Listening to the Universe of Discourse 02



Now, let’s take a look at another take on “listening”, this one from an online ESL website with fairly regular activity.




On this page on the Internet, we can find the following ideas put forth:

’Listening’ is receiving language through the ears.
Well, if we consider the ideas put forth by Barthes, this part of the explanation would actually be better called “hearing”. That reception is the first step on the path, but is hardly the only one and perhaps not the clearest overall definition.

Listening involves identifying the sounds of speech and processing them into words and sentences.
This would probably fall under the “deciphering” aspect, both the identification (probably through comparison with a personal bank of sounds already learned) and then the processing, though into “words and sentences” almost limits the activity to classroom exercise, as actual “listening” outside of the classroom will tend to take so many other factors into consideration besides just the words and how they make up sentences.

When we listen, we use our ears to receive individual sounds (letters, stress, rhythm and pauses) and we use our brain to convert these into messages that mean something to us.
Now here we’re getting mixed messages. At least in English, we don’t really “hear” letters at all, letters are graphic representations of our language. English is not a particularly phonetic language and suggesting that students “hear a letter” can lead to interference.

In addition, the emphasis early on of “individual sounds” strays from the true nature of language, which is the stringing together of those sounds into utterances. It will not be an individual sound that gets converted into a message but rather the combination of several sounds that conveys meaning that can then be interpreted.

Listening is put in its place in the well-known four-point list of “language skills”—that is, first place, followed by speaking, then reading and finally writing. Though initial, early learning will involve the student “hearing” certain strings, those strings will not necessarily be interpretable until the student has learned to pronounce them, accompanied by a clear understanding of what the string of sounds communicates.

Thus, when a student is taught a word, he or she will first “hear” it (physiologically) from the teacher for example and then need to orally repeat it, managing its pronunciation and making connections with the new sounds. Consequently, I’d put “listening” after “speaking”, though “speaking” is hardly a first step in language learning. (I’ll go on and on about the “four language skills” in a different post).

The page-long discussion of “listening” of concludes with: “To become a fluent speaker in English, you need to develop strong listening skills.“, which as in the case explained above, I would flip over, saying “To become a good listener in English, you need to develop strong speaking (read: expanded pronunciation) skills.” “Expanded pronunciation” would be the focused work on the physical articulation of sounds in utterances combined with an understanding of the meanings behind those utterances.

Now, I would suggest that it is this generalized and somewhat up-side down discussion that leads to difficulties for teachers when required to “teach listening”. Since it combines “hearing” with “listening”, since it seems to place “listening” (which is an interior, nearly totally psychological and subjective activity) above first “hearing” then “producing” then “recognizing”, teachers may assume that keeping the students quiet while playing a tape will help them improve their comprehension of what is heard.

This type of activity should be properly titled “hearing”, as that is what students end up doing. They hear the sounds but often do not have personal references that help them to make the interpretations necessary of those sounds.

Now, on to the next block of thoughts on this theme.


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