Understanding what we hear depends on a number of abilities: being able to decipher sounds and attach meaning to them; interpreting the rhythm of what a speaker is saying, as well as the stress and intonation she puts on certain parts of a sentence; and associating with the context in which a conversation is taking place.
All this, in turn, relies on different kinds of knowledge. In the first place, the learner needs to understand the way the language works – in other words, its mechanics: grammar and syntax. Next, she needs to know the background to a monologue or dialogue. All writers, all speakers assume that their readers or listeners share a knowledge base with them. (I can remember an essay submitted to me when I was teaching at the British Council in Sri Lanka, which started “All mothers are women.” That’s tantamount to nonsense, not because it’s wrong, obviously, but because it does not need to be stated – and probably would not be in the writer’s mother tongue.) Finally, listeners need to know the setting, who the participants in the conversation are and why they are talking about a topic. It’s the reason teachers elicit background information from their students before beginning a listening or reading exercise.
It is, of course, a complicated process and a lot can go wrong along the way. But it’s important that we, as teachers, keep encouraging our students to listen. There are so many advantages to extensive listening! First and foremost, the development of a student’s listening skills follows fairly much the same pattern in L2 as it does in L1. Next, around half of human communication takes place through listening. Compare that to writing, which comes in at less than 10%. Then again, students, given an understanding teacher, will also not be asked to explain everything they have just heard. This allows them time to process meaning in their short-term memories. And, finally, the sense of achievement when a learner can understand what someone has said to her in the target language is immense. Perhaps no other skill inspires us with such confidence when we get it right.
But the difficulty comes when teachers need to choose suitable texts! In real life, listening is an interactive skill because we usually need to reply but it can be difficult to reproduce that in the L2 classroom, if a teacher relies on audio recordings. This difficulty is compounded by others: learners usually cannot see the person speaking and so can’t pick up on visual clues, whether these are mannerisms, gestures or environmental ones. Then, the text often goes on quite a long time. It does not greatly matter if it’s a monologue or chat. The fact is that in real life outside the classroom, people speak in chunks and we respond to them in other chunks. That’s not the way listening often happens in the classroom. But most importantly, there is sometimes no purpose behind the listening, except for one manufactured by the teacher, such as: “Answer questions 1 to 5”.
How then can a teacher select texts which are as close as possible to authentic listening situations? Obviously the best solution is to leave choice of material to the learner herself, but that’s easier said than done with lower level learners. So, if teachers must select on behalf of their students, what characteristics should a listening text have?
Here are a few things that facilitate understanding:
This may seem a tall order but it’s not hard to create conversations on our smart phones these days and, hopefully, collegiality will demand that a fellow teacher will take part too, so that learners are exposed to different accents and voices. After all, you can return the favour!
Image: Giovanni Francesco Guercino [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
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