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What’s Your Favorite Show?

When learning a second (or third, or fourth) language, we often focus on the written word. That’s natural for many of us—learning about language in school is usually more about what we see than what we hear. Also, the written word is permanent. If we don’t understand something, we have time to look it up to try and figure out the meaning.

But when we’re using our language in the world, words don’t sit placidly on a page, waiting for us to look them up and think about them. In the world, words are spoken, often quickly and not always clearly.

One example of studying language visually vs. verbally is preparing to have lunch with coworkers. You might have looked at a dozen local restaurant menus so that you are fully prepared to order when the time comes. But when a coworker comes up to you and asks, “J’eet?” you might be understandably confused. (For the record, “‘j’eet?” is what happens when native speakers want to ask “Did you eat?” but don’t bother saying each word).

I once had a student ask what “save the pig” meant. I had never heard this term before (except in the children’s classic story Charlotte’s Web, and I was confident that it wasn’t what he was asking). I asked for some context, and he said he’d heard it on the radio while driving in to work. I was still stumped, so asked for more specifics. He said that he had been listening to a local sports station.

By pure luck, that was the clue I needed, because that very morning, my husband—a sports fan himself—had mentioned that (because of some incredibly convoluted rules) if our local basketball team lost one more game, they would save their draft pick (in other words, their choice of new college players). Aha! PICK, not pig. A very understandable mistake, and a prime example of how challenging listening can be, to say nothing of the rules around professional sports.

Luckily, there are more resources available today than ever before. There are a wealth of online lessons available, including materials aimed at new learners. But sometimes that’s the problem. Since they’re aimed at new learners, they can be a bit dull, and often feel artificial instead of practical.

What’s the answer? Luckily, many popular movies and TV shows have been dubbed (an audio track recorded in a different language from the original) and subtitled (translations displayed at the bottom of the screen). Most people have a favorite TV show or movie, one that they watch over and over. That’s the key.

A show that is already familiar means that you don’t have to think about what’s happening in the plot or what the characters are doing. You can listen to the language. A show you love keeps you interested.

You might think that if a show has both “dubs and subs” in your target language, you should turn both on, because that way you get the visual backup to the words you’re hearing. Unfortunately, dubbing often doesn’t match subtitles. The ideas are usually the same, but the exact words often differ. If you’re reading words that are different than what you’re hearing, it can end up being more confusing, not less.

Since listening skills are usually what need more practice, I recommend the dubbing over the subtitles. Yes, it can be hard to follow at first. That’s where the next step comes in: repetition.

When you’re first learning a new language, you can’t expect to listen to something one time and understand it, even if it’s a show you have memorized in your native language. It takes time and practice, and the more frequent that practice is, the easier it gets. Committing to watching something in your target language for half an hour per day will work wonders for increasing your listening skills.

Commercials are another, perhaps unexpected, source for learning language. They’re short, often fun, designed to be memorable, and provide great opportunities for practice. Also, the repetitive nature, which sometimes drives us crazy, makes practice easier.

Also, remember that perfect understanding isn’t the goal here. Rather, it’s to increase your overall understanding. In real world situations, you don’t always have to understand every single word in order to know what’s going on. And if you stop to focus on understanding every single word, the conversation will leave you behind.

Good listening is a skill like any other. And like any other skill, the more you practice, the easier it gets. Taking advantage of the resources you already know and love makes it even more enjoyable.

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