Understanding the Science Behind Listening

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Understanding the Science Behind Listening

By Dr GianFranco Conti,Phd (lang. Ed.), MA (TEFL)

Dr GianFranco Conti,Phd (lang. Ed.), MA (TEFL), has been a Modern Foreign Language teacher at GIS for over 10 years. He is the winner of the 2015 TES best resource contributor award and founder of www.language-gym.com.

I was invited to Oxford University, UK to host a presentation on “Breaking the sound barrier – teaching listening bottom up” in April. I shared the new approach to teaching listening and its relations to the way the human brain processes aural input. The presentation was attended by language teachers from England.

Central to my talk is the notion that listening skills in the typical MFL (modern foreign language) classroom are not taught properly because the focus of the aural activities typically staged in lessons is on ‘quizzing’ students, not on making them more effective listeners.

In a typical MFL classroom, teachers carry out listening activities by playing a recording two or three times whilst the students must answer questions which feel very much like test such as ‘Where did X go?’, ‘Why did X not like Y?’; ‘What did X do yesterday?’. Such tasks do not teach much, especially not at novice-to-intermediate level. Why? The answer to this questions has to do with the way the human brain processing aural input (i.e. what it hears).

First of all, it is worth pointing out that any sound stays in the human brain for less than two seconds and that any new incoming information will overwrite it. Secondly, the listener is only 0.25 seconds behind the speaker (equivalent of the length of an English syllable). In one’s native language this two-second time-window is adequate. However, for novice-to-intermediate learners this is very often insufficient, especially when the input they hear is uttered at near-native speaker speed and/or contains unfamiliar language (as it is often the case in foreign language textbooks).

The main barrier to understanding aural input in a foreign language refers to the first level of the speech comprehension process, i.e. the breaking down of the flow of speech one perceives, what we call ‘Decoding phase’. This phase is the most important, because if the brain cannot identify the boundaries of words (where they begin and end) and recognise the sounds it hears, it cannot proceed to the next level of comprehension: the Lexical search phase, in which our brain search its Long-Term memory for a word which matches the identified sounds. Once the Lexical search is over, the brain moves on to the next level of processing, i.e. the Parsing phase, in which it attempts to recognise the grammatical pattern which organises the utterance in order to find more clues to the meaning of what it has heard. Finally, a Meaning-building phase ensues, in which, having ‘broken’ the speech flow, identified the words heard and how they fit grammatically in the surrounding linguistic context, the brain finally makes sense of it. If the meaning of the utterance is still unclear, the brain will use the preceding and ensuing discourse to get further clues. If the meaning of the utterance is clear the brain will use that information to interpret the text as a whole (Discourse-construction phase).

As the above account clearly illustrates, a lot of cognitive operations occur in the brain in those two seconds! Yet, teachers expect MFL students to learn how to perform such operations without explicitly training them in the execution of the skills involved in any of the above phases of aural comprehension. Unsurprisingly, much MFL classroom-based listening becomes guess-work and often results in student failure and demotivation. It is common to hear teachers complain that students hate listening.

At Garden International School we have pioneered a new approach to teaching listening that many teachers in the UK and other parts of the world have adopted in their schools reporting excellent results.

“For Action Research as part of my performance management last year I chose to work on developing skills for improving higher listening at GCSE. I used a lot of your material in my research and focussed on your idea of bottom up processing. The result was my best ever Higher Listening scores with 2 students achieving full UMS (Uniform Mark Scale). I have been successfully teaching for 20 years and this has had a real impact on my recent practise.” (Sally Hayes, French teacher).   

Unlike traditional approaches to teaching listening, our method purports to equip the students with the micro-skills which they need to effectively perform at each of the four levels involved. In particular, we lay emphasis on the micro-skills which refer to the Decoding and Parsing phases through regular training, lesson in lesson out. Our approach is also one that strongly advocates using listening to model new language and in student-to- student interaction; through a wide range of techniques we use aural tasks not simply to teach new vocabulary, but also to model grammar and syntactic patterns (sentence structures). This means that our students use listening first and foremost to learn, not to be quizzed or tested. The emphasis we put on testing is forming cohort after cohort of students who are used to process French and Spanish aurally day and day out and are consequently confident and self-efficacious listeners.


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