Hearing as Proof of Understanding

If I try to listen to a German audiobook, I strain after phrases and words, picking up little bits with great effort, not able to hold on to the entirety of what is going on well enough to understand it. I’m just not yet good enough to do with German what I could easily do in English.

Something similar happens when I listen to Plotinus’s Enneads in audiobook format. I can pick up phrases and sentences, sometimes whole paragraphs, and make sense of them, but it takes real effort and even then I can’t piece them together into a meaningful whole as I’d like to.

I can puzzle out a German passage if it’s on the page in front of me, given that it doesn’t have any vocabulary that’s too unfamiliar. A year and a half of studying German in my downtime has given me that much.

And I can generally follow along with Plotinus’s argumentation when I’m staring at the text. I’ve read enough of him, and about him and the Neoplatonic school, that I am able to see (more or less clearly) what he is trying to say when I can take the time.

Still, there’s no reason why audiobooks should be absolutely unworkable. Someone unfamiliar with Luther’s thoughts and situation and vocabulary might find it very puzzling to listen to something written by him — and yet, I listened to a twelve-hour-long audiobook by him without difficulty, because I’ve studied his thought deeply enough to be able to follow along. I just haven’t quite reached that point yet with Plotinus.

The same is true with second languages. I have friends who learned French as adults, who can follow along with a French radio show or audiobook with little effort. If I keep working on German, and on the other languages I’ve chosen, then eventually I could reach that level of proficiency as well.

For the languages I’m learning, and also for Plotinus, I look forward to the day when I can listen and, in listening, understand. Not only will that give me another angle by which I can continue learning and improving in those objects of study; it will also be a sign of how far along I’ve already managed to come just by being able to listen and understand. It’s a good benchmark to be able to aim for.

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