Ear Training for Languages: Three Techniques to Practice
© 2016 Christopher DiMatteo. All Rights Reserved.
Part of learning a new language is developing a good ear for it. The right approach to ear training with the sounds of a new language will help you understand and pronounce it more quickly and more accurately. Fortunately for students, the best advice here is also the simplest.
Language is composed of sounds. Just as in music, you need to train your ears – and your mind – to hear sounds more carefully. Learning languages is a very natural process and we have all of the mental and physical equipment for it. For this aspect of language learning, you just have to rely on these natural skills.
These three listening techniques can help you hear more clearly.
Open Up Your Ears and Just Listen
First, open up your ears and trust your sense of hearing. Listen to as much native speech as you can find. There is a world of radio stations, podcasts and other audio to be heard on line today. Even a few years ago, language students had a much harder time finding live speech to listen to. Today, the problem is more about how to choose what you like from the abundant material available. It is nice to have a transcript of what you are hearing but listening without one is also good exercise, even if you don’t understand everything.
No matter what you’re hearing, just put yourself into a receptive frame of mind and let the sounds of the language come in through your ears. Welcome these sounds into your mind and they will become your most helpful friends.
If it seems that the sounds go by too fast, be patient. A new language sounds fast at first, but that is not because “they speak so fast.” People say that all the time about languages they are learning but the reverse is actually true. Native speakers are speaking their language at their normal pace and your listening skills are, at first, too slow to keep up with them. In other words, they aren’t speaking fast, it’s your listening that is slow. Gradually you will learn to understand the language at its normal speed and the only way to do this is to practice listening until you can hear the language at its own natural pace.
Use Your Auditory Memory
Second, use your auditory memory, which is the strongest type of memory we have. Psychologists and advertisers know this and it can be a powerful tool for you too. Consciously try to put the sounds of words and phrases into your memory. Then, when you try to use these phrases, bring them back out as sounds (without bothering with mental reference to spelling or to their meaning in your native language).
Imitate Fragments of Native Speech
Third, imitate fragments of native speech that you hear. Take a few words that you have heard from any native speaker and repeat them to yourself until you can reproduce the sound of what you heard. Do this without writing anything down and choose words from any speaker in any context. Listen for single words and for the intonation of whole phrases. Pay special attention to how native speakers string words together in a spoken sentence, and to where the breaths are. By taking a few words at a time, you can slow down the listening process and focus on getting the sounds into your mind as a model for your own speech.
Here is where your ear training involves learning to trust your own ears, even when you are studying and practicing alone. Listen to anyone speaking, or to a short recording of someone speaking, and practice reproducing the sound. Even if you don’t have a teacher or a conversation partner to help you, you can (and should) learn to judge your own sounds for yourself. (Never mind talking to a computer… who ever learns a language so that they can talk to a computer?!) The more attention you pay to the sound, the better judge of it you will be. You will develop a critical ear for the sounds that you make. Once this process takes hold in your mind, it will become second nature to you and will be a source of strength, since you will be more sure about sounds.
As your ears work, so goes your accent. By repeating these simple techniques, you can train your ear, which will affect your accent. When learning a language at first, we hear with an accent as well as speak with one. That means that our speech and hearing can be induced to develop together when we take a conscious approach to improving our ability to hear at the same time that we are learning to make the right sounds when we speak.
Written pronunciation guides have an important role, but if using them keeps you from developing your listening skills without written assistance, too much reliance on them is a waste of time. The way to influence your accent is first, to get the sounds of the language into your mind through your ears. Too much use of written pronunciation guides in language learning can slow down the development of listening skills.
Ear Training is a Key Process
If you give your ears their due, they will reward you with something no written text can give you – the certainty that you understand what you hear and that you can make the same sounds back to other people.
Practice understanding first and better pronunciation will follow, because the language you hear is the language you will speak.
Ear training also raises the question about finding the appropriate pronunciation for you. Most adults never completely lose their accent in any language they learn, but once you become familiar with diverse accents and can tell one from another, you can try to adjust your pronunciation as you please.
I have heard Italians who learned English by visiting North Carolina, and they spoke with the southern accent that they heard in that state. I knew one Italian man who was from Napoli, whose native speech was half Italian and half Napoletano dialect. He also spoke English, but with a very strong Napoletano accent, which is different than the accent of most other Italians.
It is fun and useful to learn to recognize the differences among various accents of a new language. This is one way to refine your listening and imitation skills. Whatever language you come from or that you are learning, you will have some kind of accent, either a strong or weak one, unless you learned a language under the right circumstances not to develop an accent, which including being young enough and receiving the right exposure to the other language.