Listening to the Universe of Discourse 01: Roland Barthes

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Now, in my first posting on this subject, I presented two, well-known activities related to “listening”: the taped conversation, listened to and then quizzed upon, and the viewing from beginning to end of a movie in English with a possible (if time permits!) discussion period afterwards. In this post I’m going to wind the clock back a great deal and begin with an attempt to discuss exactly what should be meant by “listening” in the ESL and EFL areas.

I’ll begin with a couple of examples of what “listening” has been defined as. The first is a dichotomy of “listening” as an active activity by Roland Barthes, a twentieth-century French linguist (among other pursuits of thought and knowledge). Those I will follow with an explanation from an ESL website.

Listening according to Barthes (1)

“….listening is the interpretative action taken by the listener in order to understand and potentially make meaning out of the sound waves.

This means that “listening” involves the interpretation of the sounds heard, with the objective of reaching some level of comprehension based upon that same interpretation. This definition comes as a contrast with the physical, almost passive, activity of “hearing” which he reduces to “….a physiological phenomenon….”

Barthes goes on to explain “listening” as a process, involving “….alerting, deciphering, and an understanding of how the sound is produced and how the sound affects the listener.” Each of these three aspects of “listening” can be elaborated upon:

alerting: a first step in which sounds are physiologically perceived, with a first “sieving” to move them from already recognized sounds with set interpretations to other combinations that require some on-the-spot interpretation.

deciphering: this would occur when sounds are left in the “urgent!-interpret!” tray. A psychological interpretation of those sounds without a ready-made interpretation takes place. This interpretation may precede the final stage or overlap it in the immeasurable area of brain activity.

understanding: this last stage (which may overlap with the second and probably with the first, as there is no real “pause” button on regular conversation, except perhaps the “what did you just say?”) is necessarily the most complex and offers a parallel definition to the Universe of Discourse when it includes “how the sound is produced” and “how the sound affects the listener”.

So, first we hear something, we send that information either to a “well-known” tray or to the “urgent!-interpret!” tray. If it is the latter, we then interpret that information and act upon it, perhaps by responding orally to it with our own string of sounds.

Well, now, that sounds like a reasonable explanation, doesn’t it? This is longish and needs to be read a couple of times, so I’ll cover that ESL website’s comments on listening in a later post.

Quotes from Barthes: (Barthes, Roland (1985). In the Responsibility of Forms. New York Hill and Wang.)

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