How To Train Your Ears For A Foreign Language

When you're learning a new language, one important and difficult task is learning to correctly hear and identify the sounds of that language. Their s doesn't sound like your s, their r rolls differently than yours, and their accent and intonation make it difficult to understand what you hear.

When learning a new language, I spend a lot of time and attention on training my ears. Basically, this means listening to the language being spoken, and then making sure that what I heard is the same as what was said. There are a few exercises I use to do this.

Perhaps the most useful exercise, especially in the beginning, is to look in a dictionary and find the meanings of words you hear. Simply keep a dictionary at hand (for me, that's an app on my iPod), and as you're listening to music, or podcasts, or watching a movie, listen for words you don't know, and look them up!

Not only does this help you to improve your vocabulary, but it helps you to notice phonics, intonation, and stress patterns, it gets you to pay attention to subtle sounds, glides, elision, and more.

Another exercise that can help with this is to watch movies or videos in the target language, with subtitles. As you listen along, try to reason out what you hear, and then glance at the words on screen to see if you were correct.

And finally, after your vocabulary improves, transcription is an excellent way to improve your hearing. Listen to a short bit of speech (like those I share in my guest readings and try to write down everything that you hear. If you have the original text, you can compare when it's done. If not, try using Google Translate to see how close you were.

All of these exercises will help you to be a better speaker and listener. And, the more time you spend practicing, testing, and improving your comprehension, the better you will be when you encounter speakers with strange accents, odd voices, or speech impediments.


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  • Good post! If people just listened more carefully, a lot of their pronunciation and accent problems would go away. 

  • Absolutely!

  • Hello Randy,That was another interesting post!
    Ear training is indeed something central and yet it's put aside for "later" more often than not.
    Can you explain a little bit more how Google Translate can help in the dictation case? I'm not sure to fully understand what you're suggesting here.Keep up the good work, you're truly inspirational.
    Best of luck with the Turkish language!

  • This is pretty much what us deaf people do when going through speech training. I know I really pay a lot of attention to how sounds "sound" like.

  • Suzuki violin method (I hear) relies on having students to immense amounts of listening to great violinists even before they begin to play.  When they begin then, they know what 'great' sounds like.  I think one benefit to not rushing into speaking is just this - it allows our brains to assimilate to the new sounds of the language.  Great tips too.  Transcription really forces you to listen closely.  I used it at the beginning of my Turkish journey.  Five or ten minutes at a time, a couple of times a week.  Just one more piece of the puzzle.Keep up the good work Randy!

  • Thanks.Regarding Google Translate, the idea is that you type what you hear, and see what it translates to. If you typed it correctly, it will translate to something that (more or less) makes sense. If you typed it incorrectly, it will just turn out garbage.Also, I'm sure you've seen how Google Translate suggests different spellings when you misspell words.

  • Oh yeah, I hadn't thought of that! I'll bet this kind of exercise is used by a lot of people for other purposes, like music, as well.

  • Thanks, Aaron!

  • I agree and learning to properly pronounce the sounds of a language is actually the first thing I like to do, which is why I like Pimsleur because that's the one thing it's really good for: you listen to and repeat simple words and phrases over and over again until it's ingrained in your brain, if you'll do it for at least a month you WILL have good pronunciation, guaranteed.  I know a lot of people don't like it, and no way is it worth what they're charging (like $250 per level or some ridiculous thing like that), but it is good for one thing, just sayin', haha...I should note that Pimsleur is one of many different things I do, even when just starting out, and the desired effect of learning correct pronunciation could certainly be learned by any number of other means, several of which Randy mentioned above, but I like it because it's already completely put together for me and all I have to do is sit there like a slug, listen, and say what they tell me to say when they tell me to say it--conservation of energy and all that :PCheers,
    Andrew

  • I like what you're saying here, but I want to point out one potentially dangerous caveat of learning through Pimsleur:  false confidence.  When you listen to a recording and repeat words, there is no one to correct you or to point out when you're wrong. Since the topic of this post was ear training, and not pronunciation training, I won't elaborate. But since you brought it up, I wanted to mention that.

  • This is true, I am trusting my own ears.  However, I think for most people their own ears will get them very close and that last little bit of adjustment can come from native speakers when they start speaking to them--I think the idea with this sort of thing is just to get to the point where you're close enough such that natives can understand what you're saying and for that your pronunciation actually doesn't have to be that good.

  • Having a good accent is a great way to blag it as a fluent speaker!

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