Open listening: a way to improve spoken language comprehension

One huge frustration I have with learning Spanish — and I understand I’m not alone on this — is missing loads of what’s being said while translating one particular word.

While listening to a dialogue, my attention latches on to words I recognise and I try to retrieve the English translation. But before I find the English word, the speaker is three sentences away and talking about something else.

This is probably a consequence of the way we tend to learn second languages — that is, using our first language as a useful intermediate between a new foreign word and a meaning we already know. But it can be a detriment in comprehension, especially in the earlier stages of learning a language, when listening is far more of a conscious process.

This has nothing to do with the topic. I just find it funny. (Credit: Elephi Pelephi)

Generally I think conscious translating is a mistake. There are times where it’s OK to do this, such as when there’s a gap in the conversation, but I find it’s best to stay focused on what’s being said, not to “zoom in” on any particular word.

I’m hardly an expert and I don’t know what the more linguistically talented might think, but that’s my opinion. Just let go of the words you 50% understand, and keep listening.

The Cohort Model of spoken language comprehension, first proposed by Marslen-Wilson and Welsh (1978), might explain why this works:

“According to this theory, the first few phonemes of a spoken word activate a set or cohort of word candidates that are consistent with that input. These candidates compete with one another for activation. As more acoustic input is analyzed, candidates that are no longer consistent with the input drop out of the set. This process
continues until only one word candidate matches the input; the best fitting word may be chosen if no single candidate is a clear winner.” (ref)

Here’s what happens, according to the cohort model. You hear a Spanish word, say “beber” meaning “to drink.” It sounds familiar but you don’t immediately get the meaning. So you try to translate it, probably rolling your eyes upwards as you do so. Behind the scenes, your brain is creating a cohort of possibilities as to what the word was. Maybe it creates a shortlist of Spanish words starting with “b,” plus a few others that rhyme, and looks up their associated meaning.

Perhaps the reason you stop and put some conscious effort into translating this word, is that you intuitively feel that this is a serial process, where the brain translates words one-by-one, and either gets the meaning or loses it forever — but it is not. The brain does not stop searching for the meaning of an unknown word even though it continues to listen to other words — in fact, it actually uses the input from future words to help filter down to the correct meaning of previously heard words, presumably while they are held in the phonological loop.

Have you every thought you understood what someone said, only to realise you misheard it based on something they said later? You could also deduce, then, that the brain doesn’t even have a concept of a correct word, and is always feeding back data based on probabilities; what it thinks is the most probable meaning.

So to continue the example, if you continued to listen to the speaker instead of temporarily disengaging your attention to consciously translate “beber,” you might hear “cerveza,” the Spanish word for beer and put two-and-two together. The meaning of the previous word comes to you in a flash.

Open Monitoring/Listening

This method of listening is very similar to a type of meditation called open monitoring. In this you sit and just allow any thought or perception to pass through your consciousness, being fully observant of it but not holding your attention on it.

Likewise, in open listening, as it could be called, you focus on the entirety of what is being said, rather than trying to follow the dialog word by word. By not focusing on a single word, you devote more of your attentional capacity to collecting more input.

You might also reason that the more practice one has with open monitoring meditation, the better they should be at language comprehension.

If you speak a second language let me know if you found the same when you were learning. Also, if you meditate a lot, let me know how you find language learning, or comprehending people in even your native language. Do you seem to find it easier than others to understand people with strange accents? Has this improved after your meditation experiences?


  • Advogado RJ says:

    Watch movies without subtitles is a great way to learn a different language. I learned a lot watching Spanish films of Almodovar, they helped me a lot when I had to go to Madrid

    • Warren Davies says:

      Those films are really weird. Did you see Habla Con Ella? The bit where the scientist shrinks himself down? I mean, I’m not saying I wasn’t thinking the exact same thing when they first mentioned a man that could shrink himself, but I didn’t expect to actually see it in the film”

  • Interesting article! I came to realize this method of “open listening” once I compared the way I comprehend English (my native language) to the way I first began to comprehend Spanish (my second language). I never focus on individual words while listening to a soap opera in English. In fact, doing so makes it very hard for me to fluently comprehend my native language as it flows on. The same goes for Spanish. I can better comprehend a Spanish soap opera by listening without the intent to comprehend individual words. It’s an amazing technique to better your language comprehension. I would also argue that the “open listening” technique forms the foundation for the effectiveness of complete language immersion. When you’re completely immersed in a foreign language, (when you, for example, move to a small Spanish town and are forced to use only Spanish) your ability to comprehend is put into overdrive. Essentially, you’re forced into a consistent mode of “open listening.” It allows you to learn the language much faster than if you were to take language classes back in the US.

  • Rachel Newstead says:

    I have exactly the same problem outlined here–by the time I figure out one sentence of Spanish, the person I’m talking to is already three sentences further ahead.

    But I seem to have an additional problem–Spanish speakers, particularly those from Latin America, tend to speak very rapidly and run words together, so I can’t even pick up enough of a sentence to get the gist of it, as the open listening method suggests I should do. Imagine dealing with an English speaker whotalkslikethis, and you know what I mean.

    • Warren Davies says:

      Totally Rachel! I learned Spanish from perfectly spoken audio then when to Andalucia and was like “What the fuck is this?” Then have a saying there, I can’t remember it exactly but the gist of it was “Si puedes entender andaluz, puedes entender cualquier accento” (excuse my spelling it’s been a while since I praciced).

      The only was is extended input, but what I learned is that input alone isn’t enough — it’s more beneficial to hear 12 minutes of audio that you understand 10 times than it is to watch a 2 hour film that you don’t once.

      Try to get hold of conversation recordings along with transcripts, translate the transcripts to English and then listen to the audio over and over and over. I’m far from fluent in Spanish but this is the one technique that stood out for me.

      • Rachel Newstead says:

        Like the Univision news broadcasts, for instance?

        • Warren Davies says:

          I haven’t seen that, but if you can get transcripts or subtitles that would be very good. Newscasters talk differently to normal people, which is a problem, since you’ll miss a lot of nuances like fillers and slang phrases. You might get more of that if they interview the public etc though. But for the speed of speech and the accent it should help a lot.

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