An unconventional listening comprehension strategy
This weekend I did the Grouse Grind—the infamous hike that takes you straight up the side of Grouse Mountain in North Vancouver. On a Sunday in late August it was packed, and we were walking in step with dozens of other people. Amid the huffing and puffing and occasional cursing, I could hear snatches of conversation. One pair we saw walking was a woman with a small child—he was maybe five or six years old—and he was clambering up the mountain with a pace that put the rest of us to shame.
I tuned in to their conversation because they were speaking in Mandarin, and it’s often easier to understand both the speech of children and the often simplified vocabulary that’s directed at them. And as I gasped for air, walking higher and higher up, listening to the woman ask her son if he was okay, and praising him for his energy, I started thinking about eavesdropping.
Eavesdropping is generally considered rude; I was always taught never to listen in on others’ conversations, and nowadays the term often refers to electronic bugging of phone conversations (which is rather more than rude). To be honest, I often listen in on conversations I hear during my transit commute. But “eavesdropping” is defined as listening in on someone’s private conversations, and conversations had on transit are generally considered public domain.
As a language learner, I often tune in when I hear people speaking Mandarin on public transit. I’m not quite hanging from an eave- so maybe we can call it transitdropping? Whatever we call it, the conversations you heard on the bus or the train are manifestations of language in its purest form; it’s not scripted television or slowed-down dialogues of language-learning tapes or that unique formal-but-casual speech of news anchors. It’s also not speech that’s modified because the speaker is aware the listener is not a native speaker. It’s likely to be full of slang and emotion, plus it’s complicated by other conversations and general noise, all of which are major hurdles in listening comprehension. In other words, it’s some of the best listening comprehension practice that you can get, especially when you’re out of your target language environment.
I’m lucky that there are so many speakers of Chinese in Vancouver—it means that my transit rides often become impromptu language lessons. I often challenge myself to guess where the speakers are from based on their pronunciation. Sometimes I will look up a word I don’t know, and sometimes I’ll tuck a phrase away to ask a friend about later. Mostly, though, I just listen.