There’s clearly some benefit gained by focusing on certain attributes of a language as you listen. Lately I’ve been trying to figure out how best to apply this concept in practice in order to gain a well-rounded knowledge of the language. Some people can be exposed to a language for many years and still speak and listen badly, so exposure alone is clearly insufficient.
What then, should we pay attention to, and how? One thing is training the habit of having an enquiring and curious mind. If you’re uninterested and just doing something hoping for a reward at the end, then you’re not going to get as much out of it. You have to cultivate that feeling of investigating something magical and important, and teasing out all of the facts and meanings. I hear some people like to pretend they’re and archaeologist, unearthing some ancient language and they have to make sense of it, For Science!
Besides starting from scratch with just curiousity, though, it also helps to have some pointers so you know what to look for. If you know that certain things exist in a language, then you’ll be better able to notice them as they pass you by in the course of your listening. If you, for instance, read about what sorts of sounds exist in a language, then when you’re listening you’ll be less likely to mistake two similar sounds for the same thing. Instead you’ll hear it, and think “that’s one of those sounds that will be tricky for me…I should try and distinguish it from the other similar one”.
I’m starting to think that a good way to “study” particular aspects of a language is to do this sort of “noticing” exercise. Perhaps there’s some complicated grammar aspect to a language that you just can’t get right. The problem is either that you haven’t had enough exposure to it, or you did but you never really noticed it before. Your brain never made the appropriate connections for you, because you assumed it was just irrelevant background noise. While the brain is a fantastic learning apparatus, it also is very good at ignoring and forgetting the unimportant minutae.
So, pick your target, get a little bit familiar with it by reading some explanations, but don’t worry about “memorizing” the explanations. Explanations alone are really no good for learning a concept…it’ll be much more strongly internalized through exposure to real content. Instead, go find your lengthy and interesting content (movies, books, audiobooks, conversations, etc) and then tell yourself that you need to pick out and mentally highlight any situations where your target concept happens. You want to practice using your ability to notice that particular feature. This will help you get the extra exposure needed to make the required connections for that concept. You’ll be learning something extra that was previously disregarded as background noise.
Remember that it won’t come instantly. Anything worth learning will take many exposures to become imprinted in your brain. Through exposure, it will change step-by-step from “huh?” to “ok, I think I see it”, to “ya, this is easy now”. The only effort required is your attentiveness to the concept. If it feels hard, just remember that you’ve encountered plenty of “hard” things before, but now they are easy. This is just one of those. I like to call this concept “secretly easy”, which means that nothing is really harder than anything else, you just have to see it enough times to become used to it. Things that are “hard” now are just as easy as those “easy” things you already know.
Another thing you can do, of course, is gather some of those examples that you found in your favourite long content, and add them to an SRS program for further reinforcement. Examples gathered from your content are worth much more than random artificial sentences gathered from a big list somewhere. When these sentences come up again in your SRS, you’ll be reminded of the situation in your book or movie or conversation where they occured. Your mind uses the full context of the situation to help remember it, making many connections. Having it come up regularly due to your SRS’s scheduling mechanism just means that this particular connection will be made much stronger than all of the other sentences you may have heard that day.
That’s it! Now go find something interesting to do in your target language, and enjoy it as often as you can 🙂