Listening to a Foreign Language: The Struggle is Real

In my daily life, I am frequently brought into contact with people who speak languages other than English.  It’s not always Spanish—I overhear conversations in German, Mandarin, Cantonese, Hindi, Arabic, Portuguese, and others that I haven’t been able to recognize—but most often it is in fact Spanish.  And if there’s one surefire way to reinforce the fact that I am still shit at Spanish, it’s listening to native speakers using it.

I’m certainly better at understanding the language than I used to be.  Just in the time I’ve been keeping this blog, I’ve seen a lot of growth in my comprehension.  It doesn’t get more obvious to me that I’m improving than seeing how much of a struggle it was to read El Principito just a few months ago to being able to read it in a day.  And I remember what it was like to try and watch cartoons, where I could barely figure out where words started and ended, while now all three of the shows I’m watching are more or less totally comprehensible.  Listening is and has been harder than reading, where I can take my time and look things up if I need to.  When listening I sometimes miss whole sentences and I’m unwilling to rewind and try again.  But despite my lower ability, it’s been a while since I’ve watched something and ended up confused about what was actually happening.  Well…I’m still confused by what’s happening sometimes in Miraculous, but I’m positive that it’s the show itself that’s bizarre rather than a failure to follow the dialogue.

So that all means that when I end up overhearing conversations in Spanish happening around me in real life, I can more or less follow it, right?  Yeah, no.

I’m being slightly uncharitable to myself here.  In the last two weeks thereabouts, I’ve overheard four Spanish conversations, in close enough proximity that were it English I would have been able to understand every word.  Of those four conversations, I caught the gist of one, recognized several words in another, and was left completely in the dark for the last two.

I’m unwilling to say I actually followed the first of those, because I definitely didn’t.  I follow the cartoons I watch.  Sometimes a sentence goes by in those that I don’t have time to pull full meaning from, but those sentences are surrounded by others that I do understand and I can derive at least some of the meaning from the missed sentence through context.  It’s imperfect and there is ample room for improvement, but I am following the conversation.  In the real life scenario, all of the sentences were mostly-missed sentences.

Yeah, I could derive some meaning.  I knew most if not all of the words used, and could parse it quickly enough to get an idea of what the sentence was about.  The two people were apparently on their way to an appointment—I think with a doctor—one of them was worried that they were going to get there late, and the other assured the first that they would have twenty minutes to spare.  At least, I’m fairly sure that’s what they said to each other.  I wouldn’t swear by it.

And that’s the difference, really.  I know what happened in the episode of Magic School Bus where Keesha wanted to direct a movie starring an ant, and after shrinking down and learning about them decided that the “star” of the movie should be the whole colony itself.  I missed a sentence here and there, yes, but I followed it.  The real conversation, I’m, say, 80% sure that those two were going to be punctual to the appointment with someone I am reasonably confident is a doctor.  It was, if anything, helped by how brief it was, giving me fewer chances of getting lost.

The level of surety goes way down from there.  I overheard a phone call, which of course is listening on Hard Mode since you’ve only got half the conversation to try and follow, but all I could say about it with conviction is that the speaker on the other end was the romantic partner of the person on the phone near me, that she was annoyed with him/her over something, and that she would be home soon.  Other than that?  Pssh, no idea.  And the call lasted for several minutes.  Most of the middle was lost on me, and I couldn’t hope to try and figure out what she was annoyed about.

The other conversations, hell, they might as well have been talking in Mandarin or Hindi.  I knew it was Spanish, I could recognize single, isolated words (helped along for one of them by the conversation starting with ¿Qué tal?), but beyond that, no idea about anything that was said.  It was likely full of words that I would recognize, were I able to hear them as the words they are, but instead my brain was confronted with a stream of syllables which it processed as noise.

There’s a possibility that I was hearing Spanish spoken in accents I’m unfamiliar with, as although Latin American Spanish is often treated as monolithic it most certainly is not and the majority of what I’ve listened to is Mexican Spanish, but it’s more likely that the majority of people don’t really talk as clearly as professional voice actors do.  I know I certainly don’t speak as clearly and carefully as a lot of American actors do, and I don’t even have much of a distinguishable regional accent.  Real people just use their language and speak the way they speak.  And that’s great, but in my case, it’s a further layer on top of something that’s already buried, and I’m left grasping for any hint of familiarity while coming up empty-handed.

It is all getting easier, though, and I’m pleased that being confounded by people talking doesn’t feel as frustrating as I would have expected it to feel.  Yeah, I don’t understand them now, but the keyword there is ‘now.’ It feels that at some point fairly recently I crossed a line where I fully, honestly started believing that it was just a matter of time.  It stopped being a question of if I could get there and became a question of when it will happen.  I’m hoping for sooner rather than later, but I’ll take what I can get.  It might be time soon to move past cartoons and try more shows aimed at adults.  The problem with that is I really like cartoons.

Anyway!  Let’s get into the numbers.

Tuesday 8/07

  • Anki: 150 cards reviewed, ~10 minutes
  • Duolingo: 154 XP earned, ~30 minutes
  • Reading: 1 chapter of Harry Potter y el Prisionero de Azkaban, ~40 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 1 episode of Miraculous, 1 episode of My Little Pony, 1 episode of Magic School Bus, ~60 minutes

Wednesday 8/08

  • Anki: 110 cards reviewed, ~10 minutes
  • Duolingo: 108 XP earned, ~30 minutes
  • Reading: 1 chapter of Harry Potter y el Prisionero de Azkaban, ~60 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 1 episode of Miraculous, 2 episodes of My Little Pony, ~60 minutes

Thursday 8/09

  • Anki: 130 cards reviewed, ~10 minutes
  • Duolingo: 120 XP earned, ~30 minutes
  • Reading: 2 chapters of Harry Potter y el Prisionero de Azkaban, ~70 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 1 episode of Miraculous, 2 episodes of My Little Pony, ~60 minutes

Friday 8/10

  • Anki: 130 cards reviewed, ~10 minutes
  • Duolingo: 122 XP earned, ~30 minutes
  • Reading: 2 chapters of Harry Potter y el Prisionero de Azkaban, ~90 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 2 episodes of Miraculous, 1 episode of My Little Pony, ~60 minutes

Saturday 8/11

  • Anki: 110 cards reviewed, ~10 minutes
  • Duolingo: 140 XP earned, ~30 minutes
  • Reading: 2 chapters of Harry Potter y el Prisionero de Azkaban, ~80 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 1 episode, of Miraculous 1 episode of My Little Pony, 1 episode of Magic School Bus, ~60 minutes

Sunday 8/12

  • Anki: 130 cards reviewed, ~10 minutes
  • Duolingo: 150 XP earned, ~30 minutes
  • Reading: 3 chapters of Harry Potter y el Prisionero de Azkaban, ~120 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: Moana, ~105 minutes

Monday 8/13

  • Anki: 110 cards reviewed, ~10 minutes
  • Duolingo: 108 XP earned, ~30 minutes
  • Reading: 2 chapters of Harry Potter y el Prisionero de Azkaban, ~80 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 1 episode of Miraculous, 1 episode of My Little Pony, 1 episode of Magic School Bus, ~60 minutes
  • Total Anki: 870 cards reviewed, 70 minutes
  • Total Duolingo: 902 XP, 210 minutes
  • Total Watching/Listening: 18 tv episodes and 1 movie watched, 465 minutes
  • Total reading: 13 chapters read, 540 minutes
  • Total Time: 21 hours 25 minutes

 

Another terrific week.  With Duolingo reduced, I’m not running into the same time constraints and as a result I haven’t felt harried as I’ve gone through my goals for the day.  This week seemed to be the week of two-parter episodes, as I had three days back to back where I ended up watching two episodes of something instead of one of each, just to avoid cliffhangers.  And Sunday I was in the mood to watch a movie, so I went with Moana in Spanish, and was surprised and amused to find that the Spanish VA for Maui had about the same singing skill level as The Rock had.  But really, I love that movie and it was fun to watch in Spanish.  You can tell that Disney does not slouch on its production on the dubs of their main-canon films.

I am approaching the end of El Prisionero de Azkaban, and I’m contemplating taking a Potter-break for the next book.  I have Matar a un Ruiseñor (To Kill a Mockingbird) and 1984 (which I bought on a whim after wandering into a Barnes and Noble to use the bathroom) sitting on my desk, and I kind of want to try my hand at a book that’s aimed a little higher in reading level than Harry Potter is.  I’ve rifled through both Ruiseñor and 1984 and don’t think they’re going to be beyond my skill level, but I dunno for sure, and I’ve got plenty more of Potter to get through before I’m done with the series again.  I suppose I’ll see how I feel when the time comes.

Well, that’ll do for this week.  TTFN.

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