The Thinking of Speaking
Issue #4 July / August 2013
New Souls
by Hidson Guimarães
July / August 2013 | 

Ronald woke up as if it was just another ordinary day. He couldn't imagine what surprises the linguistic world reserved for him under the striking mid-afternoon sun.

Having been into the language "business" for so long, he had been lately resigned to the fact that he wouldn't be able to understand a spoken language as spoken by its natives, at a natural speed. He could read without any problem, and that was usually the first gift language learning would bring him. He could also make his point over a wide range of subjects - unless talking about cooking, housekeeping, farming and several other activities that did not catch his attention in his native language alone. When it came to listening comprehension, though, all those texts in foreign languages became a solid, inscrutable blur. And they've remained so for the past 10 years. His writing skills kept on improving, he learned a few more languages at a basic level, but the invisible and sounding wall stood there, as if centuries would not have any effects on it.


People kept telling him - if not directly, at least through those many fortune-cookie language forum threads that keep popping up in the web - that he should stop worrying about the fact that he would listen to English TV series and French films and not get a word from them. He should know that his problem was just lack of practice. His ability to understand the subtitles of either French or English videos added to this fact.

Lack of confidence and fear of failure combined made a suggestion from a friend come in handy: why not try watching a lot with subtitles? "That would not be cheating", his friend says. "That will just help you associate the acoustic image with the script. You'll become more and more trained."

"Why not try that for a while? I have nothing to lose. I'll be watching some nice TV series and, if nothing happens with my listening skills, I can try other methods.", he thought to himself.

So he did this for a few weeks. Two seasons, to be more precise. His first TV series in French was a dubbed one. He kept following the subtitles, not realizing he could understand more and more of it. The mere idea that he could miss an important detail, a gag, an insightful remark from his favorite series kept him tied to the subtitles as a castaway to his lifeboat. As a positive side-effect, by reading the subtitles he could easily spot the new words. He learned a lot of French slang that way.

Parallel to this, he watched another TV series, this time in original American English audio. There was also a character who spoke with a heavy Australian accent. That and the excessive slang made things a little more difficult, but at least he was happy that he could understand the US English better and better.

Dropping the subtitles happened first in English, as the series he was watching in English didn't have a sort of a continuous plot. Missing one episode or two due to bad comprehension wouldn't hinder the comprehension of the upcoming ones. In the case of French, he proceeded to finish the whole series with the help of the subtitles. At the end, he barely looked up the subtitles as a separate text file at the computer.

Then came two new series. Dubbed again in French, original audio again in English. This time he made sure to find two series he wouldn't feel specially attached to the plot. No need to worry if anything went off the track, after all, these are just two ordinary stories.

Ronald got the episodes and decided to give them a try, a few hours after lunch, after he normally would have been through all of his learning activities for other languages at which he was still a beginner. No pressure, no time constraints.

"Time to hit the the 'Play' button and see what happens."

And it happened! The Greeks would have us call this an epiphany, and no word is less appropriate than that. You get the vocabulary, the grammar, the ear training over the years and one day, expectedly but unpredictably, it simply clicks. The blur starts to make sense. Instead of getting fixed short expressions, you get dialogues. You follow the story. You use the context, the environment, the emotions of the characters to help you understand what is going on. After all, that is what you do with your native language, namely when you watch TV in the background.


He tried it again the day after, the week after and he will keep doing this again and again, now with even less pressure. It is no longer about language learning. He thought the best part of seeing his goal achieved after so many years would be the joy of seeing the frustrations gone. It is much more than that, actually. Just like it happened with reading, when thousands of works became accessible to him, it happens all the same now with audio and video. An inexhaustible source of cultural, technical and entertaining materials is lying in front of him, ready to be explored. He is finally part of these cultures, because now he can listen to them. He learned to listen, the hardest skill to develop in this world where people want so much to be heard that they scream and shout and whine all day long at the newly-born social networks that seem to have always been there for the younger generations.

Now Ronald is finally able to share and understand. He got a new soul. Actually, two new souls at once, if you count English and French. He is ready for more. Ready to meet brother and sisters from close and distant places that up to now sounded as if they weren't there. Latin America, anyone?

To have another language is to possess a second soul. - Charlemagne

New Souls
Writer: Hidson Guimarães
Petey: Sunset

All images are Copyright - CC BY-SA (Creative Commons Share Alike) by their respective owners, except for Petey, which is Public Domain (PD) or unless otherwise noted.


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