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