BECOMING A CAREFUL LISTENER: WHAT REALLY MAKES THE DIFFERENCE WHEN IT COMES TO YOUR ACCENT
I was about ten years old when I started watching movies and tv series in English. For many years up until when I was about eighteen, I would constantly listen to American actors playing their scenes and talking for hours in their native language. This added up to the music I listened to and I knew the lyrics of so well. After a few years, when I moved to the United States, I really thought that, since I had listened to so many things for the past seven or eight years, I would have been perfectly capable of mimicking the American accent and to express myself fluently and confidently.
You could imagine how disappointed I was when I found out I could not do so: it was frustrating because I knew the way all those actors spoke, I could perfectly reproduce their voice in my mind, yet my mouth was not able to cooperate and to reproduce those sounds the way American people did. Eventually, I ended up thinking no matter how much I listened, no matter how hard I tried, I was the foreign one and therefore I would have never been able to speak that way. I am pretty sure many of you readers have felt the same.
Today, I can tell you that all that time I thought I was listening and understanding the sounds was not as productive as I imagined because I was not really a careful listener, I was not truly hearing what I thought I was. Let me explain you a little bit better what I mean: every language that exists has its unique pattern of sounds (and intonation), that differs from other languages. When we listen to something in another language, our brain hears all those different sounds, and, not recognizing them, it filters them out, replacing them with similar sounds that do exist in our native language. Therefore, most of the time, if we are not aware of the existence of that particular sound, we think we are hearing something correctly when it is actually not this way.
Let me give you a practical example of this: For all that time I thought I was hearing (and pronouncing) the word “Cat” correctly, I was replacing the sound ae, that does not exist in the Italian language, with a similar sound “a”, that exists in Italian, without realizing it is a different sound. This applies to the stress of the words as well: we tend to place the stress on words according to the patterns of our first language. For example, in Italian we place the stress differently than in English, therefore, many Italian speakers will tend to place the stress on some words that sound similar to their Italian counterparts according to their native language. For example, the words “politics” or “police” both have the same roots and meaning as the Italian words “politica” and “polizia”, but the placement of the stress is different: we have politics versus política, and police versus polizía.
I have heard many people, that have lived in the United States for decades, still stressing the words according to their native language, no matter how many times they had listened to people pronouncing those words. This is because if you hear something a thousand times, but you are not aware of this, you will not pick up the details. This is how the brain works: we are constantly exposed to information, and it is up to us to decide which things to absorb and store in our brain and which things to filter out. That is why awareness is the key to start noticing all those things you did not hear before. When we talk about careful listening, therefore, we mean listening with awareness and focus on those details we want to improve.
When we talk about the topic of language learning, when we take courses of a certain language, when teachers go over the different skills you need to acquire to become a good speaker, there is always the conception that, if you are a non-native speaker, it is almost useless to work on pronunciation, because as many people think, it does not matter how much you listen, you cannot reproduce certain sounds. This is a misconception that is rarely addressed: it is possible for you to work on your pronunciation and improve it, if that is your goal. What it takes, along with practice, is being aware of the sounds and being a careful listener. Next time you watch a video or you hear someone speaking, ask yourself if you are really paying attention to the details or if you are just hearing what your brains expects you to hear.