Defining Listening Comprehension

I think that so far in this blog, I’ve done a bad job of accurately describing my listening comprehension level in Spanish, and may have presented things in a misleading way.  Not on purpose, mind you, describing these sorts of things is kinda hard.  It’s difficult to be truly impartial, what with my perspective of things being installed inside the same brain that’s learning Spanish and all, and turning thoughts and feelings into words is always something a little imprecise.  In most cases, I think I’ve managed to get things across adequately, but I’m iffy on the listening comprehension, partially from accidental sloppiness on my part, and partially from a specific skill useful for listening to foreign languages that hasn’t been articulated.  I think that trying to talk about the latter might clear up some of the former.

So, I’ve been watching Bojack Horseman.  In addition to rather liking the show, it is complex.  The subjects that characters talk about and the way they talk about them are not aimed at kids, there is a level of nuance and complexity of thought that isn’t present in, say, My Little Pony or Puffin Rock.  There is also a more rapid-fire delivery to the lines that’s a bit closer to the speed that I tend to hear Spanish at when normal Joes are talking to each other.

It isn’t the most difficult listening by any means, though.  The actors articulate their lines clearly (most of the time) and I can listen to them through headphones that are set at a clear volume.  And of course, if I miss something and need to try again, typing space, the back button, and space again is usually enough to catch what I miss.  It also comes along with training wheels in the form of Spanish subtitles, which don’t match the words said but roughly approximate their meaning, so there is a small safety net in place.  I do my best to ignore the subtitles and stick with the actual dialogue, but they are necessary for me; I’ve tried watching the show without them and I get lost much more often.

So, all in all, I can watch the show and understand it.  There are other shows and podcasts I’ve tried and needed to give up on because I couldn’t follow them, but I haven’t had that problem with Bojack.  So I understand it.  But what does understanding a show or following it really mean exactly?  My definition for that in Spanish doesn’t match up to my definition in English.

It would come as no surprise to anyone for me to say that I am a huge nerd.  I’ve spent most of my life reading books and watching movies, and basically ever since I can remember I’ve had an expectation of fully comprehending everything I come across.  My expectations are sometimes challenged, especially in academic writing, but most of the time things pan out exactly like that.  I pick up a book or turn on a show, and every sentence written and line of dialogue delivered is instantly and fully understood.  They are things I can understand and follow.

But with Spanish?  If that was the bar I was setting for myself, I can barely say that I can understand and follow anything at all.

Reading is significantly further along in that regard, as while I still struggle with the odd bit of vocabulary in stuff like Harry Potter I don’t really get mystified by sentences anymore and I’d say that somewhere around 95% of it is at an English-standard level of understanding.  Stepping back a few levels and if I pick up something like El Principito or Charlie y la Fábrica de Chocolate it’s close enough to the English-standard that it’d be splitting hairs to separate the two.  What’s more, as I read, I have a dictionary handy, so even if my absorbed skill up to that point leaves it 95% comprehensible, that extra 5% gets filled in right away, until the experience of reading is equal to that of English.

Listening, on the other hand, is a different story.  It’s always lagged behind compared to my level in reading, so it’s hardly a shocker that it’s more of a struggle, but the whole experience is different with it.  When watching Bojack Horseman, which I defined earlier as something I can understand and follow, I manage to understand about 80% of the sentences fully.  Outside of those, I run into problems of stray vocabulary that I don’t know and sentences that are too complicated to parse at speed.  Which isn’t to say that it’s 20% unintelligible, because those problems can be mitigated with a little effort.

Unknown vocabulary is usually the easier of the two problems to overcome.  The context can be guessed at, and the more filled in my vocabulary is the easier it is to guess accurately.  Which I often do while reading, too, but there I have the luxury to look up words without it being as big of an interruption, so everything ends up being clear.  It’s much more difficult when watching, so words end up slipping through the cracks, and I’m left with sentences that I sort of understand.  I get it well enough to follow the conversation as it goes on and I’m not left feeling confused about what happened, but I’d probably be hard pressed to give more detail than a general overview.

The same is more or less true for things that are too hard to follow at speed.  In those cases, it’s rarely so hard that I don’t get a gist to the same level as sentences with unknown words.  I get it well enough to keep going almost all of the time.  This contrasts with reading, where I can slow down my reading pace enough to get the full meaning, usually without even needing to do so consciously.  In watching, the characters aren’t gonna slow down for my benefit.  The closest I have as a substitute is jumping back a couple seconds in the video and trying again.  Which is something I do, but not every sentence that I only get the gist of, just when I’ve completely lost the thread.  And if I didn’t have the Spanish subtitles to lean on, I’d be doing that too much for the show to really be watchable anymore.

Which brings me to the skill for foreign language listening mentioned earlier: tolerance.

I’ve talked a lot about how frustrating language learning can be, and this here is a primary point of frustration.  It sucks to not know stuff, and it sucks to lose the thread of enjoying something by needing to look up stuff.  I’m so used to the high level of comprehension I have in English that it would make sense for me to want to go back and pause every sentence I hear, looking up things I don’t fully get and playing it back over and over again, being unwilling to accept anything below full comprehension as not good enough.  But, frankly, if I did that, I’d have to go back to just watching nothing but Puffin Rock and maybe My Little Pony when I was feeling especially daring, because the interruptions would be too frequent to stand anything more complicated.

So, the skill that needs to be developed is letting the need to understand everything go.  At the end of the day, following the overall story is what’s important, and I can do that with understanding most and getting the gist of the rest.  It can still be frustrating, but I can watch the shows I want to watch and get in the practice from it.  Eventually, the understanding will come.  I know it will, because I went through the same comprehension cycle with Puffin Rock the first time around, and can now watch that show with zero interruptions and understand almost 100% of every line.  All it takes is not sweating it in the meantime.

Well, let’s get into the numbers.

Tuesday 10/02

  • Anki: 140 cards reviewed, ~10 minutes
  • Duolingo: 120 XP earned, ~30 minutes
  • Reading: 2 chapters of Harry Potter y el Misterio del Príncipe, ~90 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes

Wednesday 10/03

  • Anki: 120 cards reviewed, ~10 minutes
  • Duolingo: 200 XP earned, ~30 minutes
  • Reading: 2 chapters of Harry Potter y el Misterio del Príncipe, ~80 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 1 episode of Bojack Horseman, ~20 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes

Thursday 10/04

  • Anki: 150 cards reviewed, ~10 minutes
  • Duolingo: 200 XP earned, ~30 minutes
  • Reading: 3 chapters of Harry Potter y el Misterio del Príncipe, ~100 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 2 episodes of Bojack Horseman, ~40 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes

Friday 10/05

  • Anki: 130 cards reviewed, ~10 minutes
  • Duolingo: 80 XP earned, ~30 minutes
  • Reading: 2 chapters of Harry Potter y el Misterio del Príncipe, ~90 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes

Saturday 10/06

  • Anki: 130 cards reviewed, ~10 minutes
  • Duolingo: 80 XP earned, ~30 minutes
  • Reading: 2 chapters of Harry Potter y el Misterio del Príncipe, ~80 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 4 episodes of Bojack Horseman, ~80 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes

Sunday 10/07

  • Anki: 150 cards reviewed, ~10 minutes
  • Duolingo: 120 XP earned, ~30 minutes
  • Reading: 2 chapters of Harry Potter y el Misterio del Príncipe, ~90 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 4 episodes of Bojack Horseman, ~80 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes

Monday 10/08

  • Anki: 140 cards reviewed, ~10 minutes
  • Duolingo: 120 XP earned, ~30 minutes
  • Reading: 2 chapters of Harry Potter y el Misterio del Príncipe, ~90 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 3 episodes of Bojack Horseman, ~60 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes
  • Total Anki: 960 cards reviewed, 70 minutes
  • Total Duolingo: 920 XP, 210 minutes
  • Total Watching/Listening: 14 tv episodes watched, 280 minutes
  • Total reading: 10 chapters read, 620 minutes
  • Total speaking: reading out loud, 210 minutes
  • Total Time: 19 hours 40 minutes

A much better week than last week.  I think I’m through the worst of the slump, though it’s a little hard to say for sure.  Speaking of Bojack Horseman, I’m close to running out of it.  I’ve been wrapped up in the show as a piece of entertainment, so I’ve been mostly just watching it in the way Netflix shows are intended to be watched, which means I’ve gone through a couple of seasons rather quickly.  At the end of Monday, I have five more episodes to go.  I’m not sure what I’m going to replace it with, assuming I go back to my previous model of a ‘television block’ for listening practice.  I suppose I’ll confront that panic when I get to it.

I said before that I’d be giving some thought to setting a concrete date on when I’m starting in on real talking practice, but I haven’t done that yet.  The current practice from reading out loud has been very beneficial; I’m finding it a lot easier and more natural to pronounce Spanish words quickly and correctly than it used to be, which will make speaking for real feel a lot more comfortable.  I’ve been weighing the option of finding a Spanish language Discord server or some other social chat to maybe join before worrying about the speaking, sort of as training wheels for getting used to outputting the language before trying to do it at speed.  You can take more time with typing to try and figure out what you’re going to say and how you’re going to say it.  I’m not sure, though, I’m still giving it some thought.

Well, think I’ve rambled enough.  TTFN.

2 thoughts on “Defining Listening Comprehension

  1. I’ve been reading through your blog over the last few weeks. I find it really interesting since I’m roughly around the same level and spend nearly as much time daily working on my Spanish. I got back into learning it this year as a New Year’s resolution.

    What’s interesting is that we’ve seem to have taken very different tacks. I’ve focused much more on speaking from day 1. A few years ago I went to Ecuador and did 6 weeks of 1-on-1 classes and started speaking right away. This year I got serious about improving my Spanish (I want to go from B1/B2 to C1) and started the year by doing a TON of iTalki lessons with tutoring. I was convinced speaking was the only way to become good at speaking and I spent no time on reading or listening to podcasts/watching shows.

    However, in the early summer of this year I started researching language learning techniques and theories and discovered Krashen’s comprehensible input hypothesis. Since then I’ve deemphasized iTalki (I use it about 3 times a week) and I’ve been trying to boost my reading and listening. I started using an SRS, watching shows, finding Spanish podcasts and youtube channels, and reading (I’m almost done with Fight Club at the moment).

    I’m really impressed by how much time you’ve dedicated to reading so far. You’ve been churning through material at a much faster rater than me and it seems like your reading fluency blows mine away. You basically sound like a case study in learning through input and I definitely think a lot of research supports your strategy.

    If you’re looking into jumping into speaking, however, I really recommend iTalki. I’ve met a lot of fun tutors there and I generally look forward to talking with them. At first it can be really nerve-racking, but just like your struggles with understanding certain shows it does get easier. Around 4 or 5 months ago I first spoke to a Venezuelan who spoke so quickly (it felt quick, at least) that I was totally overwhelmed–it was as though I had never heard Spanish in my life. Now, 35 lessons with her later, I feel very comfortable just shooting the shit and I understand the vast majority of what she says.

    Anyway, I look forward to your next post. Your dedication is really impressive.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I appreciate the comment, Duran! When I do start talking to people, italki is exactly where I’m planning to go. I’ve put it off a little for a couple reasons, one of which being me dreading the nerve-racking thing,:) but additionally, I’m unsure that I have the right equipment setup for having conversations online that aren’t a total pain in the ass. I’ll need to get a headset/mic that sounds okay pretty soon, before I put off talking for too much longer.

    Like

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