Learning to listen in a second language can be frustrating. If you’ve ever tried to learn a second language, you’ve probably had an experience like this:
You begin to study the language. Soon, you make friends with people who also speak the language. You spend time together. Eventually, you can have conversations in the second language and begin to feel confident.
Then you hear two native speakers of that second language talking to each other. It is a shocking experience. You discover that you can’t understand anything the native speakers are saying. You feel disappointed.
What exactly is the problem? How could you have studied differently?
Developing strong listening skills in a second language can be difficult for students. In fact, teaching listening skills is a challenge for teachers, too. One reason for this is that the actual process of listening, or what we mean by “listening skill” is not very well understood.
What does it mean if someone has “good listening skills?”
When we think about the role that listening plays in language, we can generally divide listening skill into two broad categories. Christine Goh, a researcher at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, calls these categories one-way and two-way listening. Basically, one-way listening is when the listener can’t interact with the speaker, and has to get most of their information from the language they hear. We experience one-way listening when we listen to the radio or watch television programs, presentations, or use language textbooks and testing materials.
Two-way listening is when a listener can interact with the speaker. Generally, any interaction where you use language, including when you buy something, have a conversation with a friend, or talk on the phone, is an example of two-way listening.
In some ways, one-way and two-way listening are different skills. For example, in one way listening, the listener can’t ask for clarification. Students can’t ask their textbook listening materials to “slow down,” or “could you repeat that please?” However, this is possible during two-way listening.
So, before a student can improve their listening skills, they need to think about which type of listening skill they want to improve. If a student wants to watch the news or listen to the radio in a second language, their listening practice will be different than students who want to improve listening as part of their communication skills.
One of the major challenges with practicing listening is that most listening classes teach one-way listening. In other words, students listen to a recording of the language, and try to answer comprehension questions. While this sort of listening practice can be useful, it may not be the best way to improve student’s skills in conversation or in spontaneous listening practice.
The reason for this is that listening is not only about the sounds that students hear. When we listen to something, we don’t just recognize the words and “upload” them into our brain like a computer. Instead, we experience what we hear through a holistic process where our past experiences and knowledge about the topic construct our understanding . Often, we will be thinking about what we hear long after the sound has already stopped.
In this way, answering comprehension questions really isn’t a good way to prepare students for one-way listening either. This is because, with comprehension questions, students don’t practice accessing their existent knowledge or past experiences, but instead focus on listening for the information connected to the questions.
I’m sure you have had the experience of going to a presentation or seeing a movie with a friend, and during the discussion afterwards, discover that your friend remembered completely different parts of the movie than you did. This is because different people’s knowledge, experiences and preferences naturally construct what they hear and what they remember. This is real listening skill.
If you enjoyed this post, you may also enjoy reading: The Ears Have It.