Listening: A How-To

Of the four language-learning pillars, listening is most likely to induce panic. Speaking, reading and writing can all be done at your own pace, but you can’t pause native speakers or hit “x0.5 speed”. Classic example – Tina Fey’s 30 Rock character trying out her high school German #hubcap?

The Listening
Problem

Hearing the real language has to happen, but you have to manage it carefully. I had to study French and German between the ages of 11-14, and I remember the feeling of confusion and despair – and a little bit of betrayal – when I went to those countries with my family. You know, you’re suddenly surrounded by native speakers talking Martian(?) and you realise: “oh no. Oh right. I know nothing.” How can you tackle this shock?

Every morning, I listen to two news podcasts. First, I get a five minute German-language version, which helps wake up my brain, and gives me the headlines. Second, I click on the El País podcast, which is a three minute deluge of Spanish I barely understand. I would never recommend it to intermediate learners – it’s too depressing – unless you play it at x0.5 speed and want to hear a drunk newscaster.

It is easy to find the real, slightly bewildering spoken language – you can choose Netflix shows, the evening news, some YouTubers. It is important to expose yourself to the real thing, because this never happened when I was in school, and the learning materials alone cannot reflect how people actually talk. That said, beginner or intermediate listening practice will help you improve in a way that standard resources won’t.

Spanish Listening Tools

Also consider finding a tandem partner, Conversation Exchange is a popular site allowing you to find a language partner to swap languages via messaging, skyping or meeting up in your city. It has a ‘classic’ design (ca. 2004?) but there are active users!

If you are in a face to face conversation, you probably won’t understand everything they say. My last piece of advice is to look up – or remind yourself – how to ask the person to slow down, or repeat something, or to rephrase it. Sé valiente y probarlo!

Everything You Need to Start Learning a Language

It is almost the new year and if you are thinking about your language goals, here’s all the most useful languageuntangled tips for apps, podcasts, books and vocab.

Everything You Need
to Start Learning a Language

Resources

Game Plan

German Vocab

A War By Two Names – Podcast Recommendations

Have you heard of the Falkland Islands? Or Las Malvinas? I am British and my awareness of this tiny territory next to Argentina has always been minimal. Among millenials – people I know – very little is known about the 1982 conflict, and the name ‘las Malvinas’ is known even less. In doing a little research, I found this video from The Guardian newspaper explaining why the military action was successful for the British, which is accompanied by scores of jingoistic and xenophobic comments.

I respect that the concern for the UK government at the time was that  British citizens – albeit a very small number of them – could potentially be forced into a dictatorship, but the issue is not black and white. It felt like a real wake-up call when the Duolingo podcast featured this story back in 2017, which examined one Argentinian soldier’s memory of the war. In what feels like a deliberately diplomatic stance, the episode covers an unlikely friendship between the young soldier and an English local.

In contrast, just last week NPR’s podcast Radio Ambulante put up an episode about two Argentinian soldiers’ experience of the war, which occurred six years into a dictatorship. (Available with transcripts in both Spanish and English). Their belief in victory was quickly shattered and hundreds of lives were lost.

I would be interested to learn more about the conflict, which is yet another example of how choosing to learn Spanish has challenged my assumptions about politics and history. Those depressing YouTube comments (yes, I know, don’t read YouTube comments) has strengthened my conviction to learn more, ask questions and look for more to the story.

Foreign Horror Tips!

Here’s some foreign-language suggestions for the spooky season – boost your listening skills while enjoying some scares…

backlit dark dawn environment
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Dark
A German Netflix production which portrays life in an isolated small town where various children have gone missing over the decades… could it have something to do with the power plant? Or with what lies beneath it? Low-Medium Spooky

Los Ojos de Julia (Julia’s Eyes)
Spanish thriller about a woman who is quickly losing her sight to a genetic illness. Her twin sister, who recently killed herself, had the same condition. Was it a genuine suicide? The eye stuff brings this into the horror genre… Medium Spooky

Låt den rätte komma in (Let the Right One In)
This atmospheric Swedish film, adapted from the novel of the same name, is one of the best examples of a vampire movie. It is creepy and effectively chilling but in some ways it is also quite moving. Medium Spooky

El Orfanato (The Orphanage)
Would it really be Halloween without evil child ghosts in an abandoned orphanage? This is the best version of that. Very Spooky

REC
This tense zombie flick is one of the best examples of the found footage genre and uses a claustrophobic quarantined apartment building to excellent effect. Turn out the lights and try and remember to breathe. Super Spooky

Because it is almost Halloween and there are many amazing horror movies in English – especially in the last 5 years – here are some of the best (and scariest) I’ve ever seen:

The Babadook (2014)
Ghost Stories
(2018)
The Witch
(2015)
The Borderlands
(2013)
It Follows
(2015)
Hereditary 
(2018)

… and The Blair Witch Project, imo it’s still scary.

P.S. I am obsessed with the new Haunting of Hill House on Netflix, it is terrifying and I can’t stop watching!!

Wondering how to take your language to the next level?

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If you have made your way past the travel phrases and greetings to an intermediate language level, well done! Maybe you’re wondering how to keep the momentum going – if so, this post is for you.

The intermediate stage of a language is pretty fabulous, because you can have a conversation and month on month you can improve very quickly. Later on, there’s a bit more pressure. I use German daily for my job, and the word fluent still seems very loaded, and I can feel guilty if I come across words I don’t know. (Side note, when reading about Aretha Franklin after her death I learned the word Urgewalt, which means an ‘elemental force’ – how perfect is that?).

The intermediate stage is still all about discovery and you should enjoy being free of that nebulous term ‘fluency’ and just enjoy building on your comprehension. If it’s an option for you, group classes are the most effective way to improve at this stage. (I did it for German, and after a year of solo Spanish I am in the classroom again).

That being said, classes alone are nothing if not accompanied by reading, listening and speaking in your spare time (Exhibit A: mes quatres ans de francais en l’ecole).

Here are some great habits to develop which will maintain and propel you towards advanced learning!

  1. Read! You can try simple novels or children’s books (here some German suggestions), but the news will be most helpful. It will connect you with what’s going on, and the language will be a mixture of conversation starters (politics, culture, scandals) and every day vocabulary. Spanish: El País, German: Deutsche WelleDie Zeit. Some papers have ‘easy language’ versions of the news, such as Taz (German).
  2. Listen! I follow a bunch of Spanish-language podcasts, but the mistake I usually make is passive listening. It is still quite beneficial, but if you feel motivated, write down a few new words or phrases and look them up. Better still, write your own sentences with the new words. Links: Radio Ambulante (Latin American news from NPR), Coffee Break Spanish (see season 3+), Españolistas, TED Talks en Español. All in the usual podcast apps.
  3. Speak! Make regular conversation in your language, if you can! Major cities will have meet up groups for exchanging languages. See also Conversation Exchange – it’s a super basic but widely used website for finding tandem partners, I found a Spanish friend in the city and we meet up fairly regularly so we can each practice our languages! You can correct each other, give tips and explain natural, native ways of speaking.
  4. Be Active. Your new language is going to pop up in your head at random moments of the day. You might also find yourself wondering ‘how could I say that in Spanish? Do I know how to conjugate the verb?’ Here’s an old list of super useful apps which will allow you to consult a dictionary or a grammar tool on the go, so you can learn something at unexpected moments.

All of this has worked and continues to work for me – good luck! Let me know your own tips and tricks.