In a recent article in ‘Debates in Modern Languages Education’, Robert Vanderplank talks about the issues of listening and understanding in foreign languages. Often listening is singled out as one of the most difficult aspects of language learning and often claimed by language learners as their weakest skill. Students of Arabic often complain about their Arabic listening skills.

Learners can be quickly overwhelmed with the spoken language particularly in a one-way situation such as listening to radio or television. Spoken speech will seem surprisingly quick and often all the words will appear to morph into a long unidentifiable sound, making it difficult to identify individual words.

The reason why native speakers can listen to spoken language unhindered is because they are can predict what is likely to be said, they can use prior knowledge (which a learner won’t have) and gauge the context quickly. It is precisely these three skills that a learner needs to develop in the classroom and outside of the classroom.

As Vanderplank mentions, TV and radio is often beyond the scope of language learners. Just one new word can throw off a learner and whilst one tries to grapple with what that word could mean, another sentence has already started and finished!

There are many ways to improve your Arabic listening skills but we will look at one new approach that anyone can start with the help of an Internet browser.

Research shows that subtitles can help learners enormously. The subtitles or captions are often an option on digital TV and online services. For most people, accessing foreign television used to be restricted to a few obscure news channels on satellite. With the Internet, however, and services like YouTube, people can watch services, clips, uploads and even the news from around the world and improve their Arabic listening skills.

A research study indicated that foreign television with subtitles improved the listener’s ability to recall (i.e. process, understand and feedback) the content compared to when television was watched without subtitles.

The researchers concluded that subtitles can help the listener to tune into the language (especially if there is a regional accent). Other research by Vanderplank indicated that the learners stay actively focussed with the content. In my own experience, subtitles can help with keeping the pace with the content, especially when thrown off by an unknown word. Seeing the word can also help to remember it when looking it up later on.

YouTube is also increasingly incorporating speech-to-text algorithms into their videos. This is mainly so that the Google search system can better understand the content within the video but this option is a huge boon for language leaners, opening up millions of foreign language content to learners.

Not only that, YouTube allows you to slow down the audio to half pace without disturbing the quality or pitch of the audio.

To activate subtitles / closed captions in YouTube:

  1. hover over the bottom-right hand corner and click on the Settings cog
  2. Click on Subtitles
  3. Choose the language often there will be none or only one, e.g. Arabic (automated)

Alternatively you can click straight onto the Closed Captioin (CC) icon which looks like this:

With automated subtitles, some words will inevitably be wrong but, as mentioned above, the key activity here is to tune into the language and improve your Arabic listening skills.

Another added advantage of YouTube is that one can pause the video or replay it. And of course, you can share it with friends.

There are still relatively few videos on YouTube with Arabic subtitles. If you find any interesting documentaries or links, feel free to post them in the comments section below.

Online resources

ArabicOnline Advanced Arabic

Learning Arabic (Al Jazeera)

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