Just as a physical workout exercises different combinations of muscle groups, a hearing workout improves your ability to process sound by training across the different skills you need.
You can pound the gym treadmill with the loneliness of the long-distance runner who never gets anywhere – or have fun and alternate different forms of exercise which also get you out and about in the real world: swimming, walking and cycling. OK, so unless you enjoy wild swimming as part of your commute, that might not be true, but walking and cycling can be incorporated very easily and naturally into the flow of your daily routine and kill two birds with one stone: you get fit and get to your destination!
It’s just the same with listening skills. Audiobooks are great – but they’re my equivalent of that treadmill because I simply prefer to devour books with my eyes. I was the kid who always read on in the French textbook, rather than listen to the class stumble haltingly over words, so you can see where I’m coming from on that one. For me, a real-life hearing workout is easier to slot into my everyday routine: it’s more regular, and I’m more motivated as a result.
The keys are familiarity and variety. Familiarity is encouraging, and gives you something to build on. Variety retains your interest, while expanding your horizons. As you become more and more geared up to anticipate what comes next, you can cope with greater variety. Language learning is similar, introducing new grammatical concepts and vocabulary on the back of familiar material.
For example: because I’m a daily train commuter, I got to know the platform announcements for my train pretty quickly, then the on-train announcements. I was able to transfer those skills to listening for the tannoy at my destination, and on other platforms at both stations on my daily commute, then to other railway lines and companies which use slightly different forms of announcement and unfamiliar places. They have recently introduced new formulae for the announcements on my line, which I’ve quickly picked up, which in turn has made it easier to decipher unexpected announcements (reader, I was stuck on a train in the floods for three hours last week). Interestingly, they now use male and female voices for different platforms, rolled out across the network, so if two trains come in simultaneously it’s easier to tell which announcement is for which platform and which train. It’s a step forward in accessibility – easier for hearing people, and for us too. (I think it really taps into something I keep banging on about: if you increase accessibility for one group you increase accessibility for everyone – it’s not something specialist, distinct, apart or necessarily costing a lot of money! But maybe that’s another blog post . . .)
Tannoys have also helped to develop my skills in hearing in noise: for example, at my home station with both platforms in use; and at the London terminus at Paddington, with trains coming in and pulling out, Tube trains rumbling beneath, people chattering, pigeons squawking, all sorts of retail environment noise from the ticket booths, food kiosks, and shops, and the roar of the traffic outside. A very challenging hearing environment, so I was really proud when last year I picked out the call for my train at Paddington for the first time. I was not on the main concourse, but on Platform 1 with a coffee and quite relaxed, knowing I had plenty of time before my train. All of a sudden I heard the announcement for the Swansea train and its platform, which was fairly randomised, so I was well chuffed.
You can use the same skills on other forms of public transport – the bus and the Tube, listening for the announcements associated with each stop, wherever you go. The more places you travel, the more exposure you have to the weird and wonderful variety of place names in the UK. Not that I’ve been to Great Snoring yet . . .
It’s a real-world environment. As anyone using train transport in the UK knows, things go pear-shaped on a fairly regular basis, and it’s just a bit more relaxing knowing that I have something to supplement total reliance on the departure boards, which are less than impressive in being updated simultaneously with the tannoys. So I’ve concentrated here on the real-world skills I need to get by and make my own life easier, and to make it more interesting and more motivational for myself: dispatching plural avians with a single lapidary object . . . !
In other words, use these listening situations as practice, rather than practising for them.