Difficulties in listening to Spoken English

ESSAY TITLE: The importance attached to pronunciation today is reflected in the inclusion in the majority of course books of carefully planned and systematic pronunciation or sound practice material. Nevertheless, many pupils have difficulty in understanding or making themselves understood to anyone but a language teacher. What are the major causes of pupils' inability to communicate effectively in oral situations? How should teaching programmes be devised to counteract this?

[Question set on David Jones' RSA Course in Stockholm 1982. An answer follows in essay form:]

Use 'slow colloquial' as a starting point

On first contact with the English language, learners are confronted with unfamiliar categories of sound, stress & intonation patterns and syntactical and lexical forms.

There is quite enough here to come between the listener and the meaning of what is being said even when utterances are delivered in a "slow colloquial" style.

Exactly which pronunciation style the teacher should use can be subject to the context in which English is being learnt. Many teachers derive certain advantages in adopting "educated Southern English" (an extended conception of RP) as their model.

It is probably still the accent most met with by foreign students in English medium training courses. Received Pronunciation is also the model which has been most fully described thereby offering itself as a convenient base.

Firstly, "slow colloquial" is a satisfactory model for production purposes for most learners at beginners to intermediate level.

As it insists on "ideal" segments, syllables and words, the acoustic signal is relatively high. German business executives in conversation with their Japanese counterparts on the phone would need to be fairly explicit.

Similarly, an Iranian air-traffic controller would be ill-advised to base his or her production on an informal style rich in simplifications such as elision and assimilation.

Prior to the mid 1970s, most general English course books contained little or no pronunciation or sound practice material apart from texts suitable for reading aloud if both time and the teacher permitted.

Even if "slow colloquial" is rarely found in native conversation, I believe that possibilities for students to master its sound system, to recognise how we use our speech organs to make different sounds - are worth having in today's course materials.

I notice that Spanish and Japanese learners have particular difficulties with the new sound categories. Although their written accuracy may earn them placement at the intermediate level, their peers in the same classes often fail to understand them.

Host families accustomed to receiving students from all over the world, make friendlier allowances for students who produce "ideal" segments, even if this isn't the practice among native speakers of English.

Practise the production and recognition of the 44 English phonemes

Although I will argue later on for a greater emphasis in our course books on identification & production of stress and intonation patterns, I am by no means against systematic pronunciation or sound practice material.

Recognition and production of the R.P. categories take Ss through the motions of active listening and conscious manipulation of their speech organs.

It may be argued that the consonant sounds are more important than the vowel sounds since they provide more clues to meaning, but I wouldn't overlook the part played by social acceptance and the motivation of the listener in "wanting to understand".

Although the neutral vowel is used a lot in informal English, Arab speakers who use it invariably in place of other vowel sounds will not hold the attention of their audiences for very long, even in the classroom.

Training in tongue and lip positions and in mouth openings should encompass both consonant and vowel sounds. The system as a whole is involved in extended contexts and there is no harm in teaching the rationale of what is easy as well as what is difficult.

Problems peculiar to mono-lingual groups can also be anticipated, earmarked and solved through extra practice. This is usually the job for the teacher rather than the general course book.

Once the initial shock of a new sound system and new syntactic & lexical forms has been borne, learners need to be made increasingly aware that "slow colloquial" is not a satisfactory model for comprehension purposes.

Most learners are grateful for the simple model provided by the teacher when studying in Britain. It resembles most closely the model they have encountered in non-native situations and it is always nice to have at least one person who understands you!

My learners in Brighton learn quite quickly that people outside the classroom generally speak in a different way. However, they do not accuse me of treachery for trying to simplify in the early stages.

They would have real cause for complaint if I never let them listen to the type of English which represents the reality of the kind and amount of acoustic signal people give in informal communication between native speakers.

Include a variety of speaking styles in practice materials

From systematic coverage of sounds, the teaching programme can move to other useful tools for extracting meaning or message from native speech. Comprehension practice needs to include informal English - a variety of different speakers in natural situations.

This can include conversations between people who are quite unaware of a non-native audience.

Teachers are notably bad at reproducing informal speech without increasing their signal immediately a blank face is sighted, so taped material is normally needed.

Provide practice in the recognition of stress and intonation patterns

The learner's ability to identify the placement of stress, tone and sense groups (in particular the tonic syllable) is vitally important in the attempt to extract meaning from informal speech.

It would be easy here to list a whole armoury of auditory and visual signals which help identify stress, but I wouldn't complicate the teaching programme with them at this stage.

Bread and butter listening tasks followed by fairly conventional comprehension tests (T or F, MC, Q&A) will give exposure and practice.

The selection of varied and interesting texts with some reference to the level of the class deserves first priority. This can be followed by straight practice of identifying and using stress placement depending mainly on acoustic signal.

If this needs extra preparation, "slow-colloquial" could again be used as a "jumping-off point" while students observe how different stress placements alter the meaning of an utterance. Byrne & Walsh's "Listening Comprehension" is a useful resource for this purpose.

The student is required to choose between four possible interpretations of an utterance. The teacher limits the possibilities to one by following specified stress and intonation patterns in his reading of the utterance.

Teaching stress placement creates a good context for study of intonation patterns. It would be profitable at this stage to teach the basic tunes and some of the associated functions.

Associating the basic tunes and the functions &/or attitudes which they commonly indicate

(The low-fall: statement; the low-rise: checking; the high-fall: approval/exclamation; the high-rise: surprise; the fall-rise: contemplation). A little reference to syntax: Yes/No Qs, Wh Qs, "Or" Qs, may also help in the purpose of decoding and encoding.

As it is stress which provides the vital clues to syntax and tune as well as focussing on the message, the third spiral in my teaching programme collects together the most useful signals of stress placement.

So far these have mainly been acoustic, though we have already remarked that "informal English" can have a highly reduced acoustic signal.

Using video for practice in recognising "paralinguistic features"

The advent of video has made it far easier for the course-planner to demonstrate the variety of signals people use to emphasize the meaningful parts of their utterances. These include both oral and visual features.

Reliable signals present in both "slow colloquial" and "informal" English speech include paralinguistic features such as loudness, speed of delivery & variation in voice quality, gesturial features such as nodding, twitching, frowns, narrowed eyes, and puckered brows and facial features such as lips approaching each other, jaw movements in varying amounts and rounding of the lips.

This last group of features is useful in helping the listener identify segments of words while the more pronounced muscular movements will often signal stress placement.

A large muscular movement usually occurs on the tonic syllable - the syllable in the tone group with a pitch movement on it and thus the focus of information.

Pauses can usually be relied upon to mark the edge of tone and sense groups each of which contains this important syllable (the tonic). Recognition of this and other stressed syllables offers useful clues to syntactic structure.

In identifying the rhythm formed by particular combinations of strong and weak stress, Ss will be more likely to predict which items are nouns or verbs and whether nouns are preceded directly by articles or adjectives.

Knowledge of syntactic structure and vocabulary obviously help

Awareness of syntactic structure is useful in listening comprehension in so far as it helps learners to extract meaning, but there is a two-way connection here.

Knowing the meaning of at least some of the words in an utterance both helps in the identification of syntactic structure and allows Ss to guess the meaning of the unknown items either directly or indirectly.

Many Ss fail to comprehend or produce English speech because they lack vocabulary. A basic course in discourse analysis may also contribute to the solution. e.g. teaching the common logical cohesive devices.

Specific vocabulary building to benefit listening comprehension

The fourth tenet of my approach involves vocabulary building, but more specifically, study of linguistic markers and other cohesive devices.

In conversation, it is possible for speaker A to complete a sentence and for speaker B to begin to answer it immediately. Indeed, speaker B may even begin to answer before speaker A has uttered every word in the prompt.

Therefore, speaker B must have predicted the end of A's sentence and at least begun to structure his reply by the time he begins to speak.

The ability to predict the type of thing that is going to be said is particullarly useful for Ss who have to listen to lectures in academic institutions.

Words & phrases such as, "on the other hand", "nevertheless", "similarly", "likewise", "conversely", "therefore", "as a result", "moreover", etc.. Help us to predict the type of contribution about to be made to a logically presented argument.

Reference Skills - lexis marking the structure

Practice in the recognition of anaphoric and cataphoric markers will train Ss to consider an utterance in relation to what has gone before.

Consideration of the total length of an utterance in relation to previous utterances also uncovers syntactic structuring.

At higher levels of language learning, students are ready to cope with the more complex terminology, syntax and semantic structure encountered in the special fields in which English is used.

Vocabulary | Notions | Concepts | Cultural Awareness | - familiarity with the topic

Practice in the syntax of "informal English" can continue, since verbal fillers and disconnected phrases are common both in English for business or technology and in general English.

The ability to understand spoken English depends not only on audial and visual signals.

The degree of familiarity with topic and associated terminology, the degree of complexity of syntax and semantic structure and the style of presentation of the speaker are all important factors.

Listening skills can be developed through provision of helpful background to the topic in the text chosen for presentation.

A gradation starting with texts using a high degree of familiarity and preceeding to more complex subject matter and terminology is usually advisable.

Anticipation questions relating to the themes or argument or pre-statement of the main hypothesis will focus interest and attention on important conclusions or relations within the text.

Fine-tuning: practice in recognition of "assimilated" and "elided" forms

The fifth part of my teaching programme tunes in more finely on the problems of listening to "informal English". It still involves reception rather than production.

Although I would insist on the production of the weak, short and contracted forms also present in R.P., I would not teach the production of "assimilated" and "elided" forms.

I agree with Dr Gillian Brown that "sophisticated students who have been taught to be aware of these forms will introduce them into their own speech in a natural context when they feel able to control them."

When we are up against the reduced acoustic signal of "informal English", it is useful to know how movements at the edges of vowels can help to indicate which consonants are in the vicinity. Much of this decoding is done unconsciously,


In conclusion, here is a summary of my teaching programme:

1. Teach the comprehension and production of a form of "slow colloquial" suitable for the communicative needs of the consensus.

2. Lead away from practice in the comprehension of R.P. by including various styles of "informal English" as listening material. The emphasis at this stage is on practice. Comprehension should be tested in a variety of ways e.g. "Task Listening".

3a. Teach the auditory & visual signals which are reliable indicators of stress placement. Practice material requiring Ss to recognise and mark strong stress and use of video film would be helpful here.

3b. Teach the most common tunes. Practices should also focus on the inter-relationships between stress, tune, syntax and meaning.

4. Develop vocabulary giving special priority to lexis containing important signals (concepts, referrals), cohesive devices and other discourse markers. The focus here is comprehension of spoken English at paragraph level.

Practice material should reflect the fact that students may be exposed simultaneously to "informal English" and special (technical) areas of usage.

5. Teach the sound system (the relationships between vowel length & quality and consonant sounds, the points of articulation & their modification in "informal English" in greater detail.

Books to teach listening skills

Teaching Listening Comprehension Penny Ur [09/02/1984] especially useful for for producing your own materials

Listening To Spoken English Gillian Brown [09/07/1990]

Teaching the Spoken Language Gillian Brown, George Yule [01/02/1984] excellent for those essays on the distinctive features of spoken English