If you are reading this blog post maybe you struggle to listen and understand Portuguese. If that’s your case, I have good news for you:
- You’re not alone,
- Most of my students say that listening is very difficult for them, and
- Practicing listening in the era of the Internet is much easier.
As I also struggled with listening in English when I was a student, I decided to share my story here so you can learn from my case and create your strategy!
I think I took 10 years to start listening and understanding English, but don’t be scared by this number!
Things changed and below you’ll read my situation. You won’t take so long nowadays!
My first job was at an airport. I was 19 and my colleagues ended up knowing that I not only finished an English course but also went to study English for a month in Canada! So every time they needed to understand/translate/speak something in English, they asked me!
It was not easy as the vocabulary was very specific and they don’t teach logistic vocab to teenagers in language schools. Many times I had to say “sorry, I don’t understand”. It was frustrating for me because I thought I knew English, I finished the course after all!
My English course
I grew up in a small city in Brazil and went to one of the two language schools that there was in my city.
The teacher was my neighbor, my parents knew English was important, and I could walk to the school. So when I was 12 I started going to the English school.
I was a very shy student in a classroom of 10-12 other teenagers. Listening exercises were done with cassettes for everyone together. Not the best environment. The only things I could listen to in English outside the school were music and movie. But I was only 12, I didn’t know I could study English through music or movie!
Also, at the time, without the Internet, and being 12 in a small city, I didn’t have any idea I would ever listen to a real English speaker. So for me, it was just a matter of passing the tests.
I was not good at listening and speaking, but I’d get good grades in reading and writing so my final grades were always good to pass.
Only 5 years after I started my English course I traveled to Canada to study English while staying with a host family for a month! The first question the father asked me was: Am I understandable? I think I nodded yes. I also remember how I learned the words bother, owl, and email. But I don’t remember how much I improved listening.
My second job
After just a year working at the airport, I was interviewed for a trainee position to work at DHL. The interview was all in Portuguese and very easy: do you speak English? Are you studying at University? I said yes and yes, passed it and began my work. I had to report cargo problems and ask for missing cargo documents to DHL offices all around the world. All in English!
Sometimes, when I didn’t have any answer from my emails I had to call the places. And that was my nightmare. I was afraid of speaking, I didn’t understand a word people were saying over a bad phone call, and the room where I worked was open and full of noisy people. But it was a job, after some time you learn it and it’s all repetitive.
I worked at DHL for 6 years, learned a lot doing different jobs, and – very important for me – used English every day. When I quit my job at DHL, I was much better at English. I had finished University the year before and gone for a month to Cape Town to study English again. I was feeling way better! I wasn’t afraid of speaking or asking people to repeat if I didn’t understand at first. I was finally happy with English.
My teaching job
My listening was still far from perfect when I started teaching English in a language school in my city. When I was teaching English I noticed how much the listening skill is left behind. The instruction to teachers is basically: play it 2 or 3 times, students complete the exercise, the teacher asks some questions, checks the exercises or asks them to listen and read the transcription. Maybe not even every lesson!
I realized that as a teacher, I was practicing listening a lot more than my students. I had to listen to a CD track to prepare the lesson, then again the same track 3 times with one group of students, then again and again if I had other groups at the same level.
When you listen to the same thing so many times you start listening to different things, like accents, intonation, crutch words and fillers, collocation, thinking sounds, linked/reduced words. I was listening to all this, my students were not. They were just focusing on getting the right answer to complete an exercise in their textbooks. It’s a shame, but it’s how it works in most language schools in Brazil (and other places, too I’m sure!).
I only realized I could actually listen and understand English one day watching TV. My mom was with me so we were watching TV with subtitles. Suddenly the subtitles were gone, I kept watching it and my mother complained. I hadn’t realized the subtitles were gone, I was just listening to it!
So now, when I’m teaching Portuguese I ask my students to listen to the same thing so many times. This is normally done as homework and when they tell me they still can’t listen and understand everything I only think it takes time, active listening, and repetition.
I believe that understanding what you listen to in a foreign language happens in one of those “aha” moments. First, you study a lot, you think you understand but you don’t. Then you get frustrated and feel like giving up. But you keep doing it and one day you just listen and understand.
It’s not magic, it’s just hard work and repetition!
I started learning English when I was 12, no objectives in mind, but to pass the school’s tests, no Internet, no experience with language learning, and in a group of teenagers.
On the teachers’ side, they had to follow a textbook and finish it in 40 hours divided in 4 months, and the students should have good grades. Of course, it wasn’t the best place to practice listening and I don’t blame them! It’s just the way it worked at the time.