Back to the Basics: Listening as Primal

Back to the Basics: Listening as Primal

By: Curtis Kelly

Is listening just another of the “four skills” to be taught to language learners? Or is it special? Reading pundits like Marc Helgesen say reading is the “magic skill,” the one that eclipses the others, but I wonder. We know from brain development research that reading abilities are built on listening and sound processing skills (see our Reading issue), so shouldn’t listening be the key skill? After all, if you think about it, there are 7,100 or so languages in the world, but only about half have writing systems (source), and writing itself is only 5000 years old. Language is predominantly speaking and listening.

Furthermore, the Natural Language Institute gives us “3 reasons listening is the most important skill to tackle first” (source). These are:

1) Human brains evolved to acquire oral comprehension first.

…it is the first of the four skills babies learn.

2) Listening skills allow social interaction to begin.

…and we know how important that is for brain development and enculturation.

3) You need to acquire the correct “mental pronunciation” early on.

…at least in the beginning, language mastery comes from listening.

Okay, I can go along with this. But then they add: “And listening is the easiest skill to practice.” Sound of screeching tires. I think not. For the students and classes I have taught, this is not true at all. The movies and TV shows I’ve played for them, the audiobooks, the listening exercises in EFL materials, and everything else, have mostly crashed. As for the methods I use, they seem byzantine: dictation, gap fills, and comprehension questions. Not easy for my students. Not easy for me.

But maybe that is because I just don’t know enough about teaching listening. Maybe the set of experts we have assembled for this Think Tank can change that. Maybe starting with our two introductory videos will help.

In the Main video, Nina Kraus, an expert on the neural encoding of speech offers some fascinating ideas on how sound changes the brain and leads to learning.

In the More video, EFL listening expert Gaby Lawson gives us some superb ideas and tools that can be used in virtual or face-to-face classes.

So, my fingers are crossed. Maybe the secret for making teaching listening “easy” will be found here.

Curtis Kelly (EdD.) is wondering why people his age are so serious about getting glasses, but tend to pooh pooh hearing aids. If hearing is primal, isn’t blurred hearing almost as bad as blurred vision?

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