Come again?: A foreign language listening tool

Try it out:
GitHub link:

I’m an English teacher. Every Thursday morning, we have a class in the computer lab, and I walk around making sure that people are aware of what’s available to them on the Internet. Most people have no idea. To them, as far as English is concerned, a computer is a means to visit grammar websites. They don’t realize that they could learn the entire English language from their computer, including listening, reading, writing and even speaking.

Lack of knowledge of resources plays a big part in this. Mostly, though, the problem is that they don’t know how to train.

That’s train, not study. Studying suggests reading textbooks and taking notes, as you might do with sociology or history. But language learning, despite the way it’s done almost universally, doesn’t work like this. It’s much closer to a sport or a musical instrument — things that require training.

If that word conjures up images of routine and repetition, then I’ve chosen the right word.

Bruce Lee once said:

“I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.”

If you want to be any good at a language and get beyond the intermediate plateau, you need to do your sets of 10,000. What I see as a teacher is that almost all people who learn a second language assume it’s a good idea to read an article or watch a video once, abandon it, and find something else — because this is what people do in their first language when consuming media for entertainment. This is like practicing each kick once.

I realized this a few years ago after taking advice from people who had attained native-like pronunciation in English as an L2, like Luca Lampariello and Vladimir Skultety. These guys got their impressive accents by slowing way, way down and mastering little chunks of words and their intonation.

This episode of the Language is Culture podcast is an interview with Vladimir, where he details his approach to learning by “mass listening”: listening actively with complete focus for as long as possible. Two of his points leap out at me as being crucial:

  1. Pause the audio when you encounter a word you don’t understand, rewind and repeat until you can figure out the spelling of the word.
  2. The point is to listen until you hear the information and not the language itself.

Essentially, drench yourself in the words so many times that you start to hear them the way a native speaker does and they start bouncing around in your brain. If you want to improve your pronunciation (and speaking in general), you can then repeat the words along with the audio, analyzing them as you go, as Luca does.

To give you an idea of the kind of focus I’m talking about: I recently began learning Brazilian Portuguese. The first thing I did was get hold of some basic conversations from a Teach Yourself book and start listening. The first conversation I listened to was 21 seconds long, but I spent an hour on it.

That may sound like a long time to listen to a short conversation, but now I can reproduce that conversation and every expression in it from memory with good intonation and pronunciation, and I can listen to it effortlessly. I can also use the same expressions without thinking when I need to in a conversation. I can also write it from memory with the correct spelling because I drilled that, too. I can even tell the difference between a Rio accent and a São Paulo accent now, because after all that listening, you can’t help but notice the little details in their voices. All this after one 21-second conversation!

In this way, you can train hard in a language just like you can in a sport. Once you give yourself permission to work at this level of intensity, you will enjoy a much faster and more satisfying rate of progress. That doesn’t mean you have to do it every day (in honesty, I rarely do!), but when you want to take it to that level, that approach is there for when you need it.

Come again? is an app I made to help with this sort of training. Most audio apps like VLC and iTunes allow you to skip back and forth while listening, but the intervals are usually too long and the keyboard shortcuts too inconvenient (and sometimes don’t even work). I made Come again? as an audio player dedicated to training your listening.

Give it a try.