Repetition’s Role in Listening Comprehension

The role of repetition's role in learning a language learning...?

Repetition is a common language learning topic.  It’s something that a lot of people who spend time talking on the internet about language learning are constantly arguing in favor of.  Listen to or read something over and over again, keep going back to those same things over time, and keep doing that week to week.  You only end up remembering things that you get exposed to repeatedly, so expose yourself to something repeatedly to end up remembering it.

I have an iffy relationship with repetition.  I’m not going to say I hate it, because in certain circumstances I absolutely don’t.  Back when I read Harry Potter in Spanish, it was probably my seventh full readthrough of the entire series, and my tenth or eleventh of some of the earlier books, back when I reread those while waiting for new books to come out.  The Dresden Files was my second full readthrough of the series (well, “full” as far as what was available to get in Spanish), and my third or fourth readthrough of a few of the individual books, as I tended to only reread the last book in the series before a new one came out, plus a return or two to a few select favorites of the series.  Heck, I’ve read The Little Prince in Spanish twice now during this language journey.  I watched all of what was available in Spanish of My Little Pony again, which was not at all the first watch or even the second watch, and I’ve marathoned Aggretsuko a couple of times now.  I’m not opposed to revisiting old favorites from time to time.

The key feature of that statement is the ‘time to time’ part, as I absolutely do not like going over the same thing in quick succession, especially if I wasn’t all that jazzed about it the first time.

I don’t imagine I’m alone in feeling this way about repeating media ad nauseum (though judging by some of my friends and how they react to MCU movies, I perhaps have a tolerance level that’s a bit on the low side), and I think that as soon as you start telling people that the trick is to go through the same thing over and over again, the whole thing starts sounding like homework.  And nothing kills the drive to learn something faster than making it feel like school.

To counteract that problem, the suggestion of repetition often gets bundled with novelty, so your expectation is to go through a diverse array of things repeatedly but changing them up here and there to keep from getting bored.  And if that works, great, but it doesn’t work that well for me.  I would be deeply reluctant to go back to, say, Charlie y la Fábrica de Chocolate right now, and I read that book a full year ago.  I couldn’t imagine trying to repeat chapters from it in between other books without giving up and watching paint dry as my primary hobby instead.

Fortunately, I reasoned, the time when all that repetition would be the most useful was right at the start of learning.  You don’t have much of a vocabulary yet at the start, and you’re needing to learn a lot of stuff just to get up to speed at understanding the most basic sort of content.  Taking something you don’t understand much of and going through it over and over again until you get it can bridge a lot of gaps in that early stage.  Afterwards, though, its value drops off, because while you still need to reinforce things regularly, there’s a lot of it to reinforce, and you already have a good bulk of vocabulary and structure down cold.  At a certain point, you’re getting a lot more out of reading a new novel rather than going back through something again, with the new novel pulling triple duty of reinforcing things, introducing new things, and keeping you engaged and happy.  Some things here and there might get missed in the shuffle and forgotten for a while, but overall you keep moving forward at the same speed.

Unfortunately, I think my reasoning has a big flaw when it comes to listening comprehension.

I talked a while ago about needing to put up with not understanding everything when practicing at listening comprehension.  Books can be exciting page-turners, but ultimately, you’re the arbiter of the pacing for your consumption.  If a section is especially difficult, you can slow down and give yourself time to think everything through clearly before going on or set the book down long enough to look something up.  It’s often bothersome to do, but there’s relatively little friction in doing it, and as a result you can get through books understanding everything in them without much struggle.

Movies, podcasts, television shows, and youtube videos, on the other hand, offer a lot of friction when you don’t understand something.  The pace is dictated by the vocal delivery, so something that you might be able to get if you slowed down to give yourself a chance to think has already blown past to the next thing, and you don’t have much recourse to try again.  You can pause and go back, but I’ve yet to meet a digital video or audio player that made rewinding convenient.  You can jump back five seconds, ten seconds, or scrub through the bar, but that’s it in most cases, and trying to do that with finesse is basically impossible.  There’s no listening to the same individual word again to try and catch it, the way you can look at something written on a page.  And breaking the flow of a show by pausing it is, at least to me, a lot more disruptive to immersion than putting a book down to look something up.  Probably because, as you’re setting the pace when reading, you can ease back in from your stopping point until you pick up the thread again, but with prerecorded audio there is no inertia.  Pause and unpause, and you’re off to the races.

As such, it’s a lot harder and a lot rarer to get through audio and be able to say you understood everything to the same level as something you’ve read, and coming to terms with that means accepting that listening to audio will result in not understanding the things you’re consuming to the same level as you would have in writing, and being okay with that.

Which, overall, I still think is a reasonable conclusion to come to, but as I’ve been striving toward getting my listening comprehension up to a high enough level to where I’m comfortable starting to work on talking, isn’t something I can actually accept as “good enough” anymore.  I’m not expecting perfection out of myself by any means, but what I’m really looking for in my listening comprehension is to not be satisfied with losing the thread and only gathering the gist of what’s happening.  It’s good enough for watching media, but it isn’t good enough for conversations with real people, I don’t think.

In that vein, I’ve been slowly switching gears with how I’m spending some of my listening practice time.  I haven’t abandoned my primary study approach, which is still geared around reading as my main source of input, but I have been changing a bit of how I spend the extra time I spend most days when listening to things.  And the bulk of the change has been the introduction of … repetition and careful reassurance that I understood everything before moving on.

And, well, everything I said negatively about those things has been holding true, but I’ve been approaching it in small chunks.  Watching, pausing, rewinding, looking up, and repeating a television show or a movie is a monumental affair that I’m certainly not up for, but a positive about youtube compared to a lot of other entertainment sources is the variable length of content.  It’s a lot smaller of an ask to carefully get through a five to ten-minute movie or video game review once or twice in comparison to something full-length.

I don’t know how useful it’ll prove to be in the long run.  The research I’ve read about language acquisition still suggests that all comprehensible input increases listening comprehension, and reading is the most efficient form of input, so it’s more valuable to spend my time reading.  But while focusing on my reading has had marked results in my listening comprehension up to a point, I still find myself struggling a lot with native speakers who are using the language in a more natural, non-voice-actory way.  I feel like careful, focused practice on listening to things like that and making sure I understand it before movie on might help me cross over that hurtle.  And of course it won’t hurt me to do it.  Input is input after all.

Well now, let’s look at this week’s numbers.

Tuesday 5/14

  • Duolingo: 20 XP earned, ~0 minutes
  • Reading: 1/4 of Pies de Barro, ~180 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes

Wednesday 5/15

  • Duolingo: 20 XP earned, ~0 minutes
  • Reading: 1/10 of Pies de Barro, ~70 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 1 episode of A Series of Unfortunate Events, 1 episode of Breaking Bad, 1 episode of La Zona Cero, 1 episode of Blaster Reviews, ~130 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes

Thursday 5/16

  • Duolingo: 20 XP earned, ~0 minutes
  • Reading: 1/4 of Pies de Barro, ~180 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 1 episode of La Zona Cero, ~20 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes

Friday 5/17

  • Duolingo: 20 XP earned, ~0 minutes
  • Reading: 1/4 of Pies de Barro, ~180 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 1 episode of La Zona Cero, ~10 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes

Saturday 5/18

  • Duolingo: 20 XP earned, ~0 minutes
  • Reading: 1/4 of Papá Puerco, ~180 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 1 episode of Daniel San GMR, ~20 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes

Sunday 5/19

  • Duolingo: 20 XP earned, ~0 minutes
  • Reading: 1/4 of Papá Puerco, ~180 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 2 episodes of La Zona Cero, ~20 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes

Monday 5/20

  • Duolingo: 20 XP earned, ~0 minutes
  • Reading: 1/4 of Papá Puerco, ~180 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 1 episode of Daniel San GMR, ~10 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes
  • Total Duolingo: 202 XP, 0 minutes
  • Total reading: 1 and 2/3 books, 1150 minutes
  • Total watching/listening: 8 YouTube episodes and 2 tv episodes watched, 210 minutes
  • Total speaking: reading out loud, 210 minutes
  • Total Time: 22 hours 40 minutes

A pretty good week all told.  I finished off Pies de Barro and moved onto Papá Puerco, and am continuing to deeply enjoy this stretch of Discworld books.  I enjoyed the beginning of the series pretty well, but I can certainly see why a lot of the conversation around Discworld books is a discussion of reading orders other than chronologically-as-published.  I’m of course rather stubborn and compulsive, so I’ve harrowed my way through the as-published order up to this point and will be happy to keep going that way.  Though next time I read through the series again (because I can tell already that it’ll be a series I’ll want to revisit), I’ll probably opt for reading it by subseries.  I’m nearing the halfway mark on the book series as a whole, which is exciting in its own way.  Another couple of months, and I’ll be out of books again.  I have no idea what’s gonna be next.

As I hit the midpoint of the month, I devoted a day to a listening check-in, and in the process went exploring on youtube a bit, looking for other channels besides Daniel San GMR to listen to.  Daniel’s stuff is still very watchable, and when he put out a new video this week, I was all over it, but I’m trying to keep my net cast pretty wide.  I still lose the thread with Daniel sometimes, but he’s gotten a lot easier for me to understand, and part of that seems like it’s probably getting used to him specifically, and having other people to listen to in a similar register and delivery is a good counterpoint to that.  I watched some from a channel called Blaster Reviews and another called La Zona Cero, and while I’ll probably revisit both, La Zona Cero has a good range of videos right in the length where they’re ideal for the careful, focused listening I talked about in the main body of the blog, so it’s been the primary source for that.

I also watched the pilot to Breaking Bad in Spanish, which was pretty enjoyable.  I watched about half of Breaking Bad while it was in progress on tv, but never finished it because my life got screwed up for a while dealing with a divorce and things.  I’ve been meaning to get back to it and watch it again since then, and this seems like a good time to work on that.  It’ll probably be a little bit slow-going for me, because I do want to focus on careful listening, and I’m not looking to sacrifice my reading time at all.  We’ll see, I’ll manage to squeeze episodes in here and there, I hope.

I finished off the story section in Duolingo and returned to the main lessons this week, and it’s becoming more clear to me that I’ve just about squeezed the last drop of utility out of Duolingo for me.  I’m still very positive toward the product and I’d like to maintain my streak and whatnot, but my skill level in Spanish is above what Duolingo’s concerned about serving.  I’m still only devoting a bare couple of minutes a day into maintaining the streaks and things, but it’s more and more obvious how those bare couple of minutes are trivial.  I haven’t been surprised by anything there for quite a while, and about 90% of the time that I ever get a question wrong, it’s because my answer should have been accepted but wasn’t loaded as a possible correct answer (which on the one hand is frustrating, but on the other hand is easily reportable, and getting notifications from staff that they’ve reviewed and accepted the answer you gave going forward is a pretty nice feeling), and the other 10% of the time it was because I was being sloppy.

This blog is the 52nd I’ve written for this journey not counting the bonus English-translation blogs, which means next week is technically the start of year two of blogging.  I’m planning on holding off writing a retrospective on the 12 months of progress until the following week when I have all of May’s numbers to count, but I’m happy I made it through the first year with a blog every week, and zero disasters along the way.  I’ve progressed a lot over the course of this year, both personally and in my grasp of Spanish, and I’m excited to see what year two of blogging will bring.

Well, that’ll do for this one.  TTFN.

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