By Kia DeCou
I got back from visiting my husband’s family and friends in Istanbul last week and I came to a new realization about listening. Just being exposed to a massive amount of spoken language does not improve listening skills. My Turkish level is low intermediate at this point. I am able to have conversations about everyday events, go shopping, ride on public transportation and generally carry out most normal everyday tasks in Turkish. Granted I make a lot of grammar mistakes and my pronunciation is not perfect by a long shot, but I usually can get my point across.
In August, I spent the better part of two weeks hanging out with Turkish friends (and my Turkish husband and his family) who spent 90 percent of the time speaking beautiful, fluent, native Turkish (every once in a while they took pity on me and switched to English when my eyes started to glaze over). While I could follow the discussion some of the time, usually it in veered in directions my vocabulary was not equipped to handle so I would lose the thread of the conversation. According to much of the thinking in language teaching, my listening skills should have been improving just by being exposed to so much speech but they weren't.
This experience, while frustrating, was also eye-opening. I can not continue to tell my students to “Try to understand.” without giving them concrete listening strategies to work with. The sink or swim method might sometimes work well for children (and may not) but older learners like me need way more support when it comes to listening. This year I have been mostly teaching listening skills for the TOEFL and have been working on ways to help my students understand better.
Why is Listening Problematic?
First, the student cannot control the speed, the speaker does that. When someone is reading they can stop and look words up and ask questions and then pick right back up where they left off. Speaking is different, especially if the speaker is live and not recorded. Once a listener loses the thread of the conversation, it is very difficult to pick it back up again. There is usually no opportunity to look anything up and it is difficult to ask questions without interrupting everyone. No one wants to be that person who keeps asking what this means and what that means, so usually either the conversation goes on and the listener says nothing, or the conversation grinds to a halt as the speaker is not sure what the listener has understood and what he has not and doesn’t know how to help.
Second, because spoken English is so different than written English, even if you are listening to a recording, without knowing how to spell the word, it is difficult to look up. That is one of the reasons language learners are so excited by subtitles. Reading can be so much easier than listening! As children we learn language orally first and then learn how to read but older language learners do just the opposite. This means that learners are often familiar with the spelling and grammatical function of words but don't know what it sounds like when it is embedded in rapid speech.
Third, there are so many different ways to speak. I was acutely aware of this this summer because aside from going to Istanbul, I was lucky enough to get to spend a couple of weeks in Spain. I am fluent in Spanish and it was great to be somewhere where I could fully participate in conversations, yippee! I learned Spanish in Colombia and Mexico though so while it was nice to be able to understand better, it was more difficult for me to understand the Spanish from Spain that it is to understand the Spanish from Mexico and Colombia. When I came back to Japan, one of the first people I ran into was from Mexico and it was a relief to be able to understand her without having to focus so much. English has just as many different accents as Spanish does. Learners get comfortable with how their teachers speak and have more trouble understanding speakers with different accents.
So, what are the strategies for teaching listening? How can you help someone hear better?
Many languages do not have a stressed timed rhythm like English does. First, teach your students how to count syllables. Syllables are really important in English because one or more of them is stressed and the rest of them are not clearly pronounced. When we teach English, usually we show student how to write a word and figure out the definition. When a student can tell us what the word means, we think they know it. If they have never heard is spoken though, how are they going to understand it when they do hear it. A word like different appears to have 3 syllables dif-er-ent but when we say it we usually just say 2 dif-rent and the last syllable is pronounced with a schwa. When we introduce new vocabulary it is important to point out how it is pronounced or else when they hear it they won’t recognize it. This seems logical but I realized that while I was preteaching vocabulary for the videos the students were watching, I wasn’t really showing them how to understand it in its spoken form, I was just giving them vocabulary lists and asking them to memorize them in their written form.
For a more detailed description of how I start teaching pronunciation, check out The First 4 Things I Teach my EFL Students about Pronunciation.
For more fun facts about the schwa, check out this post by Mental Floss.
Teach students to recognize how English chops up words and puts them together differently in fluent, natural speech. For example, when one word ends in a consonant and the next one starts with a vowel, the consonant will move over to join the vowel making it sound different. Close it becomes clo-zit, which sounds a whole lot like closet. Not at all becomes no-ta-tall or no-da-dall, get it off becomes ge-ti-toff or ge-di-doff.
If one word ends in the same sound another starts with, they become one long word. This summer sounds like thisummer, life fact becomes lifact, window washer becomes windowasher.
For more on connected speech, check out this excellent post by elt resourceful.
Teach students to recognize commonly reduced word chunks. Almost never will you hear someone say I am going to, it almost always gets reduced to im gunna, Imunu or in extreme cases Imu. Similarly questions like did you become djyu and I would have becomes Idu. If you point this out to students and have them listen for those reductions, it makes listening a whole lot easier. Don't worry about it not being correct or proper English, it is done so commonly and naturally, most speakers don't even realize they are doing it. If we don't point it out to our students or use it in our classes, we are setting our student up to not understand even basic phrases when they leave the classroom.
I must admit in the beginning I resisted this. I remember doing dictation exercises in my Turkish classes and I couldn’t understand what the point was. When I first had to assign dictation to my students I still wasn’t really clear on its benefits so I assigned it for homework but didn’t really do much with it. This bothered me because I hate to waste my students’ time with meaningless assignments.
I decided to explore the possibilities further, so as a preview activity I asked my students to listen to the first three sentences of a video and write down every word. I stopped the video frequently and encouraged the students to work together to try to understand what was being said. This was great. Students repeated what they heard to each other, corrected each other’s mistakes, asked each other questions and generally worked together to figure out words from context.
It was eye opening for me because I could see exactly what they were hearing and listen through their ears. For example, I never realized that our and are usually have the same pronunciation. When they were listening to a sentence that said “Our oceans are becoming polluted.” They almost all wrote down Are oceans are. They were getting confused because both our and are are common words that they were pretty confident they could understand correctly but when our was pronounced in context, it no longer sounded the way they had been taught. I was so used to hearing it and understanding it in context, I never realized that they sounded the same.
Dictations not only helped students to repeat what they were hearing to each other, they also helped me to understand exactly how they were hearing so I could help them better. We could then all focus on what parts of speech were consistently misheard.
Much of the time the meaning of what is being said is not literally what is being said. Take a simple sentence like “You are a great friend.” Most intermediate language learners will understand all of the vocabulary but they still might not understand what the speaker is trying to communicate. A lot of verbal communication is not what is being said but rather how it is being said.
YOU are a great friend. Is very different from: You are a great FRIEND. The first sentence implies that other people are not great friends, while the second implies that the speaker does not want to be more than friends. What word(s) are stressed and the tone the speaker uses carry a lot of meaning, meaning that is often lost on language learners.
I am currently teaching TOEFL test taking skills in Japan. Most of my students really struggle to understand meaning that is not directly stated and many of the TOEFL questions ask what the speaker meant. Inferring is a skill that is not regularly taught but is regularly tested and is essential to understanding spoken as well as written language. It would be well worth your students time to learn to listen for stress and tone in order to better understand what they are hearing.
Teach students how to help the speaker help them. If they almost understand but are just missing one or two words, show them how to interrupt the speaker politely and ask for clarification. Sometimes a simple, "What do you mean by __________?" or "I'm sorry but could you repeat that last part for me?" Is all someone needs to be able to participate more effectively in a conversation.
As someone who speaks to language learners frequently, I know it can be frustrating to be talking to someone and either get a blank stare or a simple I don't understand. At that point I don't know how to help my conversation partner because I don't know what exactly they don't understand. Do I need to repeat everything? What words do I need to simplify? If someone can tell me exactly what the problem is, I can fix it more easily and the conversation can continue.
As a learner of a few different languages I know that becoming familiar with a few phrases like "I didn't catch what you were saying about __________." Or "I don't know what _______ means." can make all the difference between feeling helpless in a conversation and giving up rather than taking control of the situation and making sure I know what is being said.
As a high beginner/low intermediate Turkish speaker, I sometimes just listen for the main idea of what is being said. I don’t really contribute much to those conversations because I am not sure exactly what the details are, but at least I can follow the main ideas. Listening for the main idea for me means listening for as many key words as I can and then figuring out what topic encompasses all of those words. For example, if I hear ______ cats ________ sick ______ hospital ________ home ________ problem ___feel better. I can guess that maybe either the speaker or the speaker's pet has had some health issues but is doing better now. I can then anticipate what the speaker might say next and listen for key words to hear if I am still on track or not. If, at this point I am not sure if the speaker is sick or the cat is sick I will want to specifically listen for if the topic seems to be more cat related or speaker related. With a little bit of practice, you can get your students to be listening more actively, thinking and anticipating rather than just sitting back and waiting for the words to flow over them.
Other times I need to listen for specific details. For example, if I ask a question that requires a yes/no, directional or numerical answer, I need to prime my ears to pick those words up. Before I ask the question, I need to anticipate the possible answers and bring them to mind in the language I will be asking the question in. As a beginning student, I might want to look up some of the words that might be in the answer before the conversation takes place so I will be ready.
I am not sure if taking notes is becoming a lost art or not, what with so many people recording lectures and taking pictures of the board before leaving class instead of writing things down, but I do know that good note taking saved me when I was a university student. I was not a particularly fast reader and I was a bit shy and didn't like to participate in class discussions very often, but the one thing I did do very well was take notes. Taking notes helped me stay focused in my classes. It also helped me organize the information that was coming at me and make sense of it. Quite simply, it kept me in the here and now instead of thinking about other things. Taking notes is not easy and it takes practice to learn how to do it well. When I was a student I used to write down key words and ideas as I was listening and then, as soon as I could, I would reorganize them and fill in parts that needed more explanation. As I reorganized them I could see where my understanding was solid and where it wasn't so I could either ask for more information or I could look things up in my course books.
There are many ways to take notes. One way that I didn't know about when I was a student was Cornell notes. Cornell notes are structured in such a way that they not only serve as a reminder of what was presented, they also help to study and memorize that information. Thanks to my colleagues who introduced this method to me, I was able to teach it to my students last semester and they were able to take much better notes. For a detailed description on how to take Cornell Notes, check out this video.
I hope you find these tips helpful.
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