Warning: This post digs deeply into the minutiae of one part of my process. You might find it incredibly boring.
When I last blogged about learning spanish, the plan was to do more listening comprehension once I finished catching up to my 5000 card ANKI deck.
Well I finished the deck a week or so ago. Check it out! (To understand the formatting , see this post).
I have been experimenting with listening comprehension strategies. The general idea was to listen to audio or watch video. Ideally there would be a transcript or closed captioning so that I can check my work or peek when I got stuck.
This has brought up a lot of questions and things that I would like to test:
- SPEED TEST: Is it best to just muscle through and understand what I can?
- REPETITION TEST: Is it better to watch the same part multiple days or to keep moving on to new material? Is it better to repeat small phrases over and over again before moving on?
- SPEAKING TEST 1: Does repeating the lines after someone says them help me HEAR the content better later?
- SPEAKING TEST 2: Should I repeat the phrases/lines until I get them right?
- SPEAKING TEST 3: Would recording myself saying the lines provide better feedback and speed up my progress?
- STRUGGLE TEST: Should I listen first without captions, then try to guess what was said? Then replay and check my work?
- RECALL TEST: At the end of each program, try to remember the most common words. Should I collect words and phrases I don’t know and add them to ANKI?
- STUDY MATERIAL TEST: What kinds of audio and video is best for my learning?
I would not blame you for saying “who cares?”, but I care so I’m going to keep going with this post.
I looked for answers on the internet. There’s a ton of spanish resources and people telling you the best way to learn spanish. Unfortunately I could not find anything that went to this level of detail, much less that had answers that are science-based. They are probably out there, but it’s a needle in haystack situation.
I decided to instead play around and see what I might learn from personal observation. I used Lingopie, FluentU, Radio Ambulante, NewsInSlowSpanish, and half a dozen podcasts.
Here’s my experience in attempting to answer these questions.
Is it best to just muscle through and understand what I can?
The answer seems to be: Find a sweet spot where you are understanding 80-90%. I don’t mean understanding each word separately, as if someone was just listing numbers off. It needs to feel like you are actually understanding the groups of words. The reaction should not be “I recognize all those words” It should be “I understand what is being communicated”
Imagine hearing “me ayuda a vender si quiera un libro” and imagine hearing “libro vender mi si quiera ayuda un me”. The first communicates something. The second is just a bunch of words you probably recognize. You must get familiar with the different FEELINGS each of these gives you. If it’s all just words, it’s not helping as much as it could be.
Is it better to watch the same part multiple days or to keep moving on to new material?
The jury is still out on this one. If you are choosing a part you can understand the meaning of 80-90% of the time on the first listen, I doubt you will be at 100% when you are finished. Since you went to the work to find something in the 80-90% range you can probably save time by listening to it again. I also suspect that the repeated exposure will help solidify things, but I don’t know for sure.
Is it better to repeat small phrases over and over again before moving on?
I think the answer might be: it depends.
Lately my rules for each phrase have been:
- If you hear a phrase and you feel you are in the 95-100% of nailing it, then go to the next phrase.
- If you hear a phrase and don’t think it’s one that has much likelihood of you ever having to say (for example a phrase filled with proper names or vocabulary from a domain you likely will never converse about), then go to the next phrase.
- If you hear a phrase that you feel is very challenging (50% tough maybe?), then go to the next phrase.
- If you hear a phrase by a person that has a voice you find just too difficult to understand, then go to the next phrase.
- If you hear a phrase which sounds like the speaker is dropping some of the letters: practice this one. This is likely how everyday people speak and it’s good that you understand it. For example, I don’t often hear “va a estar”. Instead I hear “‘va star”. These are good ones to get into your head.
SPEAKING TEST 1
Does repeating the lines after someone says them help me HEAR them better later?
I practiced doing this with both News In Slow Spanish and some serial programs on LingoPie.
After doing this for a week on NISS I started to get the feeling that I had improved in talking like a newscaster and listening to newscasters. The language on the site is exceptionally clean. But my goal here was to learn how everyday people speak, especially including their shortcuts and imperfections.
Then I tried the same exercise with TV shows on LingoPie.
Attempting to reproduce the dialog in the same way the actors said it was incredibly enlightening. And exceptionally difficult. The former because of the latter. At first I attempted to listen to pace and rhythm of what they said, read the closed captions, and then repeat it to the pace and rhythm they said it. Im-freaking-possible. These people talk so fast!!
But them I listened closer. They were dropping endings, beginnings and often entire words.
We do the same in english. English speakers rarely say “What are you doing with that?” Instead they say “Whadda ya doin wi that?” or the more confusing (to english learners) “Whatcha doin wi that?” Where on earth does that “ch” sound come from?
Instead of listening for the words in the captions I started to listen to just the sounds and rhythm. As if they were birds making calls and I had to repeat the calls as I heard them.
I could see that “para ayudarme a llegar a La Paz” was pronounced “ para yudarme llegar aLaPaz”. The former is a mouthful to say fast. It also has a different rhythm: It takes 3 beats to get to “me”: PARA A YUDARME” and the latter takes 2: ”PARA YUDARME”
So my original question was “does repeating the lines after someone says the help me HEAR them better later?” Well, I know when I wasn’t able to say it like the actor right off the bat that was a reflection of the fact that I didn’t know the sounds that were being made. Figuring out how to say them on my own creates an understanding of both informal contractions and rhythm.
To put it another way, I came to the audio knowing how each of the individual words of the phrase were pronounced. But I didn’t know what they turned into when combined with each other.
It was like I knew the words “flour, sugar, eggs, butter” but I had no idea when someone said “cake”. It’s almost a whole other word to learn.
Which brings up another observation/tip: Try to forget what you know about the words and just listen to the sounds people are making. Group them into the clusters they are using. Hear those clusters and say those clusters. Then try to reconcile what you are hearing with the words you know. Spend a few moments going back and forth between the sounds you hear and the words you know they are made of. “Cake. Flour Sugar Eggs Butter. Cake. Flour….”
Obviously, people who learn a language naturally hear the phrases put together enough that they develop an understanding without having to go through this exercise. But I think a closer examination of popular and useful combinations might be a faster way to fluency since I don’t currently have an environment where I’m hearing spanish outside of my practice.
SPEAKING TEST 2
Should I repeat the phrases/lines until I get them right?
My answer: I don’t know. I’ll take an example from learning guitar. I never increase my speed or dexterity of guitar until I drill down into the details and look under every rock. I examine where each finger is in slow motion and how it gets from one place to another and when it moves. Only then can I find ways to improve.
But this isn’t guitar. It’s listening and speaking. How much does the guitar strategy translate?
First, let’s look at the mission here: better audio comprehension. Surely closer examination helps some (as I talked about above). But what benefit and cost is there as you head toward perfection?
The cost is that you cover less phrases in the same amount of time. It also gets monotonous.
The benefits are harder to measure. Say you just settled for “good enough” and never dug into how “va a estar” is often said “va star”. You might always miss what was being said when you heard “va star”. It seems really what you need to do is get to the level of “OK, I see what they are doing there” and be able to say it at any speed 75% or faster and move on. The mission is not to be able to speak as quickly as a native. We just want to understand what they are saying. Once we understand the informal contractions and rhythms we can move on I think.
SPEAKING TEST 3
Would recording myself saying the lines provide better feedback and speed up my progress?
I have not done this yet. I found a few ways to record my voice but none of them are very quick. Again, we’re getting more into “speaking” territory and this is a listening comprehension mission. So perhaps it shouldn’t be on the agenda at all now?
Should I listen first without captions, then try to guess what was said? Then replay and check my work?
My thoughts: Well, assuming you picked something that is 80-90% understandable for you, you should be able to understand most of it and giving it a shot without subtitles seems reasonable.
Listening without captions might also help you focus more instead of your attention being pulled back and forth between written and spoke words (I have this issue with ENGLISH subtitles!) and reduce cognitive load from switching.
I would say: as soon as you don’t understand something, stop and review. Don’t wait until you’ve heard a bunch of stuff and then go back. The phrase has left your mind at that point and you’ll need to load it up again. Grab the fish when it swims by, don’t run downstream to get it later.
At the end of each program, try to remember the most common words. Should I collect words and phrases I don’t know and add them to ANKI?
During my experiments this week, the last thing I wanted to do was write words down on the side to go look up later and put into ANKI. That doesn’t mean it isn’t a good idea. It just felt a lot like switching tasks so I skipped it. If you want new vocabulary I would set aside separate time for a vocabulary hunt. That way you can go after words with specific purposes in mind. Words might interest you when they pop up during the listening exercises, but I bet they aren’t as interesting later as they seem at the time and perhaps are just Shiny New Things.
It might be useful to document the informal contractions you hear. Then you might practice them later.
This ought not be a hard and fast rule and could be completely wrong. I could see certain phrases coming up that are worth jotting down. But if you’ve chosen your material in the right 80-90% range, then you likely won’t see many of these.
STUDY MATERIAL TEST
What kinds of audio and video is best for my learning?
I went through a lot as I looked at different options and think this topicis best suited for a post of its own.