Today’s post looks at two simple methods you can use to get more active when practising the “passive” skills of listening and reading…. Look on it as a bit of resistance training. I first explored some ideals to help us “embrace effort”, as I put it, over on the YouTube channel a few months ago. In short, what it’s all about is putting a bit of grit in the oyster.
Now, I’m not knocking extensive, passive input as a key part of language learning.
“Just” listening and reading on their own are particularly effective if just above your current level, because you’ll get enough of the context to fill in the gap. You’ll be stretched but not to breaking point.
If you’re reading or listening passively you’ll be reinforcing what you do understand and consolidating your instinctive feel for what “sounds right” in the language.
On the other hand…some language learning products go to town to sell a seductive “passive” language learning story.
“Aquire” a new language easily by listening, just like you learned English as a child, by listening, they seem to say.
The subtext seems to be avoid the four horsemen of the language learning apocalypse: effort, awkwardness, forgetting and making mistakes.
Yes, children are natural language learning machines (particularly when it comes to pronunciation) but it’s not easy for kids either. They may feel less awkward and have memories primed for this sort of thing, but they certainly have to struggle and make many, many mistakes.
Plus just look at how much time it takes them.
After five years in to their total immersion, yes, they’ve got all the structures off.
But would you really be satisfied with the vocab, register and written language abilities of a five year old?
For optimal adult language learning, passive exposure is necessary (and many learners don’t give themselves anything like enough).
But there’s more that we – as adult independent language learners – can do. Assuming, that is, we do want to have to simulate the first decade or so of childhood but through our target language 😉
Yes, we can accelerate the learning process, provided we’re prepared to wrestle with the language.
Make these two exercises as regular feature of your focussed study routine!
A new part of your focussed study routine?
In my language learning, I set great store by regular study sessions. It’s me and the language, getting down and dirty behind closed doors.
At time for the power of focus to work its magic.
My routine often involves deliberate, attentive listening practice (for example rewinding, dictation and shadowing).
It also involves laboured, intensive reading.
If listening is the order of the day, I’ll also be sure I’ve got a transcript of the recording (preferably with a parallel translation in to English).
The transcript is invaluable for me to check my comprehension.
The transcript is also and potentially for another interactive workout: translation practice).
Thanks to such methods, those types of listening and reading are already pretty active.
Let’s add two more techniques to the interactive arsenal.
“Loyal retelling” is beautiful for its simplicity.
You take a short written text or audio clip and read or listen to it attentively. Do this few times until you’re comfortable that you’ve followed.
Look up any unknown words or phrases.
With audio, use the transcript and the English version as a key if necessary.
Next, to get active.
The aim is simply to retell the content as accurately as you can.
You either do this in writing or orally. If you go for speaking (and you’re working along) you could record yourself to check how you’ve done afterwards.
As you recall, there’ll be an element of paraphrasing but that’s not the aim. (Paraphrasing is a useful upper intermediate/advanced workout that we’ll look at another day).
Loyal retelling has two benefits.
First, you give yourself a reason to engage much more at the initial reading or listening exposure stage, because you’re going to need the material.
Second, if there’s something that it turns out you can’t retell, or if you get some of the way with a phrase but forget a key word or make some other mistake, you’ll know about it. You’re using the testing effect to shine a light on what you haven’t really learned yet (even if you thought that you knew it). Such uncomfortable discoveries should help you notice and hence remember better.
I call this technique “loyal retelling” because the emphasis is being as true as possible to the original.
Remember, imitation not innovation is the name of the game in language learning.
If you coin phrases, you’ll probably do it wrong.
Here childlike qualities certainly are called for. Copy like a kid!
Now, loyal retelling is not supposed to be a short term memory test.
What it’s about is focussing to notice and engaging actively with the material to help lodge the language into your long term memory.
So, keep the text or audio clip short. Two or three hundred words or a couple of minutes’ audio is more than enough, especially if the level of the material is at or just above your current level.
Don’t be afraid to jot down notes to help you with the recall, either (for example some key words or images).
The second technique is “controlled modification”. You can use the same raw materials (short written text or short audio clip with a transcript) as for loyal retelling.
This time, after you’ve read or listened, the task is to modify what you’ve heard.
I know I’ve just said that imitation not innovation is the name of the game. In controlled modification, the aim is to pick one aspect of the text and change it and only it (subject to any knock-on changes required).
When I shot the video below about this for over on the YouTube channel, I called it “deliberate modification”. On reflection, that’s not a restrictive enough description. I think “controlled” modification works better.
For example, if your target language has verb forms that change for singular or plural, you could put all the verbs in the singular into the plural.
You could rewrite a text in the present into the past.
I’m learning Japanese at the moment and one of the features of the language is that the verbs have different informal and informal forms (as, of course do French or German, albeit in a very different way). So, I could change a text from a more formal to a less formal register.
You could make all nouns plural instead of singular.
Another idea would be to change the text from negative too positive, again, subject to the modifications making sense.
At a more advanced level you could try to make things more conditional.
This exercise is useful because it involves elaboration of the material. You’re processing it in a new way and making it your own. That helps you internalise the words, phrases and patterns.
Controlled modification is more active and hence more of a challenge than loyal retelling. It might thus be a good idea to do it with the same materials you’ve used for some earlier retelling.
If you come back to the same text or audio for a spot of controlled modification a day, a week or a month), you’ll be build a bit more of that oh-so-effective spacing into your learning.
At what level do these methods work?
Both of these techniques can play a roll once you know enough language to “play with” (say once you’re an “upper beginner” or “A2”).
Controlled modification is the trickier of the two.
You won’t be able to modify without thinking even more about the sense (if your text says “the sun is in the sky” it may make dubious sense to make this plural, for example).
You may have to make knock-on changes. If you put a text “in the plural” for example in the article, adjectival declensions or verbs, if your language has them.
The modification you choose could take you in even deeper than you’d bargained for. If you’re switching a text from the present to the past, it may require mastery of several different past tenses.
Other changes in syntax may follow on.
For this reason, it’s useful to have a tutor to hand if you hit problems when trying controlled modification.
Using these two simple methods in a one-to-one lesson
Both techniques offer a bit of variety for your one-to-one lessons or language exchange sessions.
Choose your material in good time. Let your teacher (or tandem partner) know your plans and send them a copy of the material (or use materials that you’re already working on together).
Do the reading or listening and meaning-checking on your own as preparation.
Then, during the one-to-one, you can retell to your captive audience or try a bit of controlled modification.
You can then get corrective feedback.
You could also have your session partner asks you some questions about what you’ve just told them for further interaction and elaboration of the content.
In short, “embrace effort”!
Interacting with written or recorded material this way this feels harder than purely passive reading or listening.
Therein, though, lies the benefit. Think of it as a bit of resistance training for your language learning muscle.
The fact of having to struggle strengthens your memory.
If you can’t answer a question or remember some of the vocab or structures you need to retell, you can go back and check them again. This time, you’re consulting the text for a specific reason. That should help things sink in.
Adding a bit of grit in the passive oyster is no bad thing and these two methods are one way to add it.
If everything feels easy and fun in your language learning practice, it’s probably not as effective as it could be.