How Intensive Listening Does Wonders For English Learning

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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.

What works!

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.

My Obsession

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???”.

The Problem

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.

Final Word

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!

If you find this article helpful in anyway, hit the LIKE button, write a comment or just share with someone who cares!

15 thoughts on “How Intensive Listening Does Wonders For English Learning

  1. Hi Coach Patrick, that’s a great article. I have been a follower of your articles for quite a while. I have two questions for you.

    1. So you mean by listening to English intensively, you can certainly enhance your memory capacity in remembering large chunks of words, thus improve your speed in responding.

    2. According to you, how many hours each day should I spend on listening so that it’s considered as an intensive listening per day?

    Thank you very much Coach.

    1. Thanks for your lovely comment and for following my blog.
      The answers to your questions:
      1-Yes. By responding though, I don’t only mean responding with an “answer”, I mean your brain is able to comprehend the messages being communicated to it and function quicker as a result. That’s what our brain does as we listen to someone before we answer. It it responds to stimulations as it tries to comprehend the message. Does that make any sense?
      2-There’s no magic number. It depends on the person and his or her listening skills. The more important question though is how you listen and what you focus on when you listen. My contention is that for an English learner, there are certain parts of speech (sounds) that really impede our perception, hence listening. Put simply, you’ve got to be able to hear the sound being spoken as they are spoken first before you start to perform the act of listening, which involves comprehension. So what I’m saying is that English learners have to overcome some physical limitations to conquer the target language. In terms of how to listen, watch my youtube clip and you’ll understand what i mean. Focus on word linking. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ez9o6SMf704&list=UU4VOhRizRghGOB1RKPf0bWQ

  2. Hello Patrick,

    Great blog. I’m working in China, and I notice the same here. And we’re not shy of it either! Once I was talking to a woman, in the typical short encounters of standing next to eachother on a plane-to-building bus, and I asked her what business she was in. And even after she had repeated it 5 times, it didn’t register. Her English was very good and I am sure she said a proper English word, but until now I do not know what she said….

  3. Thanks for the article. I like the fi-king-shy example very much. As a teacher I think it is so important that we learn how to accommodate our own speech for learners too – it’s not just about them getting it “right”.

    Most of the foreigners I teach will be using English with other non-native speakers. I’m not entirely convinced that teaching assimilation, juncture and elision is always the best solution in that case.

    Native speakers are notoriously bad at accommodating their language for non-native speakers!

    1. Thanks for the comment.
      I understand your point of view and it would be valid in a different context. In the article above though, I was trying to demonstrate the vital role intensive and targeted listening could play in learning English.
      What you are suggesting falls more into intercultural communication and cultural sensitivity.

  4. I totally agree about intensive and targeted listening. If a student is aiming to sound “native” then they can only achieve that through intensive listening. Some students seem to have an “ear” for hearing the minute nuances in sound production – maybe those who are more into music, I’m not sure. I have had students who just cannot “hear” the difference between rise and fall intonation or between a long and a short vowel, however hard they try.

    Many students are not aiming for native-like pronunciation, and even assert the right to have a French/Chinese/Indian accent because it is very much a part of who they are. So listening to non-native voice models can work better for them. For example, with Chinese students Yang Lan is a great voice model (her accent is actually close to RP but the fact that she is a Chinese native speaker is maybe more motivating).

    I guess my point was that in any conversation meaning has to be negotiated and the onus should not always be on the non-native speaker to make him- or herself understood. I don’t think that is specifically a cultural awareness issue. English is spoken differently all over the world and we just have to accept that standard English or American pronunciation is not necessarily the benchmark for everybody, especially when used as a lingua franca.

    1. Thank you again for sharing your thoughts with everyone here.

      You’re perfectly right. There are students with very little phonemic awareness and indeed struggle with distinguishing between minimal pairs or with recognizing the rhythmic and supra-segmental patterns of the language but that does not mean that they cannot be trained. Having taught pronunciation for the last 10 years, I have to say I am appalled at how little most ESL teachers know about their own sound system and how little they know about the learners’ mother tongue and its impact on their speech production.

      I would argue that listening to non-native voice models is counterproductive in the developmental phase of L2. Having said that, there are some native voice models that are not very good to listen to either.

      I do not have a problem with people speaking with a non-native English accent but I still believe that in order for them to acquire the L2 properly, they’d be better off listening to native voice or native-like voice models.

      At the end of the day, whether non-native speakers should attain a native-like level in their English production is merely a question of personal identity, motivation, ambition and perfectionism.

  5. <>

    Well, I disagree with that – in my experience once intelliigibility is no longer an issue (ie accent does not interfere with effective communication), it is more a question of individual choice rather than motivation, ambition or perfectionism. Personally I love an accent whether it is Russian, Chinese, French or – dare I say it – Estuary, and would never coach somebody towards nativeness unless they had good reason to want it (eg some customer service call centres might encourage it for their staff).

    Nice discussion though.

    1. In today’s world, intelligibility no longer cuts it. Accent does affect effective communication assuming that effective communication goes beyond achieving intelligibility. I may understand every word coming out of a salesperson’s mouth but decide not to buy the product because he or she failed to build rapport (and I realize that can occur due to a variety of reasons and not just because of language but no one can deny that non-native accent could play a negative role in that context).
      Once again, for me, training a student in native speech helps the students to better and more effectively acquire L2, not attain native-like accent. Simply put, intensive training in the sound system of the language will lead to more fluency, better vocabulary and better grammar.
      I have a feeling that we might have to agree to disagree :).
      Interesting discussion indeed.

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