When I was first learning Spanish, I was standing next to a Spanish speaking family on the deck of the Staten Island Ferry. The little girl tried to kick her father in the shin. I smiled at the father and said, “Una patada,” or “A kick.” The father and mother smiled and Dad let out a stream of Spanish of which I understood not one word. I smiled and nodded in order to avoid embarrassment, rather than admit I didn’t understand. Evidently, my reaction was inappropriate because the mother and father looked at each other, raised their eyebrows, shrugged their shoulders, and looked away. Whatever Dad said required a response that was quite different from what I did.
We’ve all pretended to hear something that we didn’t hear an nodded our heads as if we had, and most of the time no harm, no foul. Sometimes, though, we are expected to give an answer and when we nod our heads, we betray ourselves. Our esteemed listener realizes that we haven’t been listening, we didn’t understand, or we simply didn’t hear. If they believe we did, they might even be hurt because our non-verbal response actually makes sense, but it’s offensive. We’re innocent of this offense because we never heard them in the first place, but they don’t know that. The moral of the story: It is always better to admit you didn’t hear or understand than it is to pretend.
Of course, it is always better to understand in the first place. I’ve said it before, and I will continue saying it: learning to understand the speech of a native speaker in a new language is the most difficult part of the language acquisition process. When a student encounters a difficulty, his/her job becomes to make it as easy as possible. There is one thing that language learners can do that will not only help them to understand native speakers, but will make them fluent speakers themselves. I call it “fast talk reading.”
Whether you’re working through a textbook, a conversation manual, a newspaper, whatever, divide the sentences into small phrases of two or three words each. Practice these phrases aloud as fast as possible. This technique has a twofold effect: the muscles of the speaking apparatus receive training in the pronunciation of the new language at fluent speed, and the ear receives training in hearing the language at fluent speed. Even if your fastest speaking speed is not yet fluent, keep practicing. It will be. There is no need to put these phrases together into complete sentences. The brain automatically knows what to do with them.
After you’ve worked through your text using the “fast talk reading” technique, “fast read” through it without talking. Try not to physically sub-vocalize, i.e. don’t move your mouth or tongue while you’re reading. Make it all happen in the head. This is not so easy as it sounds, but if you keep it in mind, it will eventually become natural. You will find that your “fast reading” can become as fast as the speech a native speaker, and this will be your crowning achievement.
by John DePonte