Understanding Fast Speech

Understanding Fast Speech

I’ve been slowly realizing that in Lingq I’ve been getting some false incentives (my fault). The usual setup gives you a score based roughly on the number of new words assimilated. This is good as a measure of progress in the early stages of learning, but not so good later, when speeding through and getting lots of points works against careful and repeated listening. You may need many repetitions, if your aim is to understand native speakers. This should help, you’d suppose. I’m going to try it and see. It may be a difficult adjustment I think.

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Typically, if a lesson is less than 5 minutes long, I’ll listen to it 4-8 times. If it’s longer than 5 minutes, I’ll usually only listen 2-3 times. In both cases, it has improved my listening comprehension greatly. It slows up the total number of words that I’m learning, but I feel like it’s improving my language comprehension so much more overall.


Lots of reading and listening is needed. You need to know what the words mean through reading’, then what they all sound like over and over. Got to do it all

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The more listening one does, the greater one’s listening comprehension. This is logical and makes sense… Frankly, it is precisely the reason I joined LingQ to begin with as I wanted to obtain access to a great quantity of oral input that was geared to the level I was at at the moment and I wanted to listen to it several times away from the computer – e.g., on my phone when I was jogging, doing chores, etc. However, I quickly realized that focussing on making lingQs per se was not helping my listening comprehension or my speaking although it did improve my reading comprehension. Yes, I could recognize the words when I read them in context, but I could not understand speech when there were too many unknown words. How many are too many? For me, greater than 20% unknown words in speech was over my head when just listening but not when reading. That is, I could read lessons (and listen simultaneously to the voice) with 25-30% new words but I could not understand the same lesson without looking at the words until I had worked independently on the new words, whittling down the number of words not readily understood to 15-20% or so, depending on the topic. The reason was clear. When there are few unknown words, I can use the context to still follow the gist of the narrative and often even guess at the unknown words. However, when unknown words pile up, I can’t do this and comprehension falls apart.

Then by accident, I discovered something startling. I binge-watched a Russian TV series – watching some parts with Russian subtitles, some with English and discovered that my ability to speak improved substantially following the two weeks of watching the TV series every day. This occurred even though I wasn’t using the words uttered by the characters in the TV program. To be sure, I picked up a few common phrases as certain characters often said the same thing. But I wasn’t using those expressions when I myself spoke. Instead, somehow listening a LOT to dialogue that I understood (whether with the help of Russian subtitles or English translations) for hours per day improved my ability to express myself using the words I already knew from other sources. This got me thinking that I needed to greatly increase the time I spent listening. However, listening to the same lesson in which there were 20-30% new words was not helpful. Instead, I listened/read one longish lesson on LingQ which had a lot of unfamiliar words but ALSO listened to much easier lessons which I had previously listened to or which were wholly new in which I already knew most of the words, if not all. I chose ones in which the topic was interesting and which I especially liked. (That is, I was listening to these “easy” lessons not to learn vocabulary, but exclusively for listening practice.) I also found other TV series to watch away from LingQ which I watched for a reasonable 30-60 mins./per day. This proved to be very effective, again greatly improving my listening comprehension and ability to speak… I confess that it remains somewhat puzzling to me that listening a LOT to comprehensible input in turn greatly increases my ability to speak using completely different words. Yet the result is undeniable. Thus, based on my experience, I would recommend that the highest priority is to listen to comprehensible input of one’s target language in any and all ways that one can conceivably fit it into your daily life. The more the better. The top priority is that it should be about things that truly interest you (Include things that are really easy as well as short bits that are more challenging.) Try this intensively for two weeks and see if you too experience a significant improvement in listening and speaking. Share your experience on the forum!


I think this is true for me to some extent but the timeframe is waaaaay different. There’s no way that I see progress like that over the course of two weeks, probably not even two months, but I might see small improvements a further 6 months down the line from an intense period of listening. I always thought this delay in improvement was pretty much the norm, but if you’re experiencing improvements almost immediately like that then I guess I must be doing it wrong.

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You’re not doing anything “wrong” but are probably not listening as much as I was. (I did not speak with my Skype teacher for two weeks and even she commented on the improvement when we resumed without my saying anything about the TV show.)

The key here is that I was “binge-watching” a TV show in which I became involved in the plot. This occurred because I was literally snowed in–experiencing successive gargantuan snow storms that kept me going out to shovel every few hours . I couldn’t go anywhere and so was watching 4-5, hour-long episodes per day., something I would not normally have the time to do. (There were over 55 total. which I sped through after slowly going through the first two, subtitle by subtitle.)

It is not a type of show that I would ever watch in English and at first I thought the characters over the top, if not silly. Yet it had Russian subtitles that someone had added (not auto-generated ones which don’t appear as individual sentences, but rather as a continuous stream of words without punctuation.) This was critical because in Russian, word order doesn’t necessarily follow the English pattern and so the subject can appear at the end of a sentence and disconnected from the verb. If there are no clear written sentence breaks, then it is harder for me to follow the auto-generated subtitles which also don’t always match the dialogues.

The TV episodes included a steady stream of everyday, conversational phrases that I wanted to learn so I kept with it, pausing line by line to understand the plot. After two slow episodes, I found I could go faster and that’s when I became snowed in and switched back and forth between the English and Russian subtitles as I felt like it. I wrote down the Russian expressions that I wanted to learn immediately and read English for things that were not high priority for me.

I think it’s also important to note that this occurred when I was already a solidly intermediate-level student. I knew the declensions of cases and conjugations of commonly used verbs and overall “logic” of the Russian. The more I know, the easier it is for me to learn new words and expressions because they are not abstract combinations of unfamiliar sounds, but instead fit into the logic of Russian grammar, spelling and word formation. Frankly, I don’t think I would have had the same experience if I were at an earlier stage. My extraordinary listening input was also not something that is normally doable for me. However, because I saw how beneficial it was, I thereafter deliberately made more efficient use of my “dead time” to increase my listening of COMPREHENSIBLE (i.e., easy) input.

If one only increases listening by an hour each day, the results will be less dramatic in such a short period but I still believe that they will be noticeable and extremely valuable. Anyway, I encourage people to experiment. It doesn’t have to be – and probably won’t be – 4-5 hours a day of listening. The point is to do some quantity that is a definite increase in listening in what you have been doing up to this point for a specific short period of time (that is, it fits into your life) and then evaluate the result., kind of like a individualized “listening challenge.”

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@dogwoad I think that people learn in different ways, and so for whatever it’s worth here is what works for me:

  1. I completely agree that reading, listening, speaking, and writing are different skills, and that therefore each of them require specific training. If you want to learn how to listen to fast speech, you’ve gotta listen to fast speech, a lot. That being said, reading is the most efficient way to build the vocabulary that you can then retrieve for other listening. For example, if I listen to a word I never read before, I am far less likely to infer its meaning than if I had read it before. This is all to say I would not stop reading, just increase the listening time.
  2. I get bored if I listen to texts more than once or twice, but this doesn’t mean I don’t learn new words while listening. The reasons why I still learn new words while listening to widely different content is that the same words keep coming back, as long as I get a ton of listening volume. In addition, if you listen to a ton of content with recurring words, it is easier to infer their meaning from the surrounding words that you know. But again, you’ve gotta have a ton of listening volume. This gets me to my first point: if I keep listening to the same stuff I will get bored and won’t listen to the language more than 30 min/day, whereas if it is something interesting I can keep listening for a much longer period of time.
  3. The toughest thing in listening is to find content that is both interesting and at a level where you can understand a good percentage of it. At the more basic levels of a language it is really hard to find content that meets both criteria: accessible content is often boring, and the interesting content is impossible to understand. One way to get around this is to first read the content and only then listen to it. Of course, that makes it for a really slow learning pace, but I really haven’t found anything better than that.
  4. In relation to movies, I think that whatever can get you in touch with the language is fair game, and I watch a ton of dubbed movies on whatever language I might be trying to learn. That being said, I find it that audiobooks are better for learning, maybe because I don’t get distracted by the video. The other thing that doesn’t work for me is to set the movie spoken language to my target language and the subtitles in a language I know: after a few minutes, I will start reading the subtitles to catch the story and the language learning vanishes. Last, audiobooks are easier to integrate into a bunch of opportunities that keep coming up throughout the day: driving, walking my dogs, and a bunch of other times that are essentially idle. I always keep my cell earplugs with me and also place a shortcut to my audiobooks on my cell, so that I am literally ready to go in just a few seconds…

Again, this is just my experience, different people will learn in different ways.

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@TracyG, having honed your listening ability in the manner you describe, how does other type of content now seem to you? Do you try listening to Эхо Москвы, for example?

I watch a lot of Russian content on YouTube. Beyond being part of my language “study”, it’s become my main form of evening entertainment. I have no problem at all understanding content like SlivkiShow, Своим Ходом - Виталик и Лиза, and (cringe) Vitaly Kovalev. I can understand enough to follow Sobolev, Varlamov, and Руслан Усачев. I have even watched and enjoyed some bigfoot, um, documentaries (снежный человек).

But whenever I try listening to Эхо Москвы I feel like I’ve backslid 12 months. It may be partly due to differences in vocabulary from differences in subject matter. But I daily read news from sites like Коммерсанть, Ведомости, and Медуза, much of it on Lingq, so I do get exposure to and learn the vocabulary of the news.

It may be in part the difference between radio and video with its visual clues, though I don’t know how many visual clues you get from the talking head format. I do suspect that many of the guests on Эхо are not professional speakers like radio personalities and news announcers. However I also find news programs on YouTube harder to follow. It gets quite frustrating, and I have to remind myself how, all in all, I still understand much more than in the not too distant past.

practice and more practice and it will improve i don’t know what language you are learning but ted talk has worked wonders for me

Khardy, I haven’t tried listening to radio yet because I think it will be over my head.
I, like you, have been reading the news on LingQ and am acquiring the vocabulary of standard reporting. My reading skills are much better than my listening skills because I visually recognize the roots of words and thus can make reasonable guesses about new vocabulary which I can’t do when listening as the words go by too fast. I am making a deliberate effort to listen more – e.g., watching some show or film on Youtube or TED talks. I also listen to easier lessons that I did a while ago to see to what extent I have improved. While in some cases I do find that I picked up vocabulary by “just” reading and listening, it still seems to be the case for me that if I want to be able to use vocabular, I have to do some additional work with the words: i.e., purposefully writing and speaking about things that are meaningful to me. Moving passive knowledge to active requires extra work.

Ricardopietroban, I have never watched dubbed movies for language learning as I confess I don’t even watch them even when dubbed into English. I prefer foreign films with subtitles because of the emotion in the original actors’s speech. However, if you like them, then by all means, continue. Personally, I watch Russian films so I can hear native pronunciation simultaneously with the action on the screen. I also enjoy seeing the settings (interiors, cities and countryside) which provide cultural information. I don’t think I’m ready for audio books as there are still too many words I don’t know yet. Films with subs work well because there is visual context to help fix things visually in my head. As you said, to each his/her own and of course it all depends on one’s level of comprehension relative to given material. The more one knows, the more options which of course is itself motivating.