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Grasping the nettle: The importance of perception work in listening comprehension
by Richard Cauldwell
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Suggestions

In the description of problems a number of themes emerged: research into L2 listening, teacher training, grasping the nettle, and methodology.

Suggestion 1: Research into L2 listening in the classroom

Fry(1) (personal communication) advises, where circumstances permit, allowing learners to control the tape-recorder so that they can work on, and re-hear, those passages of the recording that they have problems with. Fry's experience is with classes of adult learners of English: he divides the class up into small groups and, after having done the warm up phase and set the listening task, he gives each group a tape-recorder, and the tape, and leaves it to the group to control the tape-recorder. He reports being very surprised at what they found easy, and what they find difficult in listening.

My experience of working with learners with computer controlled access to recordings (reported in part in Cauldwell, 1996) is also one in which I learned a great deal about their powers and weaknesses in perception and understanding. It brought home to me the fact that their difficulties lay in what were for me 'surprising' places.

So there are two benefits to allowing learners to control of the tape recorder: they can focus on their own needs; and for the teachers it amounts to research into second language listening - teachers discover where gaps in understanding and perception lie.

Suggestion 2: A fast speech phonology

Teachers should be trained in 'observing' speech, and particularly the authentic speech that now is a feature of many listening comprehension and general textbooks. This training does not currently take place. The training they get is in the area of fixed position phonology for the teaching of pronunciation. This training is typically concerned with the articulation of minimal pairs of consonants and vowels so that teachers can explain to learners how they can improve their pronunciation.

But these current approaches to 'phonology for pronunciation' do not give adequate preparation for dealing with the features of authentic fast speech, not even in the areas where they might be thought to do so: elision, assimilation, sentence stress, and intonation. The 'rules of speech' presented in such materials are derived from introspection concerning how decontextualised written sentences might be read aloud. These 'rules of speech' are inadequate to account for what happens in fast spontaneous speech.

There is therefore a need for a 'fast speech phonology' which prepares teachers to observe and explain the variability of fast speech. A major element of this training would be to encourage teachers to rid their minds of the expectations and rules they have inherited from fixed position phonology. As for what else might be included, Field (1998: 13) suggests features such as 'hesitations, stuttering, false starts, and long, loosely structured sentences'. To this list one can add all the features of speech described in Brazil (1994; 1997) - prominences, tone units of different sizes, tones, pitch height. One can also add the differences between citation and running forms of words, turn taking, accent, voice quality, and the effects of speed on speech.

Suggestion 3: Grasping the nettle

Learners will claim that fast speech is too difficult for them: and teachers will naturally feel tempted to give them easier, slower, scripted materials that they feel comfortable with. If this solution is adopted however, learners will be under-prepared to cope with the fast spontaneous speech that will come their way when they meet native speakers of English.

It is necessary to allow learners to feel challenged, and it may be necessary for them to feel frustrated by the demands of the listening task. I took a survey of one class of seven advanced learners of English (teachers of English from Japan) at the moment when they were deeply immersed in a difficult recording, and attempting to answer questions relating to the recording. I asked them to score their feelings on a five point scale with 'A' as 'happy' and 'E' 'unhappy'. Some time later, after doing the post-listening exercises I asked them to make judgments on the same scale. The results are shown in Table 1.

Table 1 Survey of learners' feelings before and after post-listening activities

    
  Happy               Unhappy
A
B
C
D
E
Before
0
0
1
1
5
After
3
3
1
0
0


Table 1 shows that there was a major shift in feeling between the end of the while listening phase and the end of the post-listening phase: learners moved from being broadly 'unhappy' to broadly 'happy'. (The means by which this change was brought about will be described in the next section.) Here, it is important to note that it is vital for teachers to be prepared for periods of learner frustration, and to have the methodological training and knowledge base to help learners through periods of discomfort and frustration to increasingly sophisticated levels of perception and understanding. If the goal is to help learners become better listeners, it is vital that they learn to be comfortable handling fast speech.

Notes
(1) John Fry of the British Council, Hong Kong

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