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Adult learners often complain that (sometimes) after years of study, they can’t understand native speakers. This is partly because they do not receive adequate exposure to authentic texts in class. Another is that it’s hard to find authentic audio texts that can be easily adapted for classroom use.
To tackle these issues, I have developed an approach to listening based loosely on the way children learn languages. I’ve found this to be hugely advantageous in my own language learning, and have passed it on to my students with considerable success.
Children versus adults - children win
According to estimates (Pinker, S., The Language Instinct, 150-151), an average six year old commands about 13,000 words, equivalent to acquiring a new word every two hours.
Children have huge advantages over adult foreign learners in the classroom - they are constantly exposed to the target language and their brains are optimized for rapid language acquisition.
In this article, I argue for a ‘simulated immersion’ approach. The idea is that learners engage in a variety of different types of listening in their own time, similar to what they would encounter if they were living in an English speaking country. Essentially they are trying to mimic the language learning behaviour of young children.
What is simulated immersion?
Simulated immersion is based on the idea that the best way to improve your listening is to be immersed in the target language in a native speaker environment. In the absence of such an opportunity, we try to simulate the conditions that make immersion favourable. Those conditions are:
- Large amounts of time spent simply hearing the language - several hours per week rather than mere minutes spent in a typical class
- Maximal exposure to authentic texts
- Exposure to a wide range of situations and language forms
- Emphasis on bottom up processing to aid in real-life scenarios
Hearing versus listening
In class, teachers invariably set tasks to accompany ‘listenings’. This is understandable - it would be a bit weird to simply press play and hope the students got some value from it.
But simply hearing a language - being exposed to it in the background, in the car, on the radio or TV, or in the form of music, for example, is extremely valuable. It’s a much looser, less structured form of practice than is found in class, but it acclimatises the learner to the sound systems and structures of the language. I will call this type of listening passive listening.
There are some principles and activities you can use to establish passive listening as a good habit among your students:
Parroting can be a very useful form of practice during passive listening. This involves having learners mimic the sound and rhythm of the language without necessarily comprehending what is being said. Children, especially young children, do this all the time as they attempt to ‘tune in’ to the speech patterns of adults.
It’s also worth reminding learners that young children don’t worry too much if they don’t understand everything - they persevere and they get there in the end. Modeling learners’ progress in this way can be motivating because they have memories of learning their own mother tongue.
Over time, learners begin to internalise some of the sound patterns of English and become aware of how it differs to their own language.
For speakers of syllable-timed languages, this is especially important because they find it very hard to spot the points of focus in rapid English speech.
Don’t try to understand everything
You should emphasise this again and again with learners. Explain that understanding is a black and white phenomenon - either you understand, or you don’t. And even with our own mother tongue, our attention drifts in and out of focus. It’s OK if that happens with English during long periods of listening. If you are starting an immersive listening programme, it’s important to take the pressure off a little as well.
I have some students who commute. Together we worked out that they spend 5-10 hours a week doing this. This ‘downtime’ can be spent listening to English.
Teachers can provide support for immersive hearing by:
- Explaining the underlying theory and value in class
- Providing examples of texts that can be used for immersive hearing, such as radio programmes, podcasts, songs and talks
- Having students keep a log of their hours spent listening
- (Time allowing) designing individual programmes with suggested texts and learning goals
- Counselling learners on their progress
In selecting examples, teachers must be sensitive to learners’ level, interests and goals. It’s probably no good to ask a class of late teenage beginners to spend three hours a week hearing the news because they will probably find it demotivating and boring. Variety and relevance is key.
This can be useful as a follow up exercise. Students are given a short authentic listening slightly beyond what they would usually tackle in class in terms of speed and complexity.
Learners note down key (content) words only. Then, in groups, they attempt to reconstruct the text using the key words. The teacher then gives learners a second chance to complete the text and again they compare results in groups.
To build learner autonomy, teachers can encourage learners to do their own dictaglosses in their own time, focusing on a variety of different sources - movies, radio programmes, podcasts and conversations.
Podcasts are great for immersive listening practice because they are easy (and legal) to download and therefore mobile - plus they address contemporary themes. Also, they are regularly updated, and can therefore form part of a structured listening programme.
News-based podcasts, such as those on www.guardian.co.uk, are often supported by written text that can provide a supportive framework for understanding.
Learners can be set the task of listening to one podcast per day for the duration of the course and keeping notes in a journal. At the beginning of each class they can spend a few minutes exchanging what they have learned with other students, and exchanging tips on interesting podcasts.
Because immersive listening is based on mimicking the language learning behaviour of children, it’s important that immersive listening is re-enforced over a long period of time, not perceived as a novelty.
As it takes most learners several years to acquire advanced listening skills, they will need to maintain their motivation over time.
To do this, it’s essential to integrate immersive listening activity with more conventional class-based listening activities, which have more immediately and easily achievable goals.
Tom Hayton, freelance teacher and trainer