Why authentic listening practice?  
 
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The need to supplement coursebook listening texts

Why is listening to spoken English so challenging for students? (assimilation, elision, linking, weak forms, colloquial language, fillers, loose and exclusive referencing, accent)

Training, not testing (or process, not product)
Exposure to new grammar and lexis
Motivation, reducing anxiety and increasing confidence
 

The need to supplement coursebook listening texts

The main purpose of the listening texts found in coursebooks is to introduce students to new grammatical structures and lexis. However, because these texts are usually scripted and performed by actors in recording studios, they do not prepare students for the spoken English they will encounter outside the classroom.

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Why is listening to spoken English so challenging for students?

Students generally say they find listening the most difficult of the four skills. They often complain that 'English people speak too fast!' Students find listening so difficult because when people are speaking English at natural speed various things happen:

Assimilation Words blur at their boundaries or within the word itself. For example 'corned beef' becomes 'corm beef' or 'that game' becomes 'thak game' and 'ten per cent' becomes 'tem per cent'.

Elision Sounds are missed out. For example 'What are you doing tonight?' becomes 'What'yadoin'tonight?' or 'West Midlands' becomes 'Wes' Midlands'.

Linking The end of one word often runs into the beginning of the next word. For example 'Can I have_an_orange?' or 'my daughters_Sam and_Amy'.

Prominence/stress In informal spoken English people tend to speak in short bursts of words which are divided into tone units. These equate approximately to grammatical chunks. Speakers emphasise those words in a tone unit which carry the most meaning in order to get their message across. They make these words prominent by saying them louder, and/or making them longer and by changing the pitch, or tune. This helps the listener know which words to concentrate on. The problem for students is that the other words in a tone unit are not stressed and are therefore more difficult to hear. Yet these unstressed words often contain important lexical and grammatical information.

Weak forms In informal speech the grammatical, or function, words between the stressed lexical, or content, words tend to be unstressed and can occur in various different weak forms. This makes it difficult for students to recognise even very frequent function words such as 'a','the', 'can' and 'was' in a stream of speech.

Fixed and semi-fixed expressions Corpus research has shown that a large proportion of the English spoken in informal situations is made up of formulaic chunks of language, e.g. 'It's turned out nice again,' when talking about the weather, or 'You must have been *', when empathising with someone. Because these chunks of language are used so often, speakers articulate them less clearly than they would if they were using their own words. Again this makes it difficult for students to hear the actual words uttered.

These six features of spoken English make it difficult for students to segment, i.e. to separate a stream of speech into the individual words uttered by the speaker. Often students fail to recognise even those words which are part of their active vocabulary when listening to informal spoken English.

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Other features of informal spoken English

Authentic informal spoken English also includes the following features which students find problematic:

Colloquial language Whereas a speaker in a coursebook might say 'What did you do at the weekend?' as an example of the use of the simple past in questions, a native speaker talking to a friend is more likely to say 'What did you get up to at the weekend?' or just 'How was your weekend?' Someone complaining about their job in a coursebook might say 'I'm finding it very monotonous.' A native speaker would probably say something like 'I'm just bored out of my brains.'

False starts Rather than speaking in complete sentences with perfect order, as in coursebook listening texts, in informal situations speakers often start to say something, then stop and rephrase it, which makes it difficult for students to follow.

Hesitations People often uses various 'fillers' such as 'um' and 'er' to give themselves time to think. Students hearing 'er' often assume the speaker is saying 'a' and expect the next word to be a noun.

Loose referencing Very often in spoken English the speaker will refer to someone by their name, or something by its full name, and subsequently will refer to 'he', 'she' or 'it'. This can make it difficult for students to work out who or what the pronoun refers to.

Exclusive referencing People who know each other well often refer to things or people in a way which excludes non-group members. For example, someone might say 'Did you see that programme last night?' when it's a programme that the group has previously talked about or 'What did you think of that book?' referring to a book which is being lent around the group. This lack of insider knowledge makes it very difficult for an outsider to follow a group conversation.

Accent The listening texts in coursebooks usually contain a limited range of accents, with most featuring speakers with a standard British or American accents. These texts do not train students in how to cope when they encounter the variety of accents used by native English speakers or the wealth of accents in which English is spoken by non-native speakers. Professor Jennifer Jenkins, a leading exponent of EFL, recommends that students are given frequent exposure to a range of accents to help them cope with the variety of English accents they will inevitably encounter outside the ELT classroom.

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Training, not testing (or process, not product)

The main focus of all the authentic listening materials provided by The Listening Business is on training, not testing.  The materials I provide are unique in that I use standard and innovative exercises which focus on the process of listening, rather than simply the product of listening, which is the focus of the traditional listening comprehension approach.

As well as focusing on assimilation, linking and elision, my exercises also focus on word stress and the recognition of weak formsIn addition I provide phoneme discrimination exercises, where students have to decide whether the speaker was talking about Robert Rast or Last, Harold Shipman, Sheepman or Chipman, Paul Bankhurst or Pankhurst, the town of Falmouse or Falmouth, etc.

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Exposure to new grammar and lexis

Authentic listening passages provide an excellent source of new grammatical structures and lexis. These occur naturally in context and are more relevant to students because they're uttered by a real person rather than an actor reading from a script.

Motivation, reducing anxiety and increasing confidence

It is highly motivating for students, particularly those at lower levels, to feel that they can actually understand something a real person has said. However, if students feel anxious about their ability to listen to spoken English, this can impair their ability to take in the aural message.

Regular exposure to authentic listening texts with appropriate tasks can result in students increasing their confidence in their listening skills and making very fast progress more so in listening than in any of the other skills.

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  Richard Cauldwell of SpeechInAction shares my enthusiasm for using recordings of authentic speech:
www.speechinaction.com
   
  Meanwhile my good friends
Mark Hancock and Annie McDonald specialise in training students to analyse short segments of authentic speech:

www.hancockmcdonald.com