understand Italian conversations

3 exercises to understand Italian conversations

Have you ever asked yourself why is it so hard for you to pick up Italian words? Even the ones that you know? Even the ones that you can recognise in an article or a text? It’s a common problem for many people: knowing a lot words but not being able to hear them during a conversation. How is this possible? And what can you do about it?

I’m going to go straight to the point because I don’t like articles that tell you 1000 stories and then give you the solution only at the end and in just a few lines. Plus, I don’t know how to embellish my writing with fancy stories, so bare with me, please.

If you can’t hear words and you can’t follow a conversation in Italian despite the fact that you know the words that are being said, it means that you need to work on a couple of things:

  • arual decoding
  • listening fluency

I talked about aural decoding in this article, and I explained why it’s important to understand Italian conversations.

In this article, I’m going to tell you about listening fluency, what it is, why it’s important to understand spoken Italian and how to gradually build it.

understand Italian conversations

What listening fluency is and why it’s hard to build

As I said in this previous article, fluency doesn’t only apply to speaking. It applies to all the skills. Listening included.

By listening fluency we simply mean the ability to listen at a fast rate. If you’re fluent in listenig it means that you can understand what you hear at a normal speed and, in order to do that, you need a lot of practice and a lot of exposure to this spoken input.

And this exposure, or better the lack of this exposure, is what makes listening fluency hard to build. Especially because you don’t have access every day to spoken input in Italian at a normal speed and in different accents and different uses of the language. So, it’s quite normal if you struggle with that.

Therefore, you don’t get to listen every day to examples of connected speech, fast speech, colloquial Italian, or different accents. And that makes a huge difference.

understand Italian conversations

It doesn’t mean that you will never build listening fluency. Au contraire. We’re going to see how in a minute. This premise was necessary just to tell you that if you’re struggling with listening, well, it’s more than understandable and the reason has been so far out of your control.

In the next section, you’re going to see some exercises to develop listening fluency in Italian. Remember that it’s important to work on it because if you make your listening process more and more automatic, you will understand every day more and more.

How to develop listening fluency

First things first. Let’s talk about what to listen to. How do you choose the right material?

Here are some questions to help you choose what to listen to:

  • Do I enjoy the content?
  • Can I understand at least 90% of it?
  • Do I know more than 95% of the words and the grammar features in it?
  • Can I listen without pausing the track?

If your answer to all these questions is “yes”, congrats! You’ve found the right material for you.

Now, what can you do with it?

Below are three techniques to help you build your listening fluency in Italian.

understand Italian conversations

Reading while listening

Reading while listening is an excellent excercise to help you match spoken words with their written form and, therefore, help you build that aural decoding that I talked about at the beginning of this article. It’s also great to help you become familair with the rhythm and the flow of the Italian language and to help you understand bits of sentences and stop you from focusing on every single word.

Keep in mind that benefits will come after several weeks, because Rome wasn’t built in a day and nor will listening fluency.

Listen to something that you know

You can choose a text that comes with an audio version (or an audio track that comes with a transcript). Something of around 200 or 300 words. Make sure you know everything about this text. Take some time to study it. You want to make sure that nothing is left behind and everything is 100% clear.

After that, you can play the audio version while reading the text. If your player allows that, you can even slow down the pace of the audio track so that it’s at the right level for you.

In the following days, listen again to the same track, but this time increase the speed gradually. Notice how it goes and how your listening progresses.

Don’t forget that repetition is important in order to build fluency. In all the skills. When you listen to the same track several times, this track becomes easier and easier to understand. Please, don’t get tired of repeating. It truly works.

understand Italian conversations

Extensive listening

Extensive listening means listening to something that is at the right level for you and for a long period of time. Once again, I’m talking about weeks. No quick fix, sorry.

Ideally, you should be doing it for around 1 or 2 hours spread over a week.

As with the previous techniques, you should be listening to material that contains words that you already know, and this material should be easy for you, otherwise, this technique won’t work. When I say easy, I mean that the material should be below your reading level. Just because you can read a certain book easily, it doesn’t mean that you will be able to listen to it just as easily. Sadly, that is not always the case.

Also, it’s equally important, as I said at the beginning of this section, that you choose materials that you enjoy and are interested in. You don’t want to bore yourself, this is supposed to be enjoyable.

Once you see that you can understand 100% of an audio track or a story, you can move on and listen to something that is slightly more difficult where you can understand at least 90% of what is being said. Not less. At this point, you should expect a slight drop in your understanding, but don’t worry. This is absolutely normal because you’ve now moved to a more difficult material. Give yourself the time to get used to that new faster speed.

Oh, and please, I know that it might be tempting, but don’t push yourself too hard. You will understand a lot less, you won’t enjoy the material anymore and you will lose the benefits of this technique.

understand Italian conversations

To sum up

  • Knowing a word and recognising it in a text doesn’t mean that we will be able to hear it in a conversation.
  • If you can’t follow a conversation where people use words that you know, you need to build aural decoding and listening fluency.
  • Aural decoding is the ability to match spoken words with their written form.
  • Listening fluency is the ability to listen at a fast rate.
  • In order to build listening fluency you need a lot of practice and a lot of exposure.
  • The material to work on your listening fluency should be easy and enjoyable.
  • Some techniques to build listening fluency are reading while listening, listening to something that you know, and extensive listening.
  • When you do extensive listening, choose something where you can undertand at least 90% of what is being said.
  • Being able to read a book doesn’t guarantee that you will understand that book as well when you listen to it, so you its better to choose to listen to something below your reading level.
  • Choose something easy and interesting, otherwise you will overwhem and bore yourself and you will lose the benefits of extensive listening.
understand Italian conversations

References

Chang, Anna Ching-Shyang, The Effect of Reading While Listening to Audiobooks: Listening Fluency and Vocabulary Gain, 2011

Husson Isozaki Anna, ELI Graded Readers: Teen and Young Adult Readers,
The Language Teacher – Issue 38.3; May 2014. Available at: https://jalt-publications.org/tlt/departments/book-reviews/articles/3749-eli-graded-readers-teen-and-young-adult-readers

Nation Paul, Newton Jonathan, Teaching ESL/EFL Listening and Speaking, Routledge, 2009

Nation Paul, What do you need to know to learn a foreign language? School of Linguistics and Applied Language Studies Victoria University of Wellington New Zealand, 2014

Suzuki Satoko, Engagement, Task Evaluation, and Vocabulary Acquisition Through Extensive Listening, JALT Postconference Publication – Issue 2020.1; August 2021. Available at: https://jalt-publications.org/articles/26709-engagement-task-evaluation-and-vocabulary-acquisition-through-extensive-listening

Waring Rob, Getting started with Extensive Listening, Cosmopier, 2008

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