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Listening: What Makes It Difficult?

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Communication and language acquisition heavily depend on listening skills. Just think: With poor listening ability, you can't participate or continue a conversation. You can't follow instructions correctly if at all. Success at work, in a classroom, and elsewhere would be significantly more difficult to achieve.

But what makes listening so difficult?

Unfortunately, it's easier to ask the question than to answer it. A lot of research actually comes form native language development, as opposed to second language acquisition. But we can still apply many of the findings to ESL EFL learning. For example, spoken language contains colloquialisms and reduced forms like "donchya" for "don't you" in English. There are steps that a listener goes through too, such as receiving the information, breaking it down, and identifying its purpose. The listener's interest in the topic, the content, and any visual support (or lack of it) similarly affects listening. These points are universally true for any spoken language.

Spoken language has a number of characteristics that affects or blocks comprehension. Before going into detail, perhaps an example is needed. As teachers, we've all likely experienced the following: A student goes abroad for a week or two, only to come back and say, "I didn't understanding anything the people said!" It's discouraging, not only for the student because of all his hard work, but for us too. The problem illustrates aspects of language which, when spoken, hinder comprehension. What's more, these problems aren't always worked into the classroom. They don't get practiced, so the students find themselves unprepared.

Colloquialisms: These are one of the most easily identifiable characteristics. Learners who have primarily studied for tests find this particularly troublesome because they haven't prepared for or been exposed to any language other than the "textbook" sort. But even students more comfortable applying the language beyond the confines of a textbook or classroom can't be taught every single colloquialism, as these differ from country to country, region to region, and even among different age groups.

Accent, intonation, inflection, and stress: All are readily identifiable trouble spots. Most teachers and students understand the importance of accent. Of course, unfamiliar accents can hinder comprehension. Maybe the student has been taught by an American, but then takes a trip to London. Or maybe his mother tongue so heavily affects his English pronunciation that the word he hears doesn't match up with the word in his head. Whatever the reason, problems with accent can set up the same hurdles like a new, unfamiliar word. The student might be able to infer the meaning and continue the conversation. However, he's just as likely to bring the conversation to a halt because he's unable to understand the meaning.

Inflection and stress are perhaps less obvious trouble spots, yet both play an important role in picking up the meaning of a sentence. Take something simple like, "My dad was eating dinner when the phone rang." If different words get stressed, then the meaning changes. Compare the following:

Example #1: My DAD was eating dinner when the phone rang.
Example #2: My dad was EATING dinner when the phone rang.

The first example focuses on the person. The second example focuses on the action. For the listener, stress helps predict the information that follows.

Inflection adds nuance to a sentence, or even changes its meaning. Take the following statement, "Your dad was eating dinner." If you raise the pitch of your voice towards the end of the sentence, as when asking a question, then you're confirming the information. In other words, a question is asked to check the meaning or information. There's the opposite too, such as turning a question into a statement through inflection. A conversation might look like the following:

A: My dad was eating dinner when the phone rang.
B: Wait a minute. Your DAD was eating dinner. (rising inflection)
A: Yeah, my DAD.
B: (interrupts) I thought he was still away on business.
A: No, he got back early. Anyway, he was EATING and...

Reduced Forms: Reduced forms cause problems as well, especially for lower-level ESL EFL students. Native speakers often string several words together. "Can't you" becomes "canchya" and "what are you" becomes "whachya." There are also contractions, such as "we're" and "he's." Yet even upper-level students might not fully understand a sentence if they miss part of a sound.

Fillers, Correction, and Repetition: In English, speakers often use fillers like "uh," "ummm," and "well." These serve as pauses and hesitations as the person thinks about what to next say. There are phrases which signal correction or clarification, such as "I mean," "kind of," "sort of," and "like." Then people also repeat information, redelivering previously presented ideas. All of these points together act can sound like static on a radio. In other words, they can obfuscate what would normally be an otherwise simple set of sentences.

Word or phrase clusters: These are yet one more aspect that makes listening difficult. Native speakers and adept second-language learners select and digest manageable clusters, or chunks, of words. These chunks are often broken up with conjunctions, prepositions, and the like, which then serve as markers. For example, look at the following sentence which, although a run-on, would sound quite natural when spoken:

Example: My dad was eating dinner when the phone rang, and was he furious because it was one of those telemarketers who always seem to call just as we're sitting down to dinner.

A listener might break this into six chunks that represent the key information:

Chunk #1: dad eating dinner
Chunk #2: the phone rang
Chunk #3: furious
Chunk #4: a telemarketer
Chunk #5: always call
Chunk #6: sitting down to dinner

The problem pops up when a student tries to retain too much information, such as all of the words of a sentence or even several sentences. He just gets overwhelmed by too much information, which he can't process and remember. As a result, he loses the thread of the conversation.

Content: Content plays a very significant role in listening comprehension. Without sufficient background knowledge on the topic, which may very well include specialized vocabulary, the listener won't be able to follow the conversation. Just think of the differences between a casual conversation with a friend, the type of English needed at a doctor's office, and a discussion on global warming, politics, or the economy.

Each of the above aspects works in conjunction to make listening difficult. As teachers, we must consider the problems and pitfalls that listeners face both inside and outside the classroom. We must design activities that provide real, relevant content that improve the awareness of and ability to deal with colloquialisms, accent, intonation, and the like.

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