Some years ago a linguistics professor commented that linguists never listen to what people say because they are too interested in how they are saying things. This can be very true. I always find myself trying to pinpoint an accent when I hear someone speaking and as a result I miss what they’re saying. Luckily I have learnt to do this when they are speaking to someone else and not me – or it could be very embarrassing!!
As a language teacher and previously a language examiner my training does cause me to ‘drill down’ into the minutiae of sentence structure, grammar, pronunciation, language competence etc.. and there is a danger with this that the message gets lost. It does however illustrate the fact that there are many different levels of listening and as an advanced learner of a language it is important to be able to operate on these different levels and acquire the skills to enable you to do this.
Listening (and reading too which is the other receptive language skill) operates on two planes content and structure. An expert listener will be able to operate at both levels comfortably. As a learner it is helpful to practise both types of listening separately on occasion to refine the skills needed for each.
Listening for information and meaning
This is essentially listening comprehension. The information may be superficial or detailed but it is the content of what we hear that is required.
Here are some ideas for improving these skills:
- If you want to listen to a long piece like a magazine programme or news digest make sure you are familiar with the basic stories (in your own language perhaps) so that you can concentrate on the detail.
- With very long pieces break them up, if you can, and listen to sections.
- If the listening is a live broadcast then simplify the task to take account of the fact that you can’t re-play. e.g. decide to recall 3 main points from the piece.
- Expose yourself to different types of listening, news programmes, plays/drama, stories etc don’t forget phone in programmes and music programmes they often have a great variety of different voices, idiomatic language and accents. Quite often music DJs speak very quickly and this will train your ear to catch key words which will help in understanding.
- Going for short pieces requires less listening stamina and you will be less likely to ‘switch off’ and miss things.
- Try to expose your self to a variety of different accents and voices, this will keep you on your listening toes, provide a challenge and give you a realistic taste of what you are likely to encounter in the real world of English language.
Listening for grammar, lexis and other linguistic conventions
Here we are trying to find out how people say things. What words and phrases do they use. How do they communicate certain types of information (linkers in story telling, introducing jokes, moving from one story to another, engaging their listeners etc..)
The main thing to be aware of with this kind of listening is that it is very intensive and most effective in short bursts. You are basically analysing blocks of language for their linguistic content which requires quite a lot of concentration. Also, this kind of listening works best when you are detached from the speakers and the content.
- Eavesdropping is one of the best ways of practising. Listening to other people’s conversations in a neutral way when you don’t know them and are not particularly interested in what they have to say can give you an excellent way of analysing the words, phrases, pronunciationetc.. Make sure you do it sensitively. Try and memorise or if possible write down useful words and turns of phrase you hear.
- Choose a short listening piece on a tape or radio (1 minute or less) and pick out 2 or 3 phrases or words that you haven’t heard before. Find out what they mean.
- Choose one element to listen for – vocabulary, grammar, or be more detailed – preposition use, conjunctions etc.. listen and write down all the ones you hear.
- Be completely free and simply listen and let one or two phrases or sentences strike you – make a note of these and then try and use them as soon as you can.
- Try and find opportunities to listen to different accents and voices. Compare British with American with Australian English what are the differences here?
- Songs can be a good source. Listen and then check the lyrics were you right in your understanding? How many contractions were used? Did you figure them out?
From personal experience advanced level language learning is not only an on-going enterprise, it also mainly takes place ‘in the field’ which means exposing yourself to the language around you and using it to improve you own skills and performance.
Use the listening opportunities available on the internet and radio. For listening with robust exercises try out Gapfillers where you will find many different types of listening material.