Are you learning a foreign language? What a silly question...of course you are! Like many others who are also doing so, you probably have just one problem when you try to hold a conversation with a native speaker using his or her mother tongue at a natural speed: you can't understand it. You're in luck! I know not only how it feels, but also what to do about it.


First, let me tell you something about myself. I am a passionate language learner. I never stop learning new languages, and I am constantly seeking new and faster/more effective methods of learning the foreign language of my choice. This means that I end up improving my learning methods by trial and error and am left with knowledge that can be applied to learning and perfecting one's foreign language skill. I want to share my secret with you -- for free! Listen carefully...


Actually, I am not revealing anything that was previously unknown or that was kept secret. All of us know this 'secret' deep in our hearts, but we either don't realize or don't want to acknowledge how important it is. If you started learning your foreign language of choice a while ago and can understand a lot in written from, but not the normal(fast) speed at which natives talk, then you need to...listen to them use it!


There are many ways to do this. You could go to a country where people speak the language you are learning and hang out natives while listening to them talk. You could also hire a teacher and ask him or her to talk non-stop. Or, you could find a TV channel in that language and listen to it all day. Sounds easy, doesn't it? It almost is, but not completely. There are some mistakes that need to be avoided while doing this, or else you will just be wasting your time. 


The number one thing for improving or learning a foreign language while watching TV or listening to native speakers is to pay attention. Daydreaming is not allowed! Doing your homework while having the TV on in the background will not only not help you with the language, but it will make your head hurt. You will get frustrated due to lack of results as far as language learning is concerned. Playing games that require attention or doing anything that distracts you from what is spoken on TV is a big NO-NO.


The most effective way, in my experience, is to always pay the utmost attention and to listen to what is being said WITHOUT TRYING TO UNDERSTAND IT! Trying to understand it will only make you frustrated and tired. Let your subconscious do all of the work. It has no choice other than to learn when you focus on what somebody is saying. By this I mean “catching” the sentences without understanding them; the understanding will come all by itself.


That’s it! Just by doing this, and only this, you can learn a foreign language without ever looking at grammar rules or looking up words in a dictionary. How do I know? I have learned two languages this way! I merely watched cartoons in English and German without understanding anything and without expecting to understand anything. I never intended to learn a foreign language - I was just enjoying the cartoons. Yet here I am writing this article in English and offering informal English and German tutoring on italki.


Try watching television in your favorite foreign language to improve your language skills and to understand it when spoken quickly. It takes a lot of time, and progress is only made after watching a lot of TV because you are learning everything(vocabulary, grammar, pronunciation, listening) at once. When you only study vocabulary or pronunciation, you will see bigger progress. However, imagine that you could learn everything at once with just one method, the most natural method: being exposed to the spoken language.



Some advice: feeling bored can be a problem. It is easier to learn something without trying too hard. I find that having something to do that requires as little attention as possible can help make time fly faster when you are not really watching a TV show, but instead just listening to the language you are learning.


I cannot stress this enough. Never stop focusing on the words and sentences you hear on TV. No daydreaming! Only do something else if you find it truly helps fight boredom. If you can enjoy watching a program in your foreign language, then it is better to actually watch the TV show instead of just listening to it. Also, don’t use subtitles, because they distract you from listening to the spoken language. Watching the same TV episode many times also helps speed up the progress.


So in summary, to understand what is being spoken by a native speaker and improve your foreign language skills, I advise you to:


  • Watch or listen to TV.
  • Always pay attention to the people talking on TV and try to  “catch” their sentences.
  • (Do) not try to understand them, as your subconscious will do the job for you.
  • (Do) not do anything that distracts you from the language that is spoken.


Image Sources

Hero Image by Al Ibrahim (CC BY-SA 2.0)