the nettle: The importance of perception work in listening
by Richard Cauldwell
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
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
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
(1) John Fry of the British Council,
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