Is Voz do Brasil what you hear or listen to?

Voz do Brasil, former Hora do Brasil, is the oldest radio programme in the country whose political content broadcast is mandatory to all radio stations. It is regularly aired at 19:00 sharp, Brasilia time.

You may wonder what is with that and how it is connected to learning. In fact, this is closely related to people’s abilities since Voz do Brasil (aka Fala Sozinho) is said to be what everybody hears but not many people listen to. Now, how important is listening instruction in a foreign language? seems to be a justifiable rhetorical question.

Mr. Webster defines hearing as the sense through which a person or animal is aware of sound. That is, the ability to hear. According to Underwood (1996:1) ‘Listening is the activity of paying attention to and trying to get meaning from something we hear`. Human beings have a strong need to put their experience and problems into words but little do people realise what a complex skill listening is.

Being listening as a skill which bears some resemblance to reading, the spoken language differs widely from the written language in that it is often delivered fast and not consumed at the listener’s speed. I subscribe to Rost’s perception (1991) that ’learners must employ active thinking as they listen in order to work out what the speakers’ intentions are when they use certain words in particular ways and situations to convey meaning.’

Consequently, being a good listener requires great powers of concentration, which can only be gained through practice.

  • What Listening Proficiency entails

A highly effective way of enabling learners to improve their command of the language is through listening systematically and widely. In order to maximise the learners’ listening competence it is useful first to consider the abilities underlying listening proficiency – grammatical, sociolinguistic, discourse and strategic competence.

a)      Grammatical Competence

Systemic competence is a concept that demands mastery of three blocks to achieve listening competence.

Firstly, the use of grammatical structures to help understand what is being heard. Secondly, the knowledge of the lexicon is also essential to the listening process. Thirdly, the phonology of the language at both segmental and supra-segmental levels: the basic sounds and syllables of words, intonation, rhythm and stress which form the phonological system.

Therefore, only by enabling learners to scrutinise how words are segmented into sounds as well as how intonation and stress are used in particular ways to convey meaning will they make sense of the information that is presented in the listening text.

b)     Sociolinguistic Competence

It is worth pointing out that a degree of sociolinguistic maturity is demanded of any listener in L2. The listener should be able to know what is expected both socially and culturally by users of the target language.

As Ur (1990:3) points out ´rarely if ever do we listen to something without some idea of what we are going to hear.’ Listeners usually have an idea of the content and this top-down knowledge brings a whole host of background information which allows room for assumptions and inferences. The learners’ schemata is instrumental in helping them to learn to listen in a foreign language and this interactive relationship with what is heard may bridge the gap between the new input and the learners’ knowledge of the world. Transforming this information into knowledge is important in enabling the learner to listen to what they hear.

According to Scarcella and Oxford (1970:142) ´sociolinguistic competence includes recognizing the communication situation for what it is and the listening for what would be expected.’ Therefore, it is vital that learners are assisted in gaining these strategies so that sociolinguistic competence can become an important tool in the quest for meaning in L2.

c)      Discourse Competence

Discourse competence deals with communication above the sentence level and implies that the listener is actively attentive to know how the parts of any communication relate to each other and what they mean. Hence, discourse competence added to both grammatical, sociolinguistic competence is instrumental in helping learners to be more efficient listeners.

As cohesion and coherence hold together the communication in meaningful ways, they might facilitate understanding by offering a certain degree of predictability. In other words, if learners are able to notice these glued and connected fragments of cohesive devices, it certainly enhances their ability to anticipate what will be said next in any discourse, eventually leading to a better comprehension.

Learners who are able to both identify and predict such coherent progression of listening passages can be expected to listen more effectively. Taking this fact into account, it is the teachers’ role to draw learners’ attention to these cohesive features whenever they face a listening text so that they can grapple with reference devices.

Consequently, it is critical that learners are made to notice and deal with specific conventions for references such as ellipsis, substitution, hesitation, repetition of words and so forth.

d)     Strategic Competence

In addition to the other three competence elements mentioned above, skilled listeners make use of strategies that enable them to listen effectively and somehow select those strategies that best fit a particular text they are listening to. I fully agree with Rost (1991:4) when he says that ‘Effective listeners develop a useful way of thinking about meaning as they listen. The way in which the listener makes these decisions is what we call a listening strategy‘. Undoubtedly, the learners’ schemata, the linguistic context, references to what is mentioned in a text are extremely important sources for the listener. As a compensation for missing knowledge, however, listening strategies can be an invaluable tool when it comes to the guessing process either using the linguistic or non-linguistic clues that a listening passage may offer.

Being able to exploit both linguistic and non-linguistic features is also essential concerning strategic competence.  As far as linguistic clues are concerned, the recognition of affixation, word order, discourse markers and cognates pays off when learners do not understand a word or phrase immediately and analysing it in terms of what they know about it may be an excellent way out. Alternatively, non-linguistic clues (background noises, facial expressions) exist in abundance and are extremely useful in terms of proving the listener with hints for inferring meanings of unknown words and expressions.

Predicting, skimming, scanning and inferring are four of a range of valuable techniques to help listeners select what is worth being attentive to. Hypothesising and confirming expectations is a dual process which happens every time someone is listening to L1. Thus, making educated guesses plays an essential role in this process as it helps learners let go off the false belief that they have to recognise and understand every single word before comprehension takes place. Strategic competence is not only a significant element that can be both taught and practised in the classroom but also a way of enhancing learners’ ability to listen effectively.

All in all, listening is a significant area of development as the first impact of a language is aural. Sadly, listening in class is usually considered heavy-going in the sense that is an activity which requires different levels of concentration. This is more aggravated when one thinks that listening takes care of itself whereas it is a skill that should not be ignored but systematically included as a part of the syllabus. It is a game which involves learning to listen and listening to learn.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

  • Brown, H D – Teaching by Principles – An Interactive Approach to Language Pedagogy (Prentice Hall) 1994
  • Harmer, J – The Practice of English Language Teaching (Longman) 1997
  • Rost, M – Listening in Action (Prentice Hall) 1991
  • Scarcella, C S and Oxford, R L – The Tapestry of Language Learning – The Individual in the Communicative Classroom (Heinle & Heinle) 1992
  • Underwood, M – Teaching Listening (Longman) 1996
  • Ur, P – Teaching Listening Comprehension (CUP) 1996
  • Ur, P – A Course in Language Teaching – Practice and Theory (CUP) 1996

Adriano Zanetti

Adriano Zanetti – BA in Letras, Post-graduate in Language Teaching Methodologies, RSA Dip. DELTA. An educator for 30 years, an ELT consultant/teacher trainer at A2Z English Consultancy, a teacher/trainer/coordinator at FISK São João del Rei and Cambridge Assessment English Speaking Examiner. A Pronunciation SIG member responsible for Pronunciation courses for teachers/students. Presented several times in LABCI/ABCI conferences, Braz-Tesol Regional/National Chapters and different institutions in MG. a2zenglishconsult@gmail.com / dricozane@gmail.com

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