between the words. Once I get to this point, I usually listen to an audio for a few more sessions, just to have the experience of listening and understanding with relaxed concentration. Also, the extra listening leads to what is called Overlearning.
When I am listening, all I try to do is listen, I do not try to translate or figure it out. It is like my conscious mind is listening to the words, while my subconscious mind is making meaning out of it.