“Teacher, I don’t understand.”

“Huh?”, “What?”, “Can you repeat that, please?” “What did he say?”, “Teacher, we don’t understand.” Do any of these sound familiar? Undoubtedly they do.

When English EFL language learners have listening comprehension problems it can be frustrating. If you use videos, CDs or audio cassette tapes, or even perhaps when speaking your learners can have their lesson input interrupted by a lack of listening comprehension skills. Comprehensible input (Krashen, 1989) is an integral part of any English or foreign language class.

Contributing Factors

These seven factors can directly or indirectly contribute to your learners’ listening comprehension skills and comprehension.

1. Vocabulary

ELT author, researcher and lecturer Scott Thornbury said, “… count one hundred words of a (reading) passage. If more than ten of the words are unknown, the text has less than a 90% vocabulary recognition rate. It is therefore, unreadable.” (S. Thornbury, 2004) The same then is likely true for a listening passage. Remember, “You can never be too rich, too thin or have enough foreign language vocabulary” as the old saying goes.

2. Rhyming Sounds

Have you ever taught or learned poetry? If so, you’ll remember that there are several types of rhyming patterns which can be used. Alliteration, onomatopoeia, assonance and consonance, simile, metaphor and allusion, among others, all lend their particular ambience to written or spoken language in English.

Note: If you’d like or need a quick refresher on these poetic elements, you should read, “How to Evoke Imagery, Emotions and Ideas in Writing Poetry That Captures Your Readers Imagination” and “How to Write Poems That Capture the Heart and Imagination of Your Readers” by the author. (L.M. Lynch, 2007)

3. Idioms and Expressions

In every language there are frequently-used idioms and expressions that allow its speakers to convey nuances of thought to one another effortlessly and with greater clarity that simply “explaining” everything verbally. Not only is it helpful to know as many of these as possible, but if you don’t, the meanings of many conversations or spoken exchanges may just be “lost” to the listener.

4. Pronunciation

Everyone speaks differently and uses forms of connected speech in distinctive ways. Elements including elision, contraction, juncture, liaison, register, accommodation, aspect, intonation and others, affect pronunciation and speech patterns on an individual basis. When learners are unfamiliar, or even ignorant of, these elements, listening comprehension can be significantly impacted.

5. Regional or National Accents

The same sentence when spoken by people from different first language (L1) backgrounds, regional locations, or ethnic backgrounds can be decisively varied. Unfamiliarity with such on the part of EFL learners can cause a definite lack of listening comprehension or “comprehensible input” as mentioned earlier.

6. Grammar in Context

When grammar and its aspects are taught as “separate” themes, that is, outside of a relevant context, learners can be “handicapped” as it were by not understanding just how and when particular grammar structures are used by native speakers during an oral discourse or verbal exchange. So when they, the learners, hear a grammar structure that they “know”, but learned “out of context”, they can often “miss it”, misinterpret it or simply not understand what they’re hearing.

7. Language Rhythms

One of the big differences between English and say, Spanish, is that one language is “syllable-based” while the other is “accent-based”. This accounts for non-native speakers sounding “funny” when speaking a language other than their mother tongue.

With epithets like, “oh, she luv-ed him but chew-no it wuzn’t not no guud, mahn for demm boat.”

These types of epithets derive not from a lack of English or other foreign language skills in particular, but rather from pronunciation based on using an “incorrect” spoken language rhythm.

So, What to Do About It Then?

In the next article segment, we’ll briefly consider what approaches might be taken to address these and other related problems in developing fluent oral discourse and spoken exchanges in English or other foreign languages.

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