August 12, 2009

Creating a foreign language listening environment

Filed under: Uncategorized — ktetaichinh @ 4:34 pm

August 1, 2009

I mentioned in a previous post about getting started with a foreign language that input is king. Input is what gives your brain examples of correct, native language to copy as you slowly convert incomprehension into comprehension. One way to get this input is to read, and read a lot. The other is to listen.

Listening ≥ watching

Notice I said “listen” and not “watch.” There are a few reasons for this:

  1. Listening alone is harder than listening and watching. Turn on the TV, mute the sound, and watch it for a while. Odds are, unless it was the news or something equally dry, you were able to generally follow along based solely on what you saw. TV shows and movies do a lot of their communicating via (language-neutral) imagery — that is, after all, why TV and movies have largely replaced radio as the world’s main source of media entertainment. If all you have is the audio, you’ll only be understanding what you actually understand, without the benefit of your visual cortex filling in the holes.
  2. You can listen while you do other stuff. Obviously the more concentration you give what you’re listening to, the more good it will do you. In reality, though, you have a lot more time to listen while you’re doing other things than you have to listen all by itself (and I am convinced that you benefit from listening to language even if you’re not paying 100% attention to it). Movies and TV shows are more difficult to consume while doing other things.

That’s not to say that you should never watch movies or TV shows — nothing of the sort — but rather that I’ve found using pure audio to be more effective.

The gear

The equipment you’ll need to create your foreign language listening environment is simple, and you probably own most or all of it.

  1. MP3 player. I’m partial to my iPod, but any MP3 player will do. The key is that you can take it with you everywhere you go, not what brand manufactures it.
  2. Comfortable headphones. With an emphasis on comfortable. If you’re listening for hours per day, you’ll need comfortable headphones. I’ve found earbuds start to bother me after a few hours. I’m currently using Creative HQ-140 backphones, and am liking them.
  3. Various other audiovisual software. I’ll mention some software below (mostly for Macs as that’s what I personally use, though I’m sure there are Windows/Linux equivalents for everything). For general audio editing, check out Audacity. It’s open source, free, and does about everything you’ll need to do.

All the media that’s fit to hear

Now that you have your gear squared away, it’s time to start filling that MP3 player. You’ll do so from three different sources:

  1. Music
  2. Podcasts
  3. TV & Movies


MC HotdogMC Hotdog

One of the best things you can do is find music that you enjoy in the language you’re learning. It’s not always easy — it took me a long time to find Chinese music that I really enjoyed, to the point that I could listen to it on repeat for hours without going crazy. It wasn’t until I discovered MC Hotdog and started digging deeper into mainland Chinese and Taiwanese hip hop that I finally found music that I could really enjoy. Depending on your musical tastes and the language you’re learning you may have an easier or harder time of it, but if you persevere you’ll find something that makes your head bob.

Some people are going to say, “but music isn’t always grammatically correct!” Well, it’s not, but neither is most native speech, at least not in the way that grammar books and language textbooks think of grammatically correct. But it is language meant for native speakers, and it will help you develop your listening skills. Anything that will do that and induces you to break out into dance and sing in the shower can’t be all bad, can it? Of course not.


If you don’t know what a podcast is, read up. Podcasts have all of the advantage of radio — broad topic areas, native speakers with varied accents and cadences, etc. — with none of the drawbacks, like having to tune in at a certain time or, erhm, own a radio. Podcasts are often short (under 15 minutes, though they certainly don’t have to be), which are perfect to consume on the go or while do other things.

It can be a bit hard to find podcasts in a foreign language, though, especially when you’re starting out and can’t read all that well. One trick for some languages is to use the iTunes Music Store to do the finding for you. While you can only buy things from the iTunes store in your home country, podcasts are free, and so you can change your iTunes Store to, say, Japan, and then check out the podcast section to see which podcasts are most popular among Japanese iTunes users. This is only available for countries that have native iTunes stores (North America, most of Europe, and Japan), but will certainly expand as Apple opens up more music markets. Another good place to look for podcasts of the newsy variety are various international broadcasters like the VOA, BBC, Deutche Welle, and NHK, all of which publish news broadcasts in many world languages.

TV & Movies

I may have badmouthed just a few minutes ago, but they still have a place in this grand scheme of mine. I do enjoy watching them, but what I enjoy even more is ripping them and cutting them up into little bite-sized chunks for me to listen to from my MP3 player.

Here’s what I do:

  1. Buy the movie/TV show on DVD. Pretty self-explanatory. It’s rather… less expensive… to do this in China, but wherever you are, thanks to Amazon and other online retailers, you’ll be able to find TV shows and movies in the language you’re learning.
  2. Rip the audio. I use Mac the Ripper for this, and there is a variety of software available for other platforms and personal tastes. Play around until you find one your like. The goal is to get the audio into an MP3 file.
  3. Spit the MP3 up into little pieces. Listening to an hour or two of audio can be difficult. I prefer to split the file up into bunches of little 3 or 4 minute audio chunks. I use MP3 Trimmer for this, and it works well. I then copy these little chunks into iTunes and sync them across onto my iPod like they were songs.

Though it seems strange, listening to the TV or movie audio in little chunks like that is a lot of fun, and is a great test for your listening (because you have to figure out what context the clip is from).

And then press play

I’ll cover some tips and tricks that I have for making the most out of my foreign language listening environment in future posts, but for the most part, you just need to start listening as often and for as long as you can. The effects, though subtle at first, add up in proportion to the time you spend listening.

Reader feedback time

There a so many resources available for people trying to listen to a foreign language these days, this post (as long as it is) cannot hope but to scratch the very most superficial surface. So, I ask you, loyal reader, what are you listening to? Leave links in the comments!


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