Not too long ago, the only thing people had to listen to was a radio. Whether it broadcast what the listener wanted or even enjoyed hearing is debatable.
Flash forward to today: we're overrun with listening choices! From podcasts to playlists, we plug buds into our ears, select whatever we're in the mood for and we're transported into the auditory world of our choosing. Even better: we get to stay as long as we want and even listen to the same song two or three times in a row.
Spoilt as we are for choices of listening material, is it any wonder that German language learners would shirk their duty to listen to German every day?
Things don't have to go that way. You don't have to see listening to German as a duty, for one, and you don't have to swear off your favourite podcasts to 'do your duty'. Besides, who says listening practice has to be an onerous chore?
Let Superprof help you spice things up with some tips, tricks and suggestions to make those sessions livelier.
The Rules of Listening
For those of us who've taken language classes, the first thought that comes to mind on the topic of listening materials is those droning, not-at-all-engaging audio recordings we're treated to in class. Often, those samplings consist of mundane conversations or a narration of some topic that makes full use of the vocabulary or grammar rules you've just learned.
Language-lab audio does not reflect everyday language usage.
Trouble is, when students think about ways to improve their listening skills, often they turn to that type of unexciting fare if they have access to it. Indeed, they even go so far as to mimic classroom behaviour: sitting still, in full learning mode, reaching for understanding...
Maybe that's why so many German learners are turned off by the idea of listening drills, especially if they're beginner- or intermediate-level students.
Here's a liberating thought: when you practise listening to German on your own, you can listen to whatever you want! Why not tune into a German radio station or try a podcast in German? Granted, if you just started studying the language, you won't get much out of them but there's nothing wrong with getting exposure to it, spoken by people native to that language/country.
Another fact that impacts listening practice, especially for students of German: it's not the most ear-pleasing language. A comedian once commented that listening to German is akin to listening to machinegun fire; he wasn't half-wrong.
So what if German is not as musical as French, Spanish or Mandarin? It's the language you chose to learn so, enchanting or not, you'll have to develop listening skills for it.
Besides, as we stated in our article for developing reading comprehension in German, that language boasts meticulous precision but, for all that, it has its funny parts.
After all, English doesn't have words like Backpfeiffengesicht, the German word meaning 'a face in need of slapping'...
More Than One Type of Listening
You may already know about active and passive listening. Active listening happens when you focus intently on your subject; usually another person. It's used in many situations - at work, during counselling and even while talking with friends. In every case, it's meant to build trust and avoid misunderstandings.
Recently, scientists have recognised that active listening applies to music, too. By choosing what you want to listen to, focusing on it intently and experiencing an emotional reaction, you can describe yourself as actively listening to music.
If it works for music, why wouldn't the same theories apply to listening actively to spoken German?
'Passive' describes the other type of listening. It's some audio you have on in the background or piping through your earbuds while you go about your day. You're not focused on it - at least not all of the time and, while that background audio may bring some comfort, you're not enjoying a spike of emotion while passively listening.
To build your German listening skills, you should practise both types of listening.
As you shower, go for a run, walk the dog or prepare your evening meal, you might play a German podcast or listen to a German radio channel. Have you set up a playlist of German songs yet?
Conversely, when you have time and are ready to actively listen to spoken German, you may sit down for a study session, watch some German-language videos on YouTube and select the German audio track for your favourite Netflix show.
Building listening skills is a lot easier than getting any writing practice in. You only need to sit down and focus if you're actively listening but you can passively-listen whilst otherwise engaged. Passive writing, on the other hand, isn't really a thing...
Chatting with a Native Speaker
To ramp up your active listening skills, try listening to another person. The best kind of person to listen to if you want to build German listening skills is, of course, a native German speaker.
Where are you going to find one of those, especially if you live in a remote area outside of any German-speaking country?
We're so lucky to live in the Information Age! To find speakers of any language, you only need to ask your fav search engine. Scratch that, we've already done it for you.
The internet is full of chat platforms that connect speakers of all ages, languages, interests and levels of ability. The only concern is finding ones that will suit your needs.
Some of these utilities welcome speakers of any language and are part-social networking and part-language learning while others are specifically targeted to students learning German, possibly with you helping the German speakers learn English in return.
As you comb through your options, consider them carefully. If you're not confident about helping others practise their English or don't have the skills to discuss the finer points of grammar, you should look a bit further for a platform that will be more suited to your needs and abilities.
Best of all, as you build your listening skills through conversation with a native speaker, you will also improve your German speaking fluency!
Mix It Up
Throughout this article, we've mentioned different ways you can build German listening skills. There are a few more; we'll list them in a mo...
Some language students are convinced that their way of learning languages is superior. Poring over language books all day, for example, or only listening to podcasts in their target language, to the exclusion of any other listening material in any language.
The trouble of keeping such a narrow focus is that it neglects other aspects of learning.
Take, for instance, the student who spends hours in the library, copying text from a newspaper. To be sure, that student is getting plenty of writing practice but s/he's not getting any context of the broader language application. In essence, even though s/he works very hard, s/he's not getting anything out of all that work.
Language learning works properly only when all four aspects are worked to about the same degree. Language students have to spend equal time reading, writing, speaking and listening to their target language for their learning to be effective.
Just as writing texts to the exclusion of all else is ineffective, so too is listening to only one type of German audio. After all, you're not getting a clear idea of everyday German speech if all you listen to are those school audio tracks or commercial language recordings, if you have them.
To maximise your ability to listen to and learn German, you should:
- try different radio channels: switch between sports, news and music channels
- diversify your podcasts: download monologue and dialogue 'casts of topics that interest you
- listen to different styles of music: you might like rap the best but also try pop and traditional German songs; maybe even opera!
- not every film: you don't have to switch the audio track to German every time you watch a film
- German-speaking YouTube: switch between channels that discuss current events, fashion, food and so on
- chatting: talk to more than one native German speaker
Bottom line: the best way to go from beginner to intermediate German learner is to keep your study lively by mixing things up.
Less Is More
Our final tip for building German listening skills concerns those students who believe that the more they listen, the faster they'll train their ear.
To an extent, that is true: if you listen to more German audio, you will soon learn to recognise German as soon as you hear it. However, by constantly listening to German audio, you risk it becoming only so much background noise. Noise that you'll come to ignore, like the telly or radio that's always on 'for company'.
You cannot build your German listening skills by osmosis. Even during your passive listening sessions, you must have a degree of intent for them to be effective.
You might think something along the lines of "I need a new podcast to listen to while I walk the dog." or "Let's have German news on while I clean the kitchen.".
By setting your sessions like that, you're signalling your brain to focus on listening for a specific period, even if you're focused on other tasks. You will code-switch between languages for the duration of your set listening period, making each session that much more intense and effective.
Unless you're under some deadline - you're approaching exams or you need to learn German before you relocate, pacing your learning usually works better than cramming as much study and practice in as possible.
Also, discover how the less-is-more principle applies to German vocabulary retention...