Listening is the way

Good days. I was wondering. when listening to something in your target language. at what stage is it that it goes from just “words that you know you’ve heard before but can’t process fast enough to make any real sense of” to “being able to recognize what you hear fairly easily”. With my Danish for example I’ve started trying to immerse my self more in it by doing a lot of listening everyday. This isn’t necessarily listening to which I understand 80% of, because I usually don’t. It’s a tad annoying sometimes if I actually try and tune in and work out what is being said. I hear a lot of words I recognise, I hear a lot of words I know I have heard before but it all still just sounds like words next to each other, some of which I’ve heard before and some of which I haven’t. Another concern is that a lot of these words I then look up on my linqs at they are at status 4. so apparently I “know” them but can’t recognize them when the word pops up when listening to the radio.

I’ve also been doing this with Spanish all though I seem to find that spanish words that I know jump out at me a lot more easily. Possibly because they sound more distinct. You thoughts would be very interesting as always.

Hi Corin,

I think that understanding spoken language depends on a few factors. For example:

Is the language that you are listening to in a familiar context? For example, I am a science teacher, so listening to science podcasts is comparatively easy for me, whereas a podcast about how to service a photocopier would be much more challenging.

Is the speaker speaking clearly and at a ‘reasonable’ speed? I cannot understand very fast speech easily in my mother tongue, especially if the dialect or accent is unfamiliar.

I agree with you that some languages are less distinct than others. My son (Australian) and his wife (German) live in Denmark. They tell me that they found it difficult to hear the consonants clearly in Danish at first.

Whatever the reason, comprehension will improve with time. I think that you always need to understand enough of the speech to be able to make some sense of it, if you want to use that spoken text as a learning tool. It does not hurt to listen with printed text as well at first. This will help you to pick out the sounds of the words much more easily. Later on, the written/printed text will not be so important.
Repeating again the next day or after a few days helps also, or so I have found.

By the way, how are you getting materials for learning Danish? I have not tried yet, but would like to make some effort to get to know the language. Who knows, I might have Danish-speaking grandchildren one day!

A question I have asked myself quite often…

Other than just be patient and it will gel, the only other advice is 1) re-read what you are listening to when you have time 2) Maybe listen to shorter passages within longer ones repeatedly 3) Maybe shadow as you listen, (mouth along to the words) even if only mentally.

However, the overall impression I get is that when you listen to new, hard material, expect to “naturally” take in only scraps here and there. Try to enjoy it on that basis.

I suspect even when we are listening in our native language, we only take in scraps, but we are so familiar with the overall patterns of interaction that the brain fills in the gaps and tells the ear that it has actually heard everything,

For God’s sake, get your priority straight – your Cantonese grand children come first!!!

I usually go on to and just turn on the radio and see what I can understand. as well as I honestly think it’s a very hard language to make sense of due to it’s sound and the speed of which it is spoken at.
That’s a very interesting point dooo and I suspect you’re probably right. It would be hard to analyse every word in our native language if we tried to think about what every word meant after we heard it, but we’re so used to it it just clicks. and rae, I agree that listening to stuff yo’re familiar with will always be more easily understood, but as the world of Danish language learning resources is not great the phrase “beggars can’t be choosers” comes to mind :stuck_out_tongue: it’s also rather hard to find danish audio that is spoken slowly as they all speak at a crazy rate! It can just be hugely frustrating as I’ve been learning Danish now for nearly a year and when I hear words that I know I know but can’t make sense of them it makes me rather angry with myself and frustrated. relating back to what I said it is even harder to find Danish that has a transcript to go along with it. The fact that I have to use “Norwegian” for my Danish on lingq shows that it’s fairly scarce out there! but it’s works just as well.

You might try movies and TV to give you more context. And watching with L2 subtitles can also be very useful. And of course, conversation helps a lot.


Probably at high upper intermediate (B2), although it needs to be carefully spoken English on a subject you are pretty familiar with.

The Danes mumble terribly. You may find yourself distinguishing phrases rather than individual words.

I’d recommend lots of TV with Danish subtitles. My husband’s making me watch Borgen (with English subtitles) and it’s pretty good!

Here is a very good blog on this subj. (look for “The stubborn ear of the first-time linguist”). Note his mention that Danish, French, and some dialects of English “swallow half the letters”! Does that sound familiar?

His suggestion to do dictées is a very good one, which is discussed beginning with the paragraph, “So what tools can be used to improve listening comprehension?” Taking dictation from audiobooks has helped me more than anything else with listening, as far as I can tell. 1) Listen to a short passage (at first just a phrase, probably); 2) write it down; 3) correct your copy against a copy of the text; 4) re-listen to the passage; 5) say the passage aloud yourself; 6) repeat w/ the next bit of text. At first, especially, one must repeat steps 1) and 2) several times before getting to 3).

News broadcasts are usually too fast at first. Try to find an audiobook read by a nice, clear, slow reader to start with. Make sure you have the written text to check your work.

As I said, this has helped immensely. Nevertheless, for me there is still a long way to go. Even after months of trying it is fairly easy to be “derailed” by an unknown word, for instance. The blog linked to above describes this well.

@ Ernie

I don’t doubt this helps you. But what I’d like to know is the following. What you’re proposing takes time. If you use the same amount of time to do nothing but listen at normal speeds and read, would your method work better, and if so, by roughly what percentage?

Dictation is very powerful for developing listening and writing skills. Not for the beginning stages though. I think it’s best for the C1+ level, where you can actually find passages where you actually know all the words. At this point it’s a great exercise in developing deeper recognition. For languages with less phonetic scripts, it’s a real test and forces the brain to pay more attention to context and remember spellings.

It’s an excellent memory builder, in which you start off with fragments of the sentences and later moving up to full sentences. (If possible more!)

Wulfgar, everything takes time.

When I took Listening Comprehension at college, we did lots and lots of dictées. I really helped improve my listening skills.

More recently with French, I just listened to audiobooks as frequently as I could. In a few days my comprehension level skyrocketed. However, if you do this too early in your studies, it serves a different purpose, as you’ll only be getting accustomed to the sounds of the language, but not looking for full comprehension, since there will be so much vocab you don’t know yet. After you have a stronger foundation, you’ll use the written text to check the words you didn’t catch.

Some interesting thoughts here guys.

@Ernie Yes that certainly sounds familiar! An interesting method indeed. It’s rather hard to find danish audio with text on the web but there are a few web-sites I’m sure.

@Lmyirtseshem Yeah I imagine it can very helpful when you know enough of the words to understand it a lot more. I just thought since listening is promoted as one of the best things to do, it would get you used to the language and help the words you do know to jump out at you even if you don’t understand the rest of the passage. you’re right though it certainly does force one to pay more attention.

@skyblueteapot yeah I guess that helps. I certainly enjoyed the killing! and all my “friends” dvd’s have danish subtitles on them too. which might not help with listening but i guess it could do for reading.

Wulfgar, I can’t answer that. The original question posited that you were at least able to hear “words that you know you’ve heard before but can’t process fast enough to make any real sense of,” which is not the earliest stage of language study.

Imyirtseshem is right: dictation of this sort is not for beginners, as you must know a good deal about the language–how it sounds, and its grammar–before you try this. Very simple dictation can be useful at the beginning, but it is not the way to learn a language from null.

Dictée is useful in getting you to force your ears to perceive sounds and relate them to what you know of the language you are studying. If you’ve listened and written a phrase correctly, you know you’ve heard it correctly.

And with languages such as Russian where so many words carry at least two meanings–the dictionary meaning of the word, and the meaning carried by its inflection (word ending), it is quite possible to get the gist of a passage but not catch the word endings, and eventually you find yourself at a dead end. You are still arranging words like building blocks, as in English, where, generally, when you perceive the words in the right order, knowing their dictionary meaning, you have succeeded in deciphering the sentence. In an inflected language, this is not enough. Dictée can help you to progress past this stage by forcing you to be sure of the word endings, too.

Thanks, you gave me something to think about.

Watching something in L2 with L2 subtitles will almost certainly help you with your listening skills. There is more than one way to work with them. Here are the ones that I use:

  1. I glance at the subtitles quickly and focus on hearing and understanding everything that’s said.
  2. I first watch without subtitles, then watch with.

Are you conversing much?

@Wulfgar Conversing? not really. I have had a couple of 40 minute skype convo’s with some Danish people, and occasionally I try to speak my thoughts in Danish, which I can usually do, even if it makes me feel stupid.

@ernie & @Lmyirthseshem What would you recommend I do? Do you think I should continue putting on Danish radio in the background whilst I do my daily household activities. I think this has helped a wee bit (and it certainly has done in Spanish, probably more so in Spanish) as when a word I know comes up it certainly sticks out to my ears. I usually only get an idea of what the general topic of discussion is in these things and occasionally a few sentences. You say it’s not for beginners but I would’t say I was a beginner.

All listening helps, Corin. I’ll always recommend that.

@Corin: I think listening some radio/ tv that you have no transcript or translation of can be good. Picking out those common phrases and connector words that pop up all the time… even if the stuff in between currently makes no sense. I use it when I’m at work and largely need to concentrate on my job, but can tune in and out of a TV show or radio programme when I’m on auto-pilot. And of course it helps in simply getting more attuned to the pacing of the spoken word.

I don’t like it when people tell me to simply be patient, but in this case, I think your brain will do the de-coding when it’s ready; I find I slowly understand more, the more I listen and study, I’m not sure there’s a magic single moment when the entire language falls into place and goes from being a semi-comprehensible stream or words to pure clarity : /

In no way would I use this as my main method for learning new words…I’m pretty sure our brains are wired in such a way, and that the limits of statistics and logic dictate that you won’t learn a language simply listening to a stream of noises totally out of context with no feedback related to what you do. So, alongside more targeted study of text and audio that you are able to listen and read (LingQ style) in order to learn words and structures, unknown content is helpful.

All good advice. I’m just at a bit of a dead end. because it seems some of the words I do know I still can’t recognise in native dialogue. I’m nearly finished my Teach yourself book aswell, which was good because you could learn some new words and then hear how they sound in a dialogue. But what am I supposed to do after i finish that on lingq? sure I’ll be able to recognise all sorts of words from reading them if I do as i’m doing on lingq. But i’ll have no idea how they’re supposed to sound which won’t help me hear them in conversation at all. As I say I haven’t found many web-sites that have Danish with a transcript and even the ones that do, won’t last me very long.

This is just worrying because I’m not sure how I’m going to develop my Danish any further. Just keep importing random news articles (that may not always feature vocab used in every day conversation,) remember the words using lingq, and then just hope that these words I “know” but haven’t heard some how ring a bell when I hear them? a lot of the articles I’ve imported use lots of metaphorical words and words that I don’t use that often in English, so i’m starting to think i’m coming to a bit of a brick wall in my Danish. I’m not100% sure how I’m going to progress.

My experience with French was (and still is!) that you need to listen to stuff at or a little bit above your level for it to be effective. Or it can be in line with your interests. If you listen to stuff that you’re interested in but you don’t understand THAT well, I’d recommend that you keep listening to these sorts of podcasts (or radio programs) and read lots of articles (or even books) related to the topic, you’ll be able to follow them soon enough (assuming you’re not a beginner to begin with). And I also think the amount of listening needs to be significant, it can’t be 10 minutes a day.

It’s a hard one to balance: comprehensible listening vs interest driven listening. The more comprehensible it is, the more you benefit from it (unless it’s “too” easy). The more interesting it is, the more likely you are to keep listening. In either case, you need to do lots of it!

(The reason I used French as an example is because: a) I’ve been learning it, and b) it can be quite hard to understand, even if you can read well, which I gather is the problem with Danish)

it seems some of the words I do know I still can’t recognise in native dialogue.

That happens for a while. You just have to keep trying.

But what am I supposed to do after i finish [the primer].

Does your “teach yourself” books give directions for pronunciation? If so, I’d review those instructions and then take dictation from the recordings, for practice. You won’t be “perfect” without a tutor to correct you, but you ought to come pretty close.

It never hurts to work through another primer with sound files, similar to your “teach yourself” book, or better. Look at college bookstores, online bookstores, places such as Schoenhofs Books online, If LIngQ had Danish, that would be great, but you’ll have to find something to fill the gap.

Can you find a Danish speaker online? Perhaps he can help you find suitable materials, or help you with Danish and you can help him with English (although people from the Scandinavian countries don’t seem to need much help with English, from what I’ve seen).

Look around more on the web. I just did a search for “Danish sound files” without the quotation marks. Do any of these sites help? (linked from the wikibooks site) (linked from the wikibooks site)

If there is a university nearby, call up the (relevant) language department–something to do with Germanic languages–and ask about classes or tutoring, or even if there is just a Danish student who might help you…