I used to think that speaking was the most important skill in language learning.
After all, learning to speak fluently is what we all ultimately want.
But there's a problem…
In all the languages I've learnt in recent years, my speaking ability has outpaced my ability to understand (my listening ability).
As a result, I'd often find myself able to start speaking, and have conversations quite early-on in the language learning process.
But when it came time to understand the reply in a conversation, I'd often be a little bit lost.
(Edit: I eventually fixed this problem when I created the StoryLearning method!)
Have you ever felt this?
You have? It doesn't feel good.
Poor listening skills…
- Make conversations hard
- Leave you feeling demotivated (or embarrassed)
- And ultimately hold you back
On the other hand, when your listening skills are strong, you quickly become more familiar with the language, and your speaking ability soon improves as well. (It's a win-win.)
(My near-death experience on top of a mountain taught me the power of comprehension!)
Once I realised this, I began spending more time listening to audio in my languages.
It really helped.
Not long after, I began looking for material with transcripts, so I could listen and read at the same time.
That helped even more.
I started talking about this learning approach in my teaching, and on the podcast, and people loved the idea!
With one small problem…
Most Listening Material Is A Con
To this day, whenever I suggest that people spend more time listening to audio material, the reply is predictable:
“But Olly, where can I find good listening material?”
(Note the word good in that sentence.)
There is, of course, a lot of audio material in foreign languages out there, but it's usually one of two things:
- Textbook stuff, for complete beginners
- Native speaker stuff, like movies, radio, or YouTube
But what if you're neither a complete beginner… nor super advanced?
Well, it's surprisingly hard to find listening material that's good for language learning.
(Looking for good listening training material? Check out Conversations)
To Improve Your Listening Skills, You Need To Listen A Lot
Yep, you need to rack up the hours spent listening!
Not only that…
You also need to listen to real language, on a wide range of topics, that is representative of how people really speak, including…
- False starts
- Mistakes, etc…
But here's what most so-called listening material looks like:
- It's short – 20-30 seconds of audio at most (half a page of text)
- It's on transactional topics – e.g. how to rent a flat
- It's “language for teaching” (rather than real language)
Here's the real problem: This stuff isn't actually “listening practice” material at all!
Yes, and here's why…
You might think that any piece of audio is helpful for listening practice. But actually, if what you're listening to is short pieces of textbook-like dialogues that have been “cleaned up” for easy listening.
Indeed, in language classrooms around the world, you'll hear teachers say: “Let's do some listening now!”, and play a 20-second clip from the textbook.
How does it help you practise listening?
Sorry, it doesn't.
This kind of material is just a textbook in disguise.
To improve your listening skills – i.e. get better at listening, so you understand people when they talk – you have to listen to longer recordings that contain real, natural language.
When You Listen A Lot, A Wonderful Thing Happens
When you simply spend good quality time in the company of your target language, you get natural exposure to a huge number of new words, phrases, grammar, sentence patterns, and so on…
Far more than you ever would by studying short, textbook dialogues.
This extended exposure is what you need in order to develop strong listening skills.
(Think about it: How can you ever become good at listening without spending a lot of time… listening?)
So, this brings us back to the original question: “Where can I get good listening material?”
Where can you get material that satisfies all the above requirements…
AND that comes with a transcript?
AND that is suitable for your level?
Creating Hope For Bad Listeners (Like Me)
One thing I've learnt about language learning, is that the right material makes the world of difference.
It happened to me recently, in fact, with Cantonese…
I was frustrated as hell with bad material. Non-existent material might be a better term, in fact.
With Cantonese, it was a binary choice between:
- Artificial textbook dialogues that bored me to death, or…
- Breakneck-speed Hong Kong movies & TV of which I couldn't understand a thing
So, what did I do?
I went to Hong Kong, gathered some people together, and created my own awesome library of video conversations.
Can't find what you want? Make it yourself.
Sure enough, over the last few months, I've been in Cantonese heaven. With hours and hours of interesting, authentic listening material to play with, my listening skills have gone through the roof, and I'm speaking much more fluently as a result.
So, after seeing first-hand the power of passion-fuelled listening material, I made a big decision:
I'm going to create the world's most awesome listening material, in many different languages, and at a range of ability levels.
I mean… why not?
And with this, was born Conversations.
That's the working title, anyway – it might change.
Over the last 6 months, I've assembled an all-star team of language experts in 6 languages:
- Mandarin Chinese
We've been working hard to craft massively entertaining listening material, fuelled by the power of story, to draw you in and keep you hooked.
Material that tells a story written entirely with dialogues, so you learn how people really speak.
Material that is written for specific proficiency levels (A2, B1, B2), so you don't waste time listening to stuff that is too hard.
In short, we're creating what I intend to be the best listening material on the planet.
(Well, at least I'll enjoy using it myself!!!)
But, designing the concept for this material hasn't exactly been straightforward.
In fact, it's taken 6 months to get this far, and there's still a long way to go.
The challenges include:
- How do you create material that works in different languages?
- How do you make material that is effective for a specific level, like A2 (pre-intermediate) without being too hard?
- How do you write a story in a foreign language that makes you want to keep listening all night?
Would you like to hear the story of how it came to be? You would? Great!
I'll reveal all in the next post!
- Update: Conversations is now finished and available! Click here for more.