Why good listening skills matter in English learning?
Well, not just in English learning, but in any language learning…period! And not only for adults, but also for babies. It’s just how our brain works. The brain is not capable of producing words without hearing them first. And not just once or twice, but tens and tens of times in more than one context.
How babies do it
As babies, we do not process a word as a group of letters used to convey a meaning or a message, but rather as the meaning or message itself. The word is the meaning itself. It’s the physical representation of a concept, a thought or an idea. A baby hears the word “eat” hundreds of times until he eventually associates the sound “eat” with the feeling of “hunger”. The word “eat” is not just a word for the baby, it’s THE only way to express a “basic” feeling.
Unlike babies, adult second language learners often rely on the written representation of a word. The alphabet is a complex communication system humans created to encode the sounds of the language with letters. Now they have to overcome two seemingly insurmountable challenges:
1-Decode sounds they can’t recognize or produce using…
2-Hundreds of letter combinations which they can’t physically memorize or remember the shape of.
Learning English through letters doesn’t work!
You don’t believe me? Just listen to Japanese people speak English. Those guys have been clinging on to their tradition of learning the language through letters for decades. Most of them, including English teachers, sound embarrassing when they speak English. Those who have finally admitted their old ways do not work are now strong believers in “conversational” style lessons. They still use a “textbook” (back to letters). Guess what! It’s still not working.
First and foremost, intensive training in listening. “No worries, I watch an English movie everyday”, one of you might say. “I meet an English teacher at a cafe twice a week and we speak in English for a WHOLE hour!”. Wow! really? That sounds REAL intensive doesn’t it? Errrr, it is NOT. That is just plain listening. It’s not even close to intensive.
Plain listening does not work for most adult English learners. Why? Because adult learners do not hear the sounds of English as spoken, they hear them “distorted”. Distorted means wrong! Why “distorted”? Because hearing is influenced by the mother tongue. So a Japanese student hears “rice” as “lice”, “sit” as “shit” and “work” as “walk”. A Spanish student hears “ship” as “sheep”, “boat” as “bought” and “yell” as “gel”! If you, the learner, can’t hear one word right, what makes you think that you could hear an entire sentence spoken at natural speed. Well, your brain won’t be able to catch up; it’ll simply freeze.
Now, ever since I finished my TESOL degree and started teaching, I have had one obsession. How could I somehow get the memory of an adult English learner to do what a child’s does? How could I somehow speed up the human processor, the brain? Hang on a sec! Why am I connecting memory with speed? Because the larger sound chunks you can remember, the less time it takes to process the meanings they carry. That is speed. Confused? Let me give you an example.
A while ago, I was coaching a group of Japanese employees. I asked a student “would you be interested in working abroad at some point”? As he was struggling to answer, I thought to help him out. So I told him what I’d thought he was trying to say. “you want to say….if i could speak English, I would, right?”. He didn’t get it. I repeated it a couple of times but he still didn’t get it. He then asked “shy???”.
Although the sentence itself wasn’t long at all, hearing it all as one uninterrupted chunk of sounds threw the poor guy off. Let’s take a look at what would’ve confused him: He heard three syllables that did not make any sense to him. fi-king-shy. What on earth am I talking about? Take a look.
if i could speak English I could
fi king shy
So there are 3 “intrusive” sounds completely unrelated to the context of the sentence. That totally rattled him. It froze his brain for a few seconds. When that happens, by the time the brain figures it out, the sentence is over and a new one has already started!
When I started teaching English, I found that connected speech (linking words together)mostly affects the listening comprehension of the students. The sentence above is just a tiny example but the truth is that connected speech is an extremely broad and complex area. It involves studying how the sounds change and work with each other in a sentence.
If you start learning English, and you don’t get trained to hear the sounds in chunks, you’re setting yourself up for failure. Why? Because sooner or later, you’re going to realize that there’s a disconnect between the English you have learned and the one spoken by native speakers. And it’s not a question of accent. It’s a question of improving memory and speed so that the brain can retain the vocabulary you hear (and read). Have you ever wondered why most English learners hit a plateau and simply stop improving after a certain point? Well, now you know!
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