Listening challenges

As promised, I am here. If anyone doubted me, doubt no longer. And I am here to talk about listening, just as I promised in my last blog piece. And, just like last week, we are going to have a story.

Who doesn’t like a good story? Everyone loves a story, from your baby nephew to your great granny. It’s one of the things that defines as humans. Let me tell you a story. I can’t promise that it will be a good story, but it is a true story. It’s a story about my experience of trying to learn Portuguese. Have you ever had a similar experience?

A true story about learning Portuguese

I was sitting in class and the teacher told us to listen to a CD and answer some questions. She played the CD, and I didn’t understand a word. Nothing, zilch, nada!

The teacher asked us what the answers were, and thankfully nobody put their hand up to answer. It turned out that nobody had understood anything.

Phew! At least I wasn’t the only idiot in the room.

The teacher seemed quite frustrated. I don’t know if she was disappointed at our lack of understanding, her own inadequacy or the fact that the material wasn’t working.

Anyway, she asked us to look at the transcript and read it at the same time as listening again.

Now, when she asked for the answers, hands all around the room shot up. We all knew the answers. It was easy now!

We know what the problem isn’t

So the problem was not the language, or the vocabulary or the grammar. The problem was that nobody in the class was able to understand the sounds we were hearing and process them into something that actually meant something.

Listening in a foreign language is hard!

But why is it hard?

Well, there are a number of reasons and we’ll go through them over the course of the next few blog posts, but a quick introduction to some of them would like this:

  • Connected speech
  • Stress, rhythm and intonation
  • Lexis
  • Redundancy
  • Distractions
  • Rate of delivery
  • Interaction
  • The speaker

So, we are going to look at these over the next few posts, but before I give you my two-penneth worth, have a think yourself about what you think they might mean and what experiences you have had with the sections both as a teacher and as a language learner.

Did you do last month’s homework?

Ok, I know I said in the last post that it wasn’t homework, but it was really. I asked you to listen to a conversation and note how many times there was a misunderstanding. The conversation needed to be between to or more people in their first language. The point I was hoping to make was that people misunderstand each other ALL THE TIME! It isn’t something that only happens when using a second or foreign language.

This can be a powerful thing for students to realise. It can help them feel better about not understanding something in their second language, and give them more confidence to have a go.

I did the homework. I listened to a conversation between two family members. The conversation lasted about 5 minutes and I counted at least seven misunderstandings, ranging from serious problems to minor things. That’s over 1 a minute! In their own language.

Personally, I find that amazing.

Stephen Greene

Stephen is a freelance teacher, trainer and editor. He has been teaching for over 20 years all around the world, but has been living and working in Curitiba, Brazil for the last 6 years. He writes self-indulging articles about all things associated with languages at

1 Comment
    Posted at 05:43h, 13 setembro Responder

    Hello Stephen, I’m looking forward to reading your next posts about listening, I’d particularly like to know what you mean by redundancy when it comes to listening.
    Thank you for sharing your knowledge.

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