Importance of Listening for Learning a Foreign Language
Listening is normal and frequent in daily life. It is one of the five traditional inborn senses of human being. Listening appears from the very beginning day that we were born to be human and it is the first mode of the four skills that a language learner acquires in learning a certain language since the language written form always develops after the spoken form, not the other way out. .
People’s need to listen is as natural as their need to breathe or eat. Thus, listening happens in all aspects of social life. Actually, we listen everywhere: at home, at work, in community, and for many purposes such as for entertainment, obtaining necessary information or for academic purposes. A vast majority of people in the world spend their communicating time mainly for listening. To be a successful listener, people can uncover the deep layer of meaning of language and communication styles. In addition, people may have a feeling of confidence in communicating with others, and it is more likely for them to gain good impression, trust and respect from the interlocutors. Hence, it is undoubtedly that listening is one of mankind’s regular and important activities.
To the process of learning foreign language, listening is no less crucial than that in everyday life. The learners cannot develop speaking skill unless they develop listening skill as Nunan (1998, p.1) saying that “… listening is the basic skill in language learning. Without listening skill, learners will never learn to communicate effectively”. This can be understandable with ease that language skills are often integrated with each other in language use. Nevertheless, English language students, in fact, often live in a limited situation where they have few chances to expose to natural spoken English; therefore classroom listening practice is needed for them so that they can have good preparation for their later successful communicative ability. More importantly, listening to spoken English provides the learners with necessary input that serves as the basis for the language acquisition and pave them the way to investigate human’s knowledge.
Though important as stated, listening skill is commonly described in language literature as “neglected”, “overlooked”, or “taken for granted” skill as some people believe that aural competence comes naturally and develops automatically through exposure to the language and through practice of grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation. As for that, little attention from teachers, book designers and researchers has been paid to listening so far.
With nearly ten year experience in working as a teacher of English at a high school, I myself have found that of the four skills, listening comprehension is the students’ weakest one. Together, most of my students of all three grades always complain that they find it so hard in learning the skill. They fell frightened when they enter listening lesson. While my students are relatively good at written texts such as reading, writing and able to find their own ways to improve those skills, their listening ability has been left behind. This is simply true since English listening is, in deed, the most complex and challenging competence for English as foreign language learners to develop and because it is a skill which involves a set of different sub-skills.
With that in mind, on the one hand I would like to fill a small gap in the field of listening research. On the other hand, being an instructor, it is very essential to help students to solve their problems in the language learning process. Thus, this small research project is conducted as an attempt to discover what factors that strongly affect students’ listening skill. In other words, it is the cause explaining why the students meet so many difficulties when they implement classroom listening tasks. Then, some possible remedies may be given to help them to overcome the dilemma.
Hence, a couple of questions guiding across my study is:
- What are some of the reasons leading to the students’ difficulties in listening skill?
- What should solutions be given to help them to defeat the problems and to get improved with their overall outcome of their listening?
1. Hearing vs. Listening
If you raise a question to a group of people in your community or to a group of your students “What is listening?”. Some of them would answer without hesitation “hearing”. In spite of the fact that in some African languages, hearing and listening have the same meaning. Listening and hearing, indeed, are different terms, mean different things and people often use them interchangeably (there is a similar distinction between seeing and looking).
We all know that hearing is one of five inborn senses of human being. Hearing is the process that sound waves enter through our ears. At this sense, hearing is physical. Although hearing is scientifically proved to be a complex process, it is an automatic, passive activity
Listening is somewhat dissimilar. It is much more than hearing. There have been so many definitions for this term so far. At its simplest, listening can be defined in some English dictionaries as the act of hearing attentively. This means that the listeners pay attention or concentration on the task in spite of surrounding distractions. In this case, they do not merely hear the sound but a purpose is combined in it. People who listen to music or listen to the news on television can be taken as an example. They consciously and deliberately hear the sound for relaxation or to get necessary information.
Writers offer different definitions of listening to fit the purposes of their articles or their research projects.
Listening, as Howatt and Dakin (1974) define, is the ability to recognize and comprehend what is being delivered by speakers in terms of their accent, pronunciation, grammar, vocabulary as well as the meaning of the message. In this point of view, the act of listening must include both hearing and understanding all aspects of the message delivered. Listening in this definition can be seen as listening comprehension. Forseth Rol, Forseth Carol, Ta & Nguyen (1996, p.69) say that “listening is decoding sounds and understanding the meaning behind those sound”. It is noticeable that there is a similarity in these two definitions in which the authors emphasize listener’s comprehension in listening.
However, Hasan (2000) differentiates between listening and listening comprehension. He viewed listening as a process where the listeners merely listen to the speech without understanding and responding to it. In contrast, listening comprehension is a process comprising of interactivity and full comprehending of the text. To my perspective, listening in Hasan’s definition is somewhat similar to hearing.
In the view of O’Malley & Chamot (1990, p.132) “listening comprehension entails active and conscious process in which the listener constructs the meaning by using cues from contextual information and from existing knowledge”
In the opinion of Rubin (1990, p.309), “listening consists of processing information which the listener gets from visual and auditory clues in order to define what is going on and what the speakers are trying to express”.
In fact, listening is a complex skill involving many micro skills; hence Rost (2002) defines listening as a multi-layered process which includes:
- receiving what that speaker actually says – hearing correctly;
- constructing and representing meaning – decoding;
- creating meaning through involvement and imagination – applying prior knowledge of content and community norms, and predicting ahead;
- negotiating meaning and responding – working out an appropriate response.
In comparison with all the definitions above, I find the definition given by Rost the most convincing since it covers the nature of listening.
2. Kinds of listening
3. Some learner problems in listening comprehension.
Listening comes naturally to human and develop automatically as some people say but it is, actually, not as simple as it seems. Consequently, it causes so many problems for the listeners both in mother tongue and in foreign language. So far, a large number of researches have been done to show common problems in listening. Before discovering various difficulties facing my students in listening comprehension, it is helpful to review the literature relating to this.
Cherry (1957) suggest some “uncertainties” in second and foreign language listening. He uses the term “uncertainty” in stead to refer to factors leading to difficulty or problem . These uncertainties fall in to several major categories including: firstly, uncertainties in speech sound and patterns; secondly, uncertainties in language and syntax; thirdly, uncertainties in recognition of content; and lastly, uncertainties resulted from environmental noise and disturbance which create gaps in the message. Similarly, Hedge (2000) introduces some uncertainties by subdividing them into seven one. These consist of:1) uncertainties of confidence; 2) uncertainties deriving from the presentation of speech; 3) uncertainties because of gaps in the message; 4)uncertain strategies; 5) uncertainties of language; 6) uncertainties of content; and 7) visual uncertainties.
According to Brown and Yule (1983), there are four main groups of factors which strongly prevent leaner from effective listening comprehension. These include 1) the speaker (number of speakers present, how quickly they speak, what kinds of accent they own); 2) the listener (the role of the listener – whether they participate in the conversation or they eavesdrop, the level of response required, their interest in the subject); 3) the content ( grammar, vocabulary, information structure, background knowledge assumed); and 4) support (whether there are pictures, diagrams or other visual aids to support the text).
Anderson and Lynch (1988) claim that there are a large number of factors leading to the difficulties when student listen and perform the listening tasks. They categorize them into three principal one. These are: 1) the type of language; 2) the purpose in listening; 3) the context in which the listening takes place. The writer also emphasize that we have to consider not only the number of factors involved but also the relationship between them.
Anderson and Lynch, by a series of experiment, conclude that the difficulty of listening task is particularly influenced by:
- the organization of the information: When the information sequence is well and logically organized, it will be easier for the listener. In contrast, it creates so many obstacles for them.
- the familiarity of the topic: If the topic of the listening passage is familiar to listeners, it will be less harder for them to understand.
- the explicitness and sufficiency of the information: The information should not only be well organized, but also be clear or unambiguous . Besides, the passage should not contain redundancies.
- the type of referring expressions used
- whether the text described “static” relationships
Yayang (1994) indicates that problems in listening resulted from: the message, the speaker, the listener, and physical setting.
Problems mentioned above are for both the first language listeners and foreign language listeners in general. In particular, English as foreign language learners have the following problems:
- Trouble with sound: All the stages in the listening process are likely to take the learners much longer to recognize familiar sound elements as familiar, to see the relationships and transformations among them. The learners themselves fail to identify, discriminate, and understand them correctly. The sounds, stresses, intonations spoken and taught by teachers seem to be different from those said by the native speakers who they are listening to.
- Have to understand every word: Learners have a tendency to try their best to understand every word from the listening passage, thinking that everything that is said contains equally important information. In fact, there may be a lot of words they fail to recognize from the native speaker’s speech. If they do not have the ability to select important words from others, they may fail to get anything from it, and then may feel totally disappointed.
- Unable to understand fast, natural native speech: Most learners of English cannot understand natural spoken language as it seems too fast for them to follow. Normally, learners rarely have a chance to listen to native speech; instead, they only listen to their teacher’s slow utterances. If they do not understand any sentences from their teacher, they can ask for repeating or clarifying or slowing down. It is not always the case of speakers in listening text. Consequently, the learners are unable to keep up with and store incoming information in natural native speech. Sometime they feel overloaded and scared of it.
- Need to listen to things more than once: Very few learners can understand the message at the first listening. They often need to listen to it again and again before they can recognize and understand something from it, especially listening to tapes or radio where they do not have a chance of seeing speakers. When the comprehension is not achieved in spite of listener efforts, they will get tired, discouraged and frustrated as a result.
In conclusion, there are various certain hindrances for the first language listeners, second language listeners and foreign language listeners. Though factors creating these difficulties might differ from each other in the number of categories divided by the author, they have many things in common and fall into two main group.
The first group is internal factors that come from the listeners themselves. The other is external factors which originate from the speakers, the message, the surrounding setting…