Listening to a Language Vs. Hearing One

After getting annoyed with myself in the previous blog over my loss of focus on listening practice, I put in more effort through the week, and ended with a pretty stable block of time every day watching a variety of things.  I’ve been doing the listening practice for a long time now, longer than I’ve been reading novels in Spanish, but it’s been a secondary focus, both practically-speaking in time spent and systemically-speaking in how I’ve gone about learning Spanish.

I don’t think I’ve been making the wrong decision putting reading first in my priorities, as I’m confident that it is the driving force for learning for me.  Seeing words and phrases written down over and over again is what does the most work in building and fortifying understanding, listening on the other hand has helped with the ability to hear and parse Spanish when spoken.  The language is helpfully straightforward when it comes to pronunciation, but there is a world of difference between knowing how a word is said in the abstract and recognizing that word when spoken out loud at speed by an actual person, and listening to people talk strengthens that skill.  However, when it comes to introducing new words or strengthening the understanding on shaky ones, it’s far less useful.

I’ve picked up a few new words here and there when listening, and I’ve gotten good practice at reinforcing words as well, but far and away the most good it’s done has been in getting me used to listening to spoken Spanish as a language rather than a string of sounds.

When I say listening to something as a language rather than a string of sounds, I’m talking about something more than just a lack of comprehension, because it goes beyond not making out what a person said or hearing them use a word that you’re unfamiliar with.  That’s something that happens all the time in one’s native language.  You hear someone speaking, but it’s loud or they have an accent, or they swallow a word in a strange way, and you just can’t tell what they said.  Or by heteroclite kismet someone uses a word you’ve just never heard before and you have no idea what it means.  You might lose the thread of the conversation and need to ask for someone to repeat themselves, but your brain still heard and recognized what the other person said as English and just failed to understand everything.

With a different language, it’s more complicated than that.  I’ve grown up around Spanish and lots of other languages living in a metropolitan city, hearing languages other than English is not unusual for me, and my brain knows not to try and understand them.  Foreign languages get filed away in the same place as most song lyrics do for me, where it’s a string of sound that is allowed to wash over me, not looking for words, not trying to find meaning, at most maybe enjoying the melodious or rhythmic quality.

I understand why, it’s a lost cause trying to pull meaning from, say, the guy on the corner speaking Hindi on his phone as I walk by, or picking up anything other than tone of voice from the Japanese spoken when I’m watching some subtitled anime.  I have very little working knowledge of the languages in question, if I know any words at all, and if my brain were busy focusing on it trying to figure out what it meant, I’d probably be exhausted and frustrated.  And so, my brain tunes it out, turning it to white noise as a defense mechanism.  I imagine this is something most people do, though I could be wrong.

This all means quite unfortunately that listening to Spanish is saddled with the starting gate disadvantage of my brain expecting to tune it out.  Some parts of breaking that habit are easier than others, with apps verbalizing words in a vacuum, media aimed at very small children often having lines that might as well be isolated for how slow they’re delivered, and good old repetition making phrases so familiar that your brain starts guessing them out of hand as soon as they start being said.  Overall, though, the biggest improvement for me has been from just putting in the time, sitting and listening to shows, and forcing myself to actively listen to the dialogue and search for meaning.  It’s mentally exhausting, but you get used to it, and eventually things get to a range of comprehension where your brain’s switches are flipped, and you’d need to actively tune out the meaning instead.

I’ve come to recognize that this is the real underlying problem in the situations I’ve talked about in the past of eavesdropping on Spanish speakers and being totally confounded.  It’s one thing to sit at my desk with a pair of headphones and just stare at a screen while focusing on listening, and another thing entirely with normal people.  As I’ve raised the ceiling on what my brain is willing to accept and process as language, actual people speaking out in the real world is still a floor or two up the stairs.

My reaction was for a while to keep working on raising that ceiling, with the introduction of things aimed at an older audience like Bojack Horseman and things delivered more naturally like Daniel San GMR.  Through fighting to listen actively on higher and higher bars, eventually it should be the same level of effort with real people.

This week, though, as I’ve been reading through Matar a un Ruiseñor, a book that is compelling if not incredibly challenging to my reading level, I’ve had second thoughts about it.  At this point, the main mechanism of reading is hardening into place more and more words, phrases, and concepts that I already at least half know, building up a more effortless and innate knowledge of the language.  This is more or less what watching My Little Pony has also been like for me.  I’ve been a little dismissive of it in the past as something that ‘probably helps and at least doesn’t hurt anything,’ as more an indulgence of mine, since it’s a show I enjoy watching, but I think I may have been giving it too hard a time.

With both Bojack Horseman and Daniel San GMR I have been relying a lot on subtitles to help me through.  I’ve put some concerted effort into ditching them with the latter, watching with and rewatching without, but I haven’t seen much improvement when trying to listen to an unwatched video blind.  With MLP though, I watch it entirely without subtitles, and while understanding all the dialogue has been and remains close to perfect, the level of effort needed to actively listen seems to be steadily decreasing.  In the same way that reading solidifies understanding over time, listening might solidify that ability to actively listen to Spanish.

I can’t say for sure, but that’s the working hypothesis I have going into listening to the easier fare on my tv block.  If nothing else, it makes me feel less guilty about watching talking magical horses.

Okay, let’s get into numbers for the week.

Tuesday 10/30

  • Anki: 40 cards reviewed, ~10 minutes
  • Duolingo: 200 XP earned, ~30 minutes
  • Reading: 2 chapters of Matar a un Ruiseñor, ~80 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 2 episodes of My Little Pony, 2 episodes of Daniel San GMR, ~60 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes

Wednesday 10/31

  • Anki: 40 cards reviewed, ~10 minutes
  • Duolingo: 200 XP earned, ~30 minutes
  • Reading: 3 chapters of Matar a un Ruiseñor, ~90 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 1 episode of My Little Pony, 3 episodes of Daniel San GMR, ~60 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes

Thursday 11/01

  • Anki: 50 cards reviewed, ~10 minutes
  • Duolingo: 200 XP earned, ~30 minutes
  • Reading: 3 chapters of Matar a un Ruiseñor, ~80 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 1 episode of My Little Pony, 3 episodes of Daniel San GMR, ~60 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes

Friday 11/02

  • Anki: 40 cards reviewed, ~10 minutes
  • Duolingo: 200 XP earned, ~30 minutes
  • Reading: 3 chapters of Matar a un Ruiseñor, ~90 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 1 episode of My Little Pony, 2 episodes of Daniel San GMR, ~60 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes

Saturday 11/03

  • Anki: 40 cards reviewed, ~10 minutes
  • Duolingo: 200 XP earned, ~30 minutes
  • Reading: 3 chapters of Matar a un Ruiseñor, ~80 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 1 episode of My Little Pony, 1 episode of A Series of Unfortunate Events, ~60 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes

Sunday 11/04

  • Anki: 50 cards reviewed, ~10 minutes
  • Duolingo: 200 XP earned, ~30 minutes
  • Reading: 3 chapters of Matar a un Ruiseñor, ~80 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 1 episode of Castlevania, 1 episode of Disenchantment, ~60 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes

Monday 11/05

  • Anki: 40 cards reviewed, ~10 minutes
  • Duolingo: 200 XP earned, ~30 minutes
  • Reading: 4 chapters of Matar a un Ruiseñor, ~90 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 1 episode of My Little Pony, 1 episode of Castlevania, 1 episode of Daniel San GMR ~60 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes
  • Total Anki: 300 cards reviewed, 70 minutes
  • Total Duolingo: 1400 XP, 210 minutes
  • Total Watching/Listening: 11 tv episodes and 11 YouTube episodes watched, 420 minutes
  • Total reading: 21 chapters read, 590 minutes
  • Total speaking: reading out loud, 210 minutes
  • Total Time: 21 hours 30 minutes

A nice and solid week.  I’m enjoying Matar a un Ruiseñor quite a bit, I haven’t read it since I was in 6th or 7th grade and it’s frequently more upsetting than I remember it being back then.  I suppose that’s to be expected, I have a better grasp on the themes than I did when I was a dumb kid.

As I said in the main body of this blog, I went through a variety of things to watch.  I’ve watched Disenchantment in English already and enjoyed it quite a bit (it’s a little slow to get going, but its sum is pretty fun television), while Series of Unfortunate Events and Castlevania are fresh for me.  Series was kind of hard to follow without subtitles, for reasons that I think have to do with dubbing live action; cartoons are a lot easier to re-record and mix compared to live action stuff, so the voice audio ends up being a little muddled.  I might not revisit it for a little while until I’ve had some more practice with easier things in hopes of keeping the subtitles off.  Castlevania is slightly harder to follow than Disenchantment, but not enough to be frustrating.

Also, I think I’ve settled on keeping up with this new Anki deck, as I’ve gotten used to the stuff that was rubbing me the wrong way about it.  At the end of the day, it’s a rather minor part of my studying time, but so long as it isn’t annoying me there’s no reason not to do it, either.

Now then, let’s look at the numbers for all of October.

  • Total Anki: 3,660 cards reviewed, 310 minutes
  • Total Duolingo: 4,790 XP, 930 minutes
  • Total Watching/Listening: 32 tv episodes and 37 youtube videos watched, 1,165 minutes
  • Total reading: 65 chapters  and 1 book read, 2,870 minutes
  • Total Speaking: reading out loud, 930 minutes
  • Total Time: 87 hours 55 minutes

And here’s the breakdown for money spent.

  • Harry Potter y las Reliquias de la Muerte, Fiction, Used Copy, Thrift Books, $6.78
  • American Gods, Fiction, Used Copy, Thrift Books, $9.39
  • Nocturno de Chile, Fiction, New Copy, Barnes and Noble, $16.02
  • Netflix Subscription Standard HD Plan, Television and Movie Streaming, $10.99 per month, $10.99
  • Amount Spent on Fiction Books: $32.19
  • Amount Spent on Services: $10.99
  • Total Spent: $43.19

So a very similar month overall to last month.  When I was considering the number of words I’ve read last week, it seemed like I’d significantly sped up in my reading speed at some point, and wasn’t sure how that would reflect in the October numbers, if maybe I was just reading more overall or if the speed really had gone up, and it looks like the answer is that there was in fact a speed increase, though not a huge one.  I did end up reading about an hour and a half more over the month, but that’s a bit misleading.  On the one hand, October has one more day in it than September, and I seem to read roughly an hour and a half per day, so it comes out to be about the same amount per-day in the long and the short of it.  On the other hand, October is when I had a short period of burnout and had some lackluster numbers for a little over a week, so I definitely have been reading more than usual afterwards.

So that said, in September I read 62 chapters, and in October I read 65 plus all of Nocturno de Chile, which length-wise could be said to be about 5 average-Potter-length chapters.  Taking into account the extra day for the month, that’s still something like 5 chapters more in the same amount of reading time.  So, yes a speed increase, but not very much of one.

I’m happy with how things are looking, though the amount of listening time is obviously low.  I’m hoping to keep up with my new ‘try lots of stuff of varying difficulty, work on just listening’ plan, which should result in better listening numbers for November.  I also didn’t get around to setting a time to start working on speaking like I’d wanted to plan at the start of October, which I really should do soon.  I keep hoping for a listening breakthrough to where just understanding people gets easier for me, before I really worry about working on output.  It still strikes me as silly to be working on feeling comfortable and natural saying something to another human being, if when they answer me I end up unable to understand what they said.  Still, it’s definitely getting to be about time.  Maybe next month’s cost breakdown will include the price of a mic’d headset so I can skype with someone comfortably.

Anyway, that ought to finish this one out.  Let’s hope for a productive November.  TTFN.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s