1. A Story

The other day I was in a little nomiya and the mamasan said to another customer, 'John san wa yama nobori ga suki desu.' I immediately said, 'Chigau! Nobori ga kirai desu! Kudari ga suki!' Everyone laughed. 'He likes going down, not climbing up; but if he wants to go down he has to climb up first!'

The idea that you could become a good speaker without listening is like the idea that you could go down a mountain without climbing it. Half of conversation is listening.

Students sometimes tell me, 'You're speaking too fast!' But I'm not. I'm speaking at normal speed. They are listening too slow! If I slow down they can understand me, but it still doesn't help them when they listen to other speakers. You can't get the whole English-speaking world to slow down!

The answer is to get used to natural speed English. There's plenty of it around, on the radio, on the television, movies, songs, etc., etc.

Let me tell you another story (no, it's not about nomiyas or mountain-climbing!). When I was living in Spain, I found I could usually understand when people spoke to me, face to face. I guess it was because I could see the way their lips moved, or maybe they spoke a little slower because I was a foreigner. But as soon as people started talking to each other, I couldn't understand. It was the same with the radio, the television, the telephone. Some of the songs were a little bit easier, and I had fun learning them, and I kept on practising my Spanish in other ways (reading novels, etc.). But I more or less gave up on understanding spoken Spanish except when the speaker was talking directly to me.

This went on for a long time. In the place where I lived the television was on every day at mealtime, and it just went in one ear and out of the other (bajitoufuu). I never answered the phone and I ignored the radio. Six months later I went back to England.

Several years later I was back in Spain. Just as before, I could only understand people when they spoke to me directly. By now, I just accepted this as a fact of life. Then one day I was sitting in a restaurant having my lunch, and the television was on. I was amazed! I could understand every word! I still can, even now! If I hear Spanish on the radio, or if I phone friends in Spain I have no trouble.

Like Aesop's fables, this little story has a moral. If you surround yourself with natural speed spoken English for long enough, one day you will find you understand it, just like I came to understand Spanish.

2. Practical Hints for Listening

OK, I can't resist it; here's another story about nomiyas! It sometimes happens that I go for a glass of sake and get involved in deep discussion with someone (usually a middle-aged man) who has drunk rather a lot, and is speaking, not very clearly, but with great enthusiasm.

Half the time I don't know what this person is saying. It just sounds like, '...guruguru, GA, waguruwaguru, GUU, wagamamana wakamono, guruguwaguru...'  or something like that. I don't understand much, but I understand something, enough to be able to guess at a suitable comment - 'If young people are selfish, maybe it's because they learned it from their parents! Do you have children?', or something like that. Then the drunken speaker agrees, or disagrees, and the conversation carries on. Maybe he says, 'BAA guru, waguruwaguru, densha no naka de, guruguwaguru, minna ga oshiteru, waguru...'. Then I can say, 'OK, but it isn't just young people who push on the train. In my experience, everyone's pushing, including middle-aged men!' And so the conversation carries on, even though I haven't understood half of what the other person is saying.

The moral this time is that, to be a good listener, you don't have to understand every word. What's important is to get the general idea. Very often you will find, if you think about it, that you have understood a lot more than you think you have. For example, you can tell, even without understanding the words, whether the speaker is happy, or angry, or sad, or dissatisfied. Even during that period when I was in Spain and unable to understand the television, I could probably have watched a news programme and said something like, 'Well, the speaker seems to be very angry about some political problem', or, 'He seems to be pleased about the economy', even if I didn't understand the exact topic .

If you want to work more directly on your listening I recommend two approaches. One approach is intensive. Choose something you can listen to again and again. For me songs are best, but I also record things from the television, and listen to parts of them. What I do is try to write down the whole song, or the whole conversation. One of the reasons I like songs is that, after listening and trying to catch the words myself, I can look at the printed wordsheet. I recommend speeches or films for the same reason; if you can find the printed text online then you can confirm whether you understood correctly or not.

The other approach is extensive. For me television dramas and cartoons work best. While I'm listening I keep a notebook by my side and write down some of the expressions I hear. Obviously, I don't write down very easy expressions; if someone says 'Ja, ne!' I don't write it down - it's too easy, and there's no need. And if someone says something that's too difficult I can't write it down because I haven't heard it properly!

So I write down things that come in between, things are not too easy and not too difficult. It could be just one word - 'inochi', 'muchuu', or 'kekkyoku'. Or it could be a phrase, 'fukouchuu no saiwai', or 'Boku ni dekiru koto ga arimasu ka?' Some of them I already know, but writing them down helps me to remember them. Some of them are new to me; I check them afterwards in the dictionary. Others may be easy to understand (like 'Boku ni dekiru koto ga arimasu ka?') but are not expressions I normally use (I always used to say 'Tasukete mo ii desu ka?').

In this way listening does not remain as a passive exercise. I work actively, and the language I listen to becomes part of the language I can use. Sometimes, of course, I make mistakes, but no one ever learned anything without making mistakes. As the poet said, 'If the fool would persist in his folly he would become wise' (William Blake)!

Listening and Reading

One of the best ways to improve both your listening and your reading ability is to do the two things together. One way to do this is by buying the CD for a novel. Most English novels have been narrated onto CD by professional actors. The quality is high and it is a pleasure to turn the pages and listen at the same time. You can get these on Amazon or on Audiobooks. You can also often find online recordings by amateurs on LibriVox and other websites, like Audiobooks for Free. Make sure you choose an unabridged reading, so the words on the audio recording are exactly the same as the words in the book (check Web Links for Literature for hints on how to find unabridged online texts).



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