Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Passive listening


Recently Benny posted on the results of his C2 Exam in German, in the post Benny questions the usefulness of passive listening, anybody who had the time to read all the posts on this biog from the beginning (and I really don't blame you if you don't ;)) would know that I rate passive listening very highly as a language learning tool. I would like to think that anybody who understands Thai can see me gaining from it. This is a long post but it could be so much longer, I will be posting much more on listening but for now I will try to keep this focused(ish).

Input and "listening" well is as complicated as speaking well and if you want to master a language the scope of what you need to be able to understand by listening is far wider than what you need to be able to produce, listening requires thought and in some cases the learning of new skills. If you wanted to become a good tennis player you would get fit, not too much to ask a language learner to expand their listening skills, it is after all expected of musicians.

Immersion is the earliest form of language learning and can obviously be very successful, for many people throughout history it has been the only way to learn a language, immerse or don't learn, black and white. If I had a choice I would much prefer to have bags of cash (no need to work), bags of time and immerse myself in a country (hey who wouldn't ;)), hardly anyone can indulge themselves to that extent. What has changed? Printing presses, sound recording, the Internet, increased international mobility bring language to you, and technology makes it more and more convenient. I think many of the Victorian language pioneers, the Jesuit priests that learned Chinese etc. would have been delighted to "prepare" and practice with many of the materials and technologies we have available now, I know I am :)

What is Passive Listening?

Here is the usual problem: definition, what Benny describes as passive listening is wavering all over the place ranging into situations where I can easily actively listen to listening in your sleep (yeah I don't see how that is supposed to work either), We could argue about definitions for ages, but passive does not have to mean completely inactive, we have passive resistance, passive aggressive etc. as examples.

Benny appears to think that when you listen yo give it 100% attention? Some languages the speakers regularly speak over each other, you may be in a noisy environment, in a group, you NEED to learn to understand language by giving it part of your attention.

The word passive can have negative vibes but I always prefer to be positive(irony). For the purposes of this exercise I will use one example that Benny gives "listening to language whilst washing the dishes" (apparently Benny gets nothing from this) you could substitute any other reasonably simple task. It is easy to do. with on-line radio, Ipods, audio books, or a cheap mp3 player from the supermarket etc. You can choose from news, podcast conversations, radio chat shows and mix and match depending on your needs.

Passive listening is often listening in dead-time (unless you really look forward to washing the dishes). The more attention the activity requires the less attention you can pay to the audio (duh) but you can increase your ability to concentrate and learn mental techniques to improve what you get out of it even further. Benny appears to have thought he could get something out of passive listening whilst simultaneously studying grammar? and apparently meets lot of learners with similar ideas, all I can say is WOW.

Can I do it?

Can you walk and chew gum at the same time? Yes, well then you can do it, the only thing stopping you is imagination and a little application. Gum chewing doesn't require thought though the sceptic smugly declares. Okaaay then imagine you are in your kitchen washing those complicated, thought provoking dishes, imagine that someone else is there with you doing something else, can you hold a conversation with them? Could you hold a conversation with them in a language you are learning? (if not you are a beginner but don't worry you can still gain from passive listening). Still with me? then having that conversation can you learn anything from it or are you too occupied with the dish washing job to think at all.

Maybe you use this dead time for something else? Benny uses his for SRS but I presume that is a different type of dead time or he has a waterproof iphone. Maybe you use this time for just "not thinking time" that is fine it is just language learning not life and death but can you see the spare processing capability is there? Some people have trouble concentrating, you can improve that just by practice, I have found the ability to concentrate very useful in language learning, I picked it up elsewhere though. Do you think the ability to concentrate and focus is useful when learning?

In the beginning

I am not going to stress this too much because even Benny is prepared to concede(he has posted his war post) that listening will get you used to the sounds of the language early on, I think it goes a bit further than Benny describes though.

You can get the same benefit later on in your studies though, find it hard to understand old people, southern dialect, regional accents, kids talking etc. then a batch of listening later on get your filters for the target language improved.

In the middle

I haven't got anywhere near the middle in Thai yet but a few middle type things have happened already. I hear a phrase that isn't quiet like anything I have heard before that teaches me something new. Simple recent example I pointed out before, len footbun hai sanook (play football for fun) when the opportunity arises I will try pom rian pasa thai hai sanook (I study Thai for fun) usually my guesses are correct but if not I will learn.

Really useful at this point is to be able to replay back in your mind a number of seconds prior to the word(s) that caught your attention (even if you though you weren't listening), if you are a musician or similar you can probably do this if not you can learn to do it.

Later on

Some thoughtless person recently commented that they didn't see the point in acquiring passive vocabulary I can't remember the context but that requires an amazing lack of thought. Various levels of listening build my passive vocabulary. I have not grown up in the language I am learning much of what I want to learn I cannot get from a direct conversation but that does not mean I don't want to learn the words, I need to be able to understand them, perhaps use them in a joke or story. It is hard to find the right context to learn these words in conversation (some) swear words, aggressive words, the language of love (I am happily married thank you), street gang slang, youth culture etc. In real conversation I have better things to do than contrive situations to learn passive vocabulary, I would much rather learn this from listening (not from a book for sure).

Winding up

I suspect that Benny would respond that most of my examples are active listening, if that is the case he should be clearer about what he is talking about.

Seriously I can easily identify a couple of hours a day and I know that I get a steady stream of benefit from this kind of listening and short of kidnapping a Thai or Chinese person and chaining them to my sink or in my car I can't replace that with conversation.

Sunday, 4 July 2010

Songs don't help me learn languages

The video above nicely illustrates the point I trying to make in this post, although from a program for small children it is quite funny.
So far songs don't seem to help me learn languages, nor do poems. I have found stories and jokes far more useful for learning Chinese so far and expect to find the same for learning Thai. I have been listening to and recording some Thai radio and over the last few days and have listened to quite a lot of songs, although I can identify a fair few words, they don't sound the same as in conversation so I can't use them as references for speaking.

One problem with songs is that they often use non-standard language and pronunciation particularly in tonal languages (which is possibly why I don't get on with them for learning). When I listen to English songs they don't usually seem to be very useful references for foreign language learners. Another problem for me at least is that although I can often remember a song quite quickly to the extent of being able to sing it (badly) I don't have ownership of the language to be able to use it elsewhere.

I can understand people enjoying songs and using them for study, maybe it is just I pick the wrong ones? In Chinese I gravitated towards punk and rock music and quite liked Shanghai rap (being in Shanghainese not much use for learning Mandarin). Possibly some kinds of folk songs make better learning material.