2.3. Some more advanced techniques for increasing your ability to understand the language
The kinds of activities I have been discussing so far may prove fruitful for a month or more. However, they will not quite make you a basic speaker of the language, even in terms of your comprehension ability. What I am about to suggest are techniques for moving to a new level. These activities can be thought of as helping to form a bridge between the time when you are a bare beginner and the time when you are a non-beginner . For that reason, I discuss them further in Thomson (1993b) .
From your very first day, you are understanding statements and instructions in the new language. What is it that makes it possible for you to understand a language that you are just beginning to learn? It is the fact that the things that you and the LRP are seeing and doing give you the meaning of the words and sentences that you are hearing. The LRP says, “This is a man,” and you can see what she means.
Once you understand a few hundred vocabulary items and a lot of basic sentence patterns, you will be able to understand much that is said even when you don't “see the meaning” in front of you. But your ability to understand will still be limited, and you still need to use methods which make what you are hearing easy for you to process. Think of how TPR and pictures help you during the early weeks. They help you by drastically narrowing the possibilities you need to consider while processing a sentence. For example, suppose that during one of your first sessions your LRP says “Pick up the banana.” You have in front of you a banana, a mango, a pineapple, and a guava. You hear “Pick up the banana” in the language, you process it, and you respond by picking up the banana. There were only a few possible things the LRP might have said at that point. The fact that the possibilities are limited is essential to your early ability to understand what is said. Now suppose three weeks later you are in a language session with four pictures in front of you, and your LRP says, “Before this picture was taken, this man hitched up his oxen.” This sentence can only apply to one of the four pictures in front of you, since there is only one picture in which a man is using a pair of oxen. You think about what you heard, process it, and understand it. Once again, you are aided in your understanding by the fact that the possibilities of what might be said are limited to things which could be said about those four pictures. Granted you are now coping with a wider range of possibilities than when you were picking up pieces of fruit, but the possibilities are still restricted by the contents of the pictures, and this is a major aid to you as you seek to process what was said to you.
After a few weeks, you have become adept at understanding isolated sentences that are tied to things you see and do in the session. Now you want to work on understanding longer stretches of speech containing many sentences, and you want to be able to understand them without the aid of things you see and do in the session. This is a natural next step in your development of comprehension ability. The key to being able to understand long stretches of connected speech at this point is the same key that enabled you to understand all those isolated sentences: use techniques that restrict the number of possibilities which you need to consider. Have your LRP tell you things that have a reasonable degree of predictability. Some ways you can do this are to have the LRP tell you stories that you already know (from having heard them in English or another language), have the LRP give an account to a third party of something you and she did together, or have the LRP tell you all the steps in a familiar process.
If your LRP can read, you might have her read over a reasonably short English story, say in a children's book. Or you might read it to her. You should also make yourself familiar with the story, if you aren't already familiar with it. Then your LRP can retell the story to you in her language. On one occasion I had an LRP who was well versed in the Bible, as was I. During my third month of language learning he told me the entire Old Testament story of Joseph, in detail. I was able to follow a large portion of what he said, since I already knew the story. This provided me with practice in comprehending a stretch of speech which went on for a considerable period of time. Another possibility might be to watch a video drama together, and then have the LRP tell you the entire story in her language, perhaps on a subsequent day, to make it less boring.
You can engage in extra-curricular activities with your LRP, so that you will come to have a number of shared experiences. The LRP can recount to you any experience that you have shared. It is even better, certainly more natural, if she recounts it within your hearing to another person, preferably someone with a level of language ability comparable to your own. By all means, tape record it.
Recounting all of the steps in a process is called the Series Method . Here again, the speech is made easier to understand by the fact that each step in the process is relatively predictable, which drastically limits the range of possibilities you have to consider as you process what you hear. Consider all the steps in preparing a potato to be fried. You pick up a potato. You turn on a tap. You pick up a brush. You hold the potato under the running water. You rub the brush back and forth against the potato. The dirt that was on the potato is washed away. The water becomes dirty. The dirty water runs down the drain. You turn off the tap. You open a drawer. You take out a potato peeler. Etc. (You can finish the series as an exercise.) Ordinary life provides hundreds of ideas for series. If the series are based on every-day mundane processes, you can bet that the vocabulary you hear and learn will be vocabulary that a basic speaker should know.
Of course, as you listen to such extended stretches with understanding, whether they be familiar stories, accounts of shared experiences or series, or whatever, be sure that you capture them on tape so that you can listen to them many more times, and perhaps go over them with the LRP to identify spots you cannot understand, and learn what you need to know in order to be able to understand those spots.
Context for this page:
Page content last modified: 31 July 1998
© 1999 SIL International