When we’re learning a foreign language, making sense of what we hear is the first step toward fluency. It sounds obvious, but until recently, we didn’t know much about how listening works. New research demonstrates that effective listening involves more than simply hearing the words that float past our ears. Rather, it’s an active process of interpreting information and making meaning. This kind of engaged listening is a skill that’s as critical for learning a range of subjects at school and work as it is for learning to understand a foreign tongue.
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Studies of skilled language learners have identified specific listening strategies that lead to superior comprehension. What’s more, research has shown that learners who deliberately adopt these strategies become better listeners. Last year, for example, University of Ottawa researcher Larry Vandergrift published his study of 106 undergraduates who were learning French as a second language. Half of the students were taught in a conventional fashion, listening to and practicing texts spoken aloud. The other half, possessing the same initial skill level and taught by the same teacher, were given explicit instruction on how to listen. In the journal Language Learning, Vandergrift reported the results: The second group “significantly outperformed” the first one on a test of comprehension. The improvement was especially pronounced among the less-fluent French speakers in the group.
So what are these listening strategies? Skilled learners go into a listening session with a sense of what they want to get out of it. They set a goal for their listening, and they generate predictions about what the speaker will say. Before the talking begins, they mentally review what they already know about the subject, and form an intention to “listen out for” what’s important or relevant. Once they begin listening, these learners maintain their focus; if their attention wanders, they bring it back to the words being spoken. They don’t allow themselves to be thrown off by confusing or unfamiliar details. Instead, they take note of what they don’t understand and make inferences about what those things might mean, based on other clues available to them: their previous knowledge of the subject, the context of the talk, the identity of the speaker, and so on. They’re “listening for gist,” and not getting caught up in fine-grained analysis. All the while, skilled learners are evaluating what they’re hearing and their own understanding of it. They’re checking their inferences to see if they’re correct, and identifying the questions they still have so they can pursue the answers later.
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Such strategies are all about metacognition, or thinking about thinking, and they yield a variety of benefits. Research indicates that learners who engage in metacogition are better at processing and storing new information, better at finding the best ways to practice and better at reinforcing what they have learned. In a 2006 study by researchers from Singapore, Chinese speakers who were learning English as a second language reported increased motivation and confidence after they were taught metacognitive strategies.
Though listening is often treated as a social nicety, a way to make others feel appreciated, it’s also one of the most powerful tools we have to gain information and insight. That’s true whether the language we’re listening to is the jargon of science and technology, the parlance of the executive suite — or the fast-flowing patois of French. Comprenez-vous?