TBVGBTS: Listening in a second language class

This is another post in a series of posts stemming from my experience taking a Korean class at a university in Seoul. Other posts about the class, which might help with the background, are linked at the bottom of this post. This time I want to share some of my experiences with listening to recorded materials (ie. coursebook listening materials, not teacher talk or other students) as part of a wider discussion of the role of listening materials in the classroom.

The first thing to say is that listening to recorded materials requires an awful lot of attention, especially if the book that they are drawn from is pitched at a higher level than the students can comfortably handle, as ours was. As a teacher and a student, I believe that listening is by the far most difficult skill involved in language learning, but I think that impression may well partly come from the way we deal with listening in the classroom. Note that I’m deliberately avoiding saying “teaching” here, because this course went a long way to confirming what I’ve suspected for a while: that “teaching” listening is more or less impossible, and my experience of listening to recorded materials on this course might have helped me to understand a bit better why this is so.

The problem is that, if Skehan’s limited attention hypothesis is to be believed, we have a limited amount of brain power to devote to whatever we are doing.  If this happens to be listening to L2 speech above a level that we can comfortably understand, more or less all of our attention is going to be directed at trying to make sense of it. By way of illustration, at times during listening activities I found it helpful to close my eyes and listen; blocking out visual signals seemingly freed up a bit more processing power for decoding audial ones.

So how do we help students to process difficult listenings? The textbook way seems to be to use “listening strategies” (take a look on this page and see if you can find out what even one of the oft referred to “listening strategies” is), or “metacognitive strategies”. The problem for me is that even metacognitive strategies demand cognitive resources, and these, as we’ve seen above, aren’t readily available during difficult listenings. “Then the listening’s clearly too difficult,” I hear you chirp. Well, yes, but if it was easier then we wouldn’t need all these strategies in the first place – we’d just understand it.

I’d also suggest that pre- and post-listening tasks surely are a function more of the contextless nature of listening on English courses rather than anything you’d actually need to do in the real world. “Ah! Here is a picture of a goat in my textbook. I hence predict that I may hear information pertaining to horn configuration, or an anecdote about one of the greedy buggers eating the sleeve of a favourite jumper.” (Goodness, I should write a listening textbook – it’d be amazing!). In the non-textbook world this kind of schema activation is pretty much unnecessary because all of the context is already provided: if you’re listening to something in the real world, you most likely know what it is and what you expect to hear anyway. It’s only when you completely decontextualise a listening, as well as removing all of the visual support that the real world would offer, that you have to spend minutes of valuable class time getting students to reconstruct it before they listen (for a textbook writer’s point of view on this, see @pterolaur’s post here).

All of this ridiculousness might stem from two sources. Firstly, the need for coursebooks to provide listenings as part of a “four skills approach” or a “balanced curriculum”, or whatever.  Fair enough, I suppose, though I’d suggest that in a decently communicative class students will get a lot more useful audial input from fellow students and the teacher, especially with activities like live listenings, which might also be more efficient due to less contextualization, as well as not being contrived to sledgehammer home some arbitrary language point. Secondly, I think teachers feel a certain pressure to “teach”. You have to be seen to be doing something more than just pressing play and saying “listen to this and see if you understand it”. This leads to the kind of teaching that I experienced on the Korean course: teachers getting us to listen for how many points are made in a listening, when it’s pretty obvious even from prosodic cues like pausing and intonation where one point stops and another begins. This is not what I need to know from a listening; I need to know what the content of those points is, and that is a far more difficult proposition. I think it’s also worth saying that listening pieces vary so much in their structures (compared to writing) that, outside of very specific examples, it’s not really worth teaching structure either.

So what do I need from teachers as a second language listener? I see a lot of advice about getting listeners to accept less than 100% understanding. This seems fine, but teachers have to accept that below a certain percentage of words understood (and this will be high number, I’d say at least 80 and more likely above 90), all but the most rudimentary of listening for gist or very specific information activities will be extremely difficult. Furthermore, understanding below this level would more or less rule out any of the input becoming uptake, not that I think that listenings really provide much in this area anyway due to real-time processing making it near impossible to focus much on form.

What might be useful is if teachers could train students to listen in a different way to the L2 than they do in an L1. I’m in the realm of hypothesizing here, but listening to recorded materials reminded me of a really  interesting listening activity from my MA studies. It featured a man talking about a journey (in English), but only at the end did it become clear that he was recounting a time that he was ripped off by a taxi driver. The purpose of the activity was to show how when we listen we automatically construct and update mental representations and hypotheses based on what we are hearing as well as past experience. However, when listening in an L2, this process is fragile and subject to breaking down because there’s not enough understandable input, or because the listener suddenly encounters a word or run of words that are not understood, and so the updating becomes impossible, and the mental representation stalls or breaks down. The disorientation caused by a run of unknown sounds should not be underestimated, and so helping students to reorient themselves after losing the thread of understanding could be an important strategy for learners. It doesn’t, however, seem eminently teachable.

More sensible teaching approaches link clearly to features of pronunciation (Rachael Roberts has a great example in the video in this post) and I could possibly see a role for the learning of common lexical chunks or discourse markers in this vein too. One time I remember my understanding in Korean breaking down was when someone talked about an “angular chin”, a phrase I’d just been taught but hadn’t really internalized the pronunciation of yet, and I discovered this in a second playing of listening at slower speed.

The teachers’ approach to listening on my course seemed to be to play the listening at full speed once, look at our puzzled expressions, and then play it again at reduced speed, sometimes while translating it into more simple Korean for us. My jury is still out on the effectiveness of this because even though I understand much more when the listening is slowed down, I feel like it’s still too ephemeral for any kind of concious learning, though I do wonder if it might be used to develop a kind of listening fluency. What I would have liked, but never got time for, was some time after the listening to read a tapescript, look at the parts that I didn’t understand, and try to figure out why I didn’t understand them. This would have at least led to greater satisfaction, but perhaps few generalizable gains.

It’s difficult for me to see past massive amounts of audial input as the principal development driver for listening skills, and therefore this has been a bit of a depressing post to write, because I want to actively help my students to listen better. There are some interesting suggestions in John Field’s presentation here, though as outlined above I’m not totally sold on the idea that basing teaching on L1 listening strategies is entirely helpful. One example might be listening for the stressed words in an utterance (nuclear stress). It strikes me that there’s a lot of information contained in weak forms: I clearly remember a listening from the course that featured a man and a woman discussing their personality traits. I got all of the traits, but missed most of the pronouns, so had no idea who had which trait. This was all in Korean, which I don’t believe has such clearly marked nuclear stress (though I may be wrong), but it struck me that a lot of the information that I needed would possibly hidden in unstressed syllables and weak forms in native English. One real positive of Field’s presentation however is the recognition that any listening strategies or processes that we teach need to be repeated to the point where they become automatic, for reasons of limited cognitive resources given above.

Listening to Korean during the course has changed the way I think about listening in my classes as a teacher. I didn’t use textbook listenings that much before, but I might well think about banishing them entirely from the room and relying on my own voice, the students’ voices and anyone else that I can rope in to provide input. I’m hoping it might be sufficiently contextualized by what we are doing in class to to skip pre-listening tasks. Post-listening tasks might involve summarizing or analyzing a tapescript, but really, would it be so wrong just to sit students down and ask them to listen?

Links to to other posts about this Korean course


15 responses to “TBVGBTS: Listening in a second language class

  1. Cool post. Listening requires extensive listening at a level that is easy (think: building listening stamina) and, more importantly, intensive listening and completing things such as gap-fills and transcriptions. Not very exciting, but they are probably effective. Using your personality traits example, if you have the script, remove all the pronouns, and then play the track and focus just on those words. Try to fill in the gaps. I use this site for all my gap-fills: http://l.georges.online.fr/tools/cloze.html.

    • Hi Anthony. I like your ideas, and I could definitely see myself using them in class and for my own learning. I’d class those as post-listening tasks though. I guess what I might be railing against above is the pre- and during listening tasks and especially strategies. Maybe I’m being dim here, but from my point of view there doesn’t seem to be anything teachers can do to help students in the moment of listening. Anyway, thanks for your interest and your comments. Alex

      • Well, during listening tasks is tricky. Standard listening instruction tells students to “monitor” comprehension but that is something we do anyway, so I agree with you about very little to do during listening.

        What about note-taking?

        As for pre-listening, since you are practicing listening, I think a good idea would be to preview vocabulary by checking the script/transcript. This may seem like cheating, but if you don’t know the words before listening, and are likely not to guess from context, there is no reason not to know the words, especially since you are practicing listening and not doing real-world listening.

        At least, these are the things I would do if I were studying Korean or any other language again.

        • Note taking is an interesting one. It’s definitely a “during listening” skill that students need, especially if they have any desire to attend an English speaking educational institution. However, it’s a skill that I really struggled with. As soon as I took my mind off what the teacher was saying and put it on to my notes, I lost my thread of understanding.
          Also really interesting point about checking the tapescript before the first listening. You’re right, it would feel like cheating because in picking up those unknown words you might pick up a bit too much of the overall meaning, perhaps. I wonder how our students might feel about doing such an activity in class?

        • “I wonder how our students might feel about doing such an activity in class?”

          Typically, they prefer it. They always complain that vocabulary is their weakest listening skill. They can follow the listening, but unkown vocabulary stumps them. That’s why I am a fan of previewing vocabulary.

        • This comes a lot with what I tried to say in the post. Unknown vocabulary seems disproportionately disorientating within listening, which would be a strong argument for pre teaching.

  2. Hey Alex,
    A few thoughts came up while I was reading and I just wanted to share them here, without there being any need for response, unless thoughts come up for you too.

    First of all, I was thinking that a real-life fairly contextless listening activity that could come up for Korean university students is university lectures in English. The students would need to know what to listen for and what patterns of speech might occur in order to take effective notes.

    The other thing that I was thinking about was more on the micro level. I have a group of 11 year olds who were listening and repeating after a CD. I don’t normally do that sort of activity in a reading lesson, but I’m glad I did in this case because I realized that there were features of the pronunciation that they just did not hear. (The text was about “Villa De Las Estrellas” and they heard and pronounced all those non-existent /l/s every time they listened.) It really made me wonder about the relationship between listening and pronunciation.

    • Great points about lectures Anne. Originally there was more to this post but it was already too long. The bit I cut (which I will probably publush next week) contained a qualification about lectures. Still, I’d say that even a lecture has some of its own context. You already know what you’re going to do (listen to a lecture), roughly what it will be about, and if you’re a student you’ll be aware of some of the structural conventions etc. Also, I would love to teach a listening and pronunciation course.

  3. Hi Alex, another interesting post. I found it especially interesting because I’m just about to start listening lessons with one of my one-to-one (older) students. Listening is definitely the area she needs most practice in, but it dawned on me that as I was trying to select appropriate material, I’d never really taught a listening class before, and I was thinking how does one even go about ‘teaching’ a listening class. And then you mention that ‘”teaching listening” is more of less impossible’, so it will be interesting for me to see what happens in these classes.

    • That Rachel Roberts post i linked to has some great stuff in it, and I think any teaching probably is linked to phonological decoding. Another thing I might do is find out the kind of listening she might need, and see if you can find lots of stuff in that area. I’m interested to hear how it goes.

  4. Thanks for this reflection and the links. Some interesting comments here. I liked your coursebook “example” which reminded me of the article and thread on Scott Thornbury’s blog: https://scottthornbury.wordpress.com/2011/07/31/z-is-for-zero-uncertainty/ That discussion may give you some pointers on resolving the difficulties of “teaching” listening, but we’re far from any definitive method for it. I’m in a similar situation to David above, working with learners who are interested in developing their listening skills, trying to figure out how to achieve that. Will have a look at the Rachel Robert’s post. Anthony’s site is also really useful.

    • Thanks for the comment Cara, and apologies for writing a fairly useless post for anyone who is trying to teach listening. Your comment was timely as I’ve been thinking about this again recently. I still come down heavily on the side of not being able to teach very much about listening, and that the best kind of approach might be to listen extensively to materials that include very little unknown language. My feeling is that little is gained in terms of complexity from listenings, unless it’s written down for further examination/recycling — and then it’s not really learned from listening anyway).

      • Ha! I think it’s a reflection of the difficulty of teaching this intangible thing that is L2 listening. I’ve continued my reading binge about this ever-elusive topic since last week and I’ve come across some more useful bits and bobs. Olga Sergeeva seems to have developed a pretty solid way in to “teaching” listening that she outlines on her blog: https://eltgeek.wordpress.com/tag/listening/. She cites Field’s ideas and you can see that she’s incorporated micro-listening/intensive practice really well into the listening course she taught. I’m reading Field at the moment (1st ELT book I’ve bought in a long time), so we’ll see what other insights I light glean.
        One thing that doesn’t seem to come up in all these discussions of strategies etc is the role of translation. I know that might seem nigh on impossible when listening to not only attend to the incoming stream of speech, but also to decode by translating into L1, but I’m sure some learners I know try to cope with listening in this way. One student I’m working with at the moment has as her main goal in English “to understand directly without translating in my head”. We’re talking about a solid upper-intermediate learner with French L1 who gives talks a couple of times a year at international dermatology conferences. Food for thought.

  5. Hi Cara, and apologies for taking months to get back to you. Things have been very hectic on several fronts here.

    I really like the link you sent. Lots of good ideas, but it also set me wondering how significant being able to distinguish tenses and aspects is in the process of listening to stories. One thought, sort of on the other hand, is that practise with irregular participles (e.g. shone) might be more use, as that’s more likely to throw a listener off.

    As a counterpoint, I find that I don’t translate much at all in listening to Korean, and your student is at a much higher level than I am by the sounds of it. I suppose it is possible that people listen in very different ways.

    Not much of help here I realize, but I’d love to hear how your class is going/went.


    • Hi again. Hope things are a little less hectic for you now! I think the focus on tenses (that’s just in this particular lesson plan) is due to the fact that the /t/ and /d/ phonemes are very vulnerable to elision when they are word final, making regular past simple verbs sound like present simple. Also, some students have difficulty distinguishing different conditional tenses due to decoding errors: http://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/blogs/davedodgson/david-dodgson-pronunciation-no-big-deal?utm_source=facebook&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=bc-teachingenglish

      I totally get your point about irregular past verbs, but maybe they “stand out” more by their irregularity. Just a thought. Or you could pre-empt that type of problem with Anthony’s suggestion i.e. allowing the learners to preview any the transcript for unknown vocab (assuming vocab knowledge or lack of it is the real issue and not just unfamiliarity with the spoken form of “shone” or whatever verb it is). In any case, I think the only way to test these hypotheses is to get students transcribing utterances and discovering what they really hear (or don’t hear).

      As for how people listen, there’s something to be said for getting students to reflect on what strategies they were using during a listening. This is something that comes up in Rachel’s articles and also on Anthony’s site. Again, this is the only way we can “sort of” tap into the listening process and find out who is using more or less effective strategies (I would put translation on the less effective list personally!). I haven’t really got any insights as regards foreign language learning because my French is at a very high level (I live in France) and I’m not working on any other languages. I actually have the opposite problem – I understand everything and I can’t “switch off” or “tune out” so easily.

      We’ve done 3 lessons so far with a listening focus. My learner is quite surprised that English speakers actually manage to understand each other given all the variation that exists. We started out by looking at some of the features of connected speech and working on transcripts of short sections of speech to predict which ones would come up. She found this hard! But we’re going to persevere with some of this more intensive work. I’m also encouraging her to do extensive listening and keep a record of what she’s doing (again, heavily inspired by Anthony’s approaches) to track her progress. More updates to come I’m sure. Sorry for the essay – must have too much free time!

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