Learning a language – Improving Listening Comprehension

Azulejo 7If you are learning Portuguese there are a number of areas you need to study, one of which is listening comprehension. I’ve found that whilst I’m quick to learn vocabulary and understand written Portuguese, I find it harder to understand spoken Portuguese. I think whatever language a person learns, this is perhaps one of the most challenging aspects. We’ve all had that experience of listening to a foreign tongue and finding ourselves in the midst of what just seems like a torrent of unintelligible sounds. If anyone watches Lost, there is a great scene where the Korean character Jin is listening to everyone else having an argument and the viewer is treated to an idea of what it’s like to not understand English. The language is utterly garbled.

This was much the same for me when I started to listen to Portuguese radio. There wasn’t a single word I understood, in fact I couldn’t work out where one word finished and another began! It seemed as though everything was said at a hundred miles an hour and I would never never be able to understand it.

As I started to learn basic words and phrases however, I began to notice a wonderful thing. Once I knew those words and didn’t have to think about their meaning, I would suddenly hear them jump out at me from the radio broadcast. These moments of comprehension delighted me and gave me huge motivation to learn more. If I could understand one word then I could understand two, three, a phrase, a sentence!

I remember one evening I had the radio on in the background whilst I was doing some writing. I wasn’t concentrating on it at all but suddenly became aware that I had a vague idea that they were talking about children and education. A few moments later there was a recording of children in a school. Whilst I couldn’t understand exactly what they were talking about I had somehow ‘got the gist’. I began to realise that I really was learning this language.

I try to listen to Portuguese radio every day now and I do 15 minutes of ‘active listening’ no matter what. I purposefully try to hear every word, even if I don’t understand what all the words mean I practice being able to simply hear them. Whilst I am still far from fluent, it is a wonderful way to measure my understanding, to hear the pronunciation and tune my ears to the overall flow. Whilst I am lucky in that I have never found the pronunciation too difficult I still have room for improvement and it’s an excellent method for making sure you are pronouncing words correctly.

Here’s an exercise I use a lot. Go to Euro News – at the top of the page you can choose which language you want to hear/see the news in by selecting your language in the drop-down list. Once you go to your chosen language you’ll see video clips from the day’s news. If you click on the title of the news item you’ll see that a written commentary follows. Most often, this is an exact transcript of the video piece although there’s sometimes a little variation.

I try to not look at this at all before I start the video. I also don’t watch the video at first. I just click play and look away and see how much I can pick up by ear alone. I do this twice then the third time round I take a pen and paper and jot down any words I can hear. Then in English I note down what I think they might be saying and what the news item is about.

Still not reading the text (you have to discipline yourself not to do this!), I then watch the video as well as listen. Of course the pictures will help you define the meaning further. Finally I read through the text and translate it, noting how many words I got right and where I made mistakes. I have found that by repeatedly doing this exercise my listening comprehesion is improving quickly. In fact today was the first time I had an telephone enquiry from someone Portuguese at my day job and though I was a little nervous, I found that I could understand the customer quite well. Whilst I had to ask him to speak slowly and I stumbled over a couple of words I realised how far I’d come from those days when everything was a jumble of sound.

I hope you find this exercise useful. It certainly has been for me. Tomorrow I’ll provide a list of Portugeuse radio and television stations that you can access on the net so you too can improve you listening comprehension.


4 comments for “Learning a language – Improving Listening Comprehension

  1. Clara
    January 13, 2009 at 10:50 pm

    This is sweet. And a beautiful idea people get interested to learn local languages rather then expecting everybody understand and speak English.
    About the love phrases…If I may, I suggest you try to slow a bit the pronounciation in the middle of words, and let the vowels be “heard” – like “apaixoonado”, rather then “apaix’nado”. The rule would apply in other cases.
    IN case of “open” vowels… simply do it without fear.
    “Eu adOro-te” – Ó

    And be welcome in Portugal. Specially bring me a tall, green eyed Scottish . Sean Connery, 30 years younger would do the job.

  2. Lily
    January 13, 2009 at 10:55 pm

    Olá Clara
    Thanks for you help with pronunciation. Much appreciated.
    If I find Sean Connery I will pack him in my suitcase next time I come to Lisbon 🙂

  3. carlos monteiro
    October 3, 2009 at 2:11 pm

    i am looking for recorded material in English(audio and video) to improve the listening

    comprehension of this language.

    Any kind of hint would be mostly appreciated.

  4. Lily
    October 3, 2009 at 2:18 pm

    Olá Carlos
    Eu recomendo um website chama-se LINGQ http://www.lingq.com
    Acho que não tem video mas o site tem audio – é muito bom!
    Boa sorte!

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