Listening and the Brain in the Language Classroom

August 2022

If you’ve ever been curious about how the brain processes auditory input — or listens — this is the Think Tank you’ve been waiting for! We take a close look at the mechanics of listening, especially from our students’ perspectives. To pair with this scientific exploration, we also have pieces with lots of practical listening activities for teachers to implement in their classrooms. 

“I remind myself every morning: Nothing I say this day will teach me anything. So, if I’m going to learn, I must do it by listening.” — Larry King, CNN

Our cover: photo by Dolphingirl112 on Pixabay; others from Unsplash

Watch before you read...

This Think Tank looks at how our brain manages listening and offers some ideas for teaching it. The Main video looks at the process of listening in any language, while the More video looks at some useful techniques for teaching it.

After a brief introduction to the issue, The 3 Ks from our editing team give a brief explanation about how the brain processes sounds, turns them into language, and gives it meaning. Then, Heather Kretschmer alludes to the pleasure of extensive listening.  Listening God Michael Rost (someone actually said this) tells us how his Peace Corps experiences helped him reach a deeper understanding of listening instruction. Yo Hamada follows by telling us why shadowing is so popular with many teachers and Marisa Ueda tells us how to equip students with visualization and logic to aid their listening.

In the PLUS section, Matt Ehlers tells us how, as an introvert, he has a different perspective on well-being than the one we proposed in our June issue.

Our Thoughts on Listening

Back to the Basics: Listening as Primal 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.

Think Tank Articles

The 3 Ks Explore Listening and the Brain Heather Kretschmer, Curtis Kelly, and Mohammad Khari

Editors’ note: If you are going to teach listening, then we figure you ought to know how the brain does it. But it is hard to find language teacher writers versed in that area, so three of our editors (whose last names all start with a K) decided to dig deep and write a short summary of it.

This article has three parts. 1) We will start with the basic mechanics of sensory processing. 2) Then we will go on to how the brain uses prediction to lighten the processing load. And finally, 3) we will look at embodied simulation.

Listening with Pleasure Heather Kretschmer

Picture this. You’re sitting in a classroom learning a foreign language. It’s listening comprehension time, and you glumly watch your teacher pass out the ominous-looking worksheet. Your heart sinks as you glance at the worksheet that’s bursting at the seams with comprehension questions on an uninspiring topic. Uh, oh! You’re still plodding though the questions when your teacher starts the audio file. Now you’re frantically trying to understand what’s being said and keep up with the questions and scribble down the answers. You’re surrounded by your classmates, but you might as well be all by your lonesome as you struggle to comprehend.

Experiential Listening: Teaching Listening from a Holistic Perspective Michael Rost

I became interested in the role of listening in language learning early in my career. As a novice teacher in a high school in West Africa, it gradually became clear to me that the most successful students in my classes were the best listeners. It wasn’t that they understood more or had a better command of English, but these successful students were obviously engaged, curious, and invested. They wanted to be involved. Over my first few months of teaching, I came to equate successful listening with these same affective qualities: engagement, curiosity, and personal investment.

Not Good at Listening? Okay, Let’s Shadow Yo Hamada

Sensei, I am not good at listening. Please help me!” This was an actual voice I heard when I started teaching, at a senior high school. Also, I actually had this problem when I was a student, too. I was always scared of listening.

It was in 2007 when I happened to encounter an interesting practice, shadowing, “a task for improving L2 listening comprehension through immediate ‘online’ repetition of input speech” (Kadota, 2019, viii); learners repeating what they hear as simultaneously as possible.[1] I learned it would be effective for listening skill development, and used it in class. To my surprise, it worked, and it has since been shown to improve English learners’ listening comprehension skills (see Hamada, 2019 for review). Still, the truth is, when teachers first hear this, they often become skeptical, wondering why this simple practice can be so effective.

[1] Many examples can be found online by Googling for “Shadowing.”

How to Visualise Weak Points in Listening in English Marisa Ueda

Listening is considered a particularly difficult skill (Wilson, 2008, p. 12). Unlike reading, there seems to be so little that listeners can control, such as speed, the environment in which the listening is done, and many more things. Yes, listening in English is generally regarded as difficult.

In this article, first, two fundamental problems about listening in English, particularly in Japan, and then, how to visualise the weak points in listening in English will be discussed.

The first fundamental problem about listening in English in Japan is that few English teachers have been educated or trained in how to teach it. This is because the Ministry of Education Culture, Sports, Science and Technology has never provided a concrete curriculum for English as a foreign language (EFL) listening pedagogy. Consequently, most teachers of English in Japan are left alone to struggle to establish an EFL listening method by themselves.

Think Tank Plus

Searching for the Secret of Teacher Well-Being, Part 2: Introversion Matt Ehlers

As I read through the suggestions Curtis Kelly made in his June 2022 Think Tank article (“Searching for the Secret of Teacher Well-Being“) on how to improve teacher well-being, I thought they seemed useful—but, at the same time, like they were aimed more at extroverted educators than introverted ones, like me.  

So, I emailed him, told him my concerns, and made a few suggestions for looking after introverted faculty well-being based on my own experiences (such as not sitting with us at lunch if we’re alone), and giving us downtime after social events. He replied, said I’d piqued his interest, and suggested I write a reaction to his article. I was reluctant to do so—I didn’t know very many other tips for looking after the well-being of introverts, plus it had been a while since I’d read much about introversion—but doing that intrigued me, so I decided to do research online and see what I could find.

Call for Contributions: Ideas and Articles Think Tank Staff

Become a Think Tank star! Here are some of the future issue topics we are thinking about. Would you, or anyone you know, like to write about any of these? Or is there another topic you’d like to recommend? Do you have any suggestions for lead-in, or just plain interesting, videos? How about writing a book review? Or sending us a story about your experiences? Contact us.

Click here to find out why…

Radio Garden
is a nifty tool listeners can use to explore radio stations all over the world. It’s useful when teaching listening because you can ask students to find and listen to radio stations in countries where the target language is spoken.

Can anyone guess what station this is?

Mail us!

Neuroscience is investigating the way your brain uses cues to unravel garbled speech. This shows an important way it deals with all sounds in the environment and how it predicts.

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The MindBrained Think Tanks+

is produced by the Japan Association for Language Teaching (JALT) Mind, Brain, and Education Special Interest Group (BRAIN SIG). Kyoto, Japan. (ISSN 2434-1002)

Editorial Staff

Stephen M. Ryan                Julia Daley                   Marc Helgesen

             Heather Kretschmer          Curtis H. Kelly            Skye Playsted               

    Jason Walters                               Mohammad Khari




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