I was recently asked how I learned to listen to English. After all, it is hard for many non-native speakers to keep up with normal verbal exchanges between native speakers or to understand lectures at university, not to mention movies, where conversations are conducted emotionally. What makes matters worse, most Japanese learners of English study in their home country where virtually no English is spoken or used on a daily basis. Therefore it takes them a bit of effort (and hopefully, grit) to improve their listening ability. Exactly how many hours must one practice until he/she finds no particular problem understanding spoken English?
As is always the case, I cannot provide a perfect solution for all learners. The only thing I can do here is to share with them what I have done. (I cannot even identify what part of my past learning experience directly contributed to the development of my ability to understand English when it is spoken at a normal speed.)
And hence, my experience.
The first intentional attempt to improve my listening skills that I made was to buy a shortwave radio to receive the radio wave from the Voice of America. I had learned from a magazine or something that they offered a special English program. The one I found was broadcast at around 10:45 p.m. At age 16, I didn’t have an earphone or anything (I am talking about an ordinary high school kid 35 years ago), so I would listen to the program deep in the bed so that it wouldn’t disturb anyone in the house. The English used in the program was really slow and simple. I was happy to finally find the “real” kind of English that I could enjoy other than the textbook and the English conversation programs available in Japan.
A second attempt to further improve my listening ability was to listen to BBC shows. With the same shortwave radio, I realized that I could listen to BBC world service. This one attempt, however, was to have a long-lasting effect on the inferiority that I would suffer as far as listening was concerned. Truth be told, I couldn’t understand a word spoken in any of these BBC shows. The shock that I felt was beyond your imagination. I had been learning English for the last six years (I first listened to BBC in my freshman year at university), and yet I couldn’t understand a word spoken in RP – the standard way in which English is spoken in England! It took me a couple of years, to be more precise the entire four years at university to finally understand British English smoothly.
From that phase on, I was not able to achieve any breakthroughs to move on to the next phase … for so long a period of time that I can only barely remember. Even though I already started to teach English at an English conversation school, I was not confident enough when it came to listening to spoken English. My TOEIC score back then was 990 already, but that did not help. I was not confident, even when I talked to a native speaker in person.
This plateau on the learning curve of my listening ability continued for as long as (as I said, if I can remember correctly) 7~8 years when the Internet-based TOEFL exam was introduced as a new form of the TOEFL. I hadn’t taken TOEIC for the past several years, but I had to take the TOEFL iBT, which, by that time, I was already teaching to make a living. I was not sure, either, if I could understand the listening section well, but as it turned out, I got 30 out of 30 in the listening section. That was obvious, because I understood every single word uttered in the section. Complete understanding would logically lead to a full mark.
What had happened by then? Below are things that I think I did during the “dark (latent) period” of my English learning.
1. Watched the same movie repeatedly. By “repeatedly” I mean “countless times,” literally. Tried to write down what they say and played each role myself as I watched it.
No, I cannot remember anything else. (People say, “Time is on your side,” or “Time can tell,” but please be reminded that “time” is the real culprit that takes your memory away.)
As I remember the path to learning English, however, I have found some things that I can emphasize here.
1. I cannot remember anything special that I did to improve my listening ability because that was not special at all. Everything – every effort, every book, every material – was so beautifully integrated into my daily routine that I couldn’t even trace them back as anything “special.” That was deeply ingrained into my unconsciousness.
2. I didn’t have a friend who spoke English as a native speaker for a long time. Especially after I was promoted to management of the school, I tried as much as possible to avoid making friends with them (there were as many as 100 native English speakers there) for fear of the possibility that I couldn’t criticize, reprimand, and even fire them if need be. So you don’t have to have friends to improve your listening skills.
3. Two important caveats
1) From the very beginning of my entire learning experience that started back when I was 13 years old, I successfully developed a good habit of listening to NHK’s radio English programs. This I continued for as long as 10 years until I graduated from university. That is the basis on which whatever I did after that turned out effective and even successful.
2) Having trouble with understanding RP was mainly because Japanese English education (at least in those days) was conducted in the Standard American accent. This also applied to NHK’s shows. I was fully exposed to the American English, which I had thought was the only English that existed. Having trouble with understanding RP does not mean that I couldn’t understand written English. I had learned English grammar, so with the help of English dictionaries I could read TIME magazines and English literary works.
Now, I can finally calculate the exact hours I spent on the development of my listening ability.
Basic NHK’s shows: 15~20 mins/day×365×10years=912.5 hours
VOA/BBC: 15 mins/day×365×3years(I am not sure)=273.75 hours
Movies: 2h×200(?)=400 hours
miscellaneous items 0.5h×365×(after univ ~ age 34?)=2190 hours
Total: 3376.25 hours
At age 34, I was pretty much sure I could understand spoken English, whether it be a standardized test, a court trial, or a TV drama, the latter of which is a bit hard, partly because I am not that interested in watching a drama and largely because it IS hard. One noticeable thing is that the above number is not anything like you expected when you started to read this post. First of all, I only calculate the first twenty years of my adventure of learning English. So the rest (another twenty years) should be added to see how many hours I have spent thus far in total. Second of all, this result implies that in order to improve your listening ability, the act of listening itself is not as important as people think. More important is to learn the basics of the language – not only its sound, but its structure and vocabulary as well.
There seems to be no one way to only improve the listening ability. It is supported by all the other knowledge and skills of the target language. That is why I said earlier that I don’t know what part of my learning experience made the greatest contribution to the improvement of my listening ability. “Listening,” while it accounts for a substantial time period, is not the only way to improve your listening ability.