Listening at Upper
by Sam Smith
characterises heard language?
listen in many situations, to the TV, radio, formally in lectures
or speeches, to recordings like songs or messages on the telephone
but the majority of spoken language is person to person and
we can generalise about its nature.
There are some important factors to take into account when
considering listening, some things that characterise it in
most situations according to Penny Ur are:
1. We listen for a purpose and with certain expectations.
2. We make an immediate response to what we hear.
3. We see the person we are listening to.
4. There are some visual or environmental clues as to the
meaning of what is heard.
5. Stretches of heard discourse come in short chunks.
6. Most heard discourse is spontaneous and therefore differs
from formal spoken prose in the amount of redundancy (repetition,
false starts, re-phrasing etc.), 'noise' (lack of understanding
due to background noise or lack of vocabulary) and colloquialisms
(in terms of vocabulary and pronunciation), and in its auditory
character (pauses, variations in pitch, volume and tone)
What do we listen to and how does this affect difficulty?
Nunan categorises listening texts by looking at their nature:
i.e. is it planned or unplanned; is it transactional or interpersonal
and what is the level of familiarity between the speakers;
and by the number of speakers: e.g. a monologue or a dialogue.
An informative planned dialogue would vary greatly from an
unplanned, interpersonal, familiar dialogue, where in the
second there would be much more redundancy, colloquialism,
shared knowledge, interruption and quite importantly less
social distance, allowing the speakers to rely on their relationship
and joint understanding to mean more by saying less.
The above factors will affect the difficulty of listening.
Nunan continues to point out (from Brown and Yule 1983b) that
the difficulty in listening will be affected by the speakers
(number, accent and speed), the listener (participant or eavesdropper,
level of response required and level of interest in the subject),
the content (grammar, vocabulary, structure of what is said
and familiarity with the subject) and support (visual and
environmental clues). (Nunan 1995)
problems do learners have?
looked at some characteristics of listening and its difficulties,
we must consider the learner and what problems someone listening
to a foreign language can face. Penny Ur provides a good number
1. Learners can have problems actually hearing the sounds,
i.e. problems hearing the phonemes of English, and this can
be affected by the learners L1, sometimes the sounds of English
won't even exist (th in Russian), or a difference in minimal
pairs in English won't exist in the L1 (ship and sheep in
2. The same kinds of problems can occur with stress and intonation,
students in the same way, due to differences between L1 and
English, may not be sensitised to the differences in sound
that can occur due to these factors.
3. Coping with redundancy and noise. Native speakers don't
think about understanding everything, but this doesn't necessarily
carry over to an L2. Students may want to understand everything
and this is unnatural and can be unhelpful, causing frustration
and sapping energy.
4. Students lack of familiarity with stress, intonation, collocation
and discourse features can cause them problems when predicting
what will be said. Predicting and checking predictions is
easier than listening intensively for every word.
5. Colloquial language and speech are very different from
written language. Knowing a word in written form doesn't mean
that it will be understood in speech, due to the sound - spelling
relationship in English and more importantly the changes a
word undergoes in fast speech, due to weak forms, assimilation,
elision and catonation. This, by the way, is something that
students often complain to me about and I think it essential
to teach the spoken form of a word, in fast speech before
or at the same time as the written form.
6. As the pace of listening is set by the speaker, fatigue
can cause students problems as they can't take a break.
7. On top of all this, accents in English vary widely and
students need practice with as wide a range as possible.
8. Due to the fact that listening in a foreign language is
so difficult, the students' receptive systems can be overloaded
causing problems that would not occur in L1 such as not being
able to pay attention to contextual and environmental clues
as they would in L1.
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