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Teaching Listening at Upper
Intermediate Level
by Sam Smith
- 2

What characterises heard language?

We 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)
(Ur 1984)

What do we listen to and how does this affect difficulty?

David 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.
(Nunan 1995)
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)

What problems do learners have?

Having 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 of factors.
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 Spanish).
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.

(Ur 1984)

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