Listening in English – Keep it Real!

I hate learning a language!              

I was a good language learner at school - I was lucky. It was my best subject. But I wasn’t a good language learner to begin with; I seemed to become one. I’m not sure what happened. I didn’t have much French in my seven years of primary school, though there were some lessons on basic vocabulary in that final primary year, as I recall. This generally involved the teacher pointing to scenes of a street on a giant poster every week, and telling us the names of shops and food, and ways of saying hello, goodbye and how are you? The usual (and I’ve loved visuals and educational posters ever since).

My father helped. He had been good at French at school, and he did his very best to bring it all back to help me with my homework. I think he enjoyed it. I didn’t like my French teacher for the first couple of years of secondary school. He seemed to sneer at us for not getting anything right. I don’t remember anything interesting happening (except for the very occasional slide show, which came with the coursebook. The whole class loved that part, because it would be in the dark and we could mess about without being seen!) So having French lessons made me feel uncomforable and it was usually an embarrassing experience. It didn’t seem important or relevant.

I start to like learning a language!

In my third year, when I was about 14, we had a different French teacher. This man was known in the school for being great fun, but strict, and – crucially – he could speak fluent French (shouldn’t the other teacher have been similarly qualified?). He was English, but he had actually lived in France. We all thought this was amazing. We knew he must be the best. And he was. We felt he was teaching us real French, and he connected it with stories about his real experiences there. I wanted to live in France. I wanted to be like him. We all did.

I can’t remember any specific examples of what he did (though his French accent was great) but he somehow made a connection for us – or me at least – between a school subject we hated, and its relevance in the world. Above all, he made the lessons interesting and we felt safe to give things a try. These principles seem obvious now, and I like to think they were obvious then, but this was the first time that a light came on for me in learning a language.

At the same time in these teen years of mine, I desperately wanted to travel. I lived in a town near Liverpool, a famous gateway to the world, full of relatives and locals who had been to many places overseas. My father, my uncles, my grandfathers had all worked at sea and travelled the world. In the 1970s, however, the golden days of ship travel from Liverpool were over, and flying was very expensive. It felt like I was stuck.

My parents had an old, large radio, which allowed me to listen to radio stations from different countries, and I often tuned into French-speaking radio stations (amongst the many scrambled foreign languages on the airwaves, the sound of French was the only one I could identify). I couldn’t understand a word, but they played great music and without many adverts. I could tell from the sensational intontation style of adverts, that they were adverts, but I didn’t mind. I used to try to find a word or two I knew, to work out at least the topic of the advert.

If you’re thinking, at this point, that I was a keen and academic student, you’d be wrong. I wasn’t. In fact, for the first few years of secondary, I often fell behind and felt out of my depth. So what I’m expressing here is that I seemed to be simply following my non-school interests, like any other kid, but which somehow sparked a motivation to see more in French than the idea that it was another subject on my timetable. My interests at the time were radio, music and a desire to travel. That’s it.

I become good at learning a language!

Somehow, therefore, I began to see French classes, as a sort of travelling. I still had no idea what France must be like, or any other place beyond the UK for that matter. But it was like turning on that radio. I saw the words as a language to be decoded which, of course, they are. Like a game. A memory game, too, and it was turning out that I had a good memory when it came to learning vocabulary and grammar.

So I started actually enjoying learning lists of vocabulary, and accepting bizarre foreign concepts, such as objects being masculine or feminine (!) , or saying strange things like it makes beautiful for it’s a nice day.  I soon saw a lot of different grammar rules from my own and there was no point in fighting it. Once I embraced this, I engaged in the subject,  fell in love with it and my marks improved.

When the opportunity came along I went on some school trips to France and saw that the whole thing was not made up just to test us! It made sense.  I would ask people on the street for directions or the time, when I needed neither, just to hear what the answers sounded like (incomprehensible!). I would go into a post office and ask for stamp (but get the wrong ones!). It didn’t matter. I found the whole experience incredibly exciting. For the rest of my time at school, French was my best subject, and the only one I would consistently come top in. And when German came along as an option, I took that, too, and I did well. I noticed how much I had started to break down and understand my own language. I have loved English, foreign languages and language learning ever since, and have travelled a great deal in my life as a direct result.

Language is real!

Crucially, too, I have always been fascinated by the divide that often exists between teaching in the classroom and the real world. Above I mention that I asked for the time in France, but couldn’t understand the answer. Why?

Listening comprehension in this way is often affected by how things are said rather than what is said. If you look at coursebooks and skills materials, very little (if any) training is provided for students to listen to real spoken english. Current CDs usually use scripted listening extracts to test grammar and vocabulary, but this not the same as helping the learner understand everyday spoken language. In real, connected speech, students simply can't hear the grammar and vocabulary that they already know,

I spoke to Sheila Thorn, a London-based writer and trainer who is a published expert in the use of authentic listening for all levels of learner in English ( She was kind enough to summarise her approach and methodology to me, and I am quoting her in full here for you. If you follow her thinking and try out what she advises, your listening lessons should never be the same again, and your student’s listening skills and confidence should increase dramatically:

Listening is the skill we all use most in our daily lives. Unlike reading, writing or speaking, it is also a sense and we use it subconsciously to help us make sense of the world around us.  And yet listening is the skill which tends to receive the least attention in the ELT classroom. 

Why authentic?

The listening passages generally found at the start of units in coursebooks bear little resemblance to listening in the real world. They are deliberately scripted with restricted language to introduce new grammatical structures and lexis. These scripts are then performed by actors, who articulate every word clearly, and recorded in a studio with no background noise.  Meanwhile the listening passages found later in a unit, even if they are not scripted, tend to be used exclusively for listening comprehension practice – to test students’ understanding or what was said rather than how it was said.

Teachers who rely on these two types of listening passages to teach listening skills are therefore doing their students a huge disservice. This is because the listening passages in coursebooks contain virtually none of the features of informal spoken English which students find so challenging.

Reasons for the neglect of listening in the ELT classroom

Part of the reason for the neglect of authentic listening in the ELT classroom is the fact that native and highly competent non-native English teachers generally have no problem whatsoever in decoding informal spoken English unless they are in situations with people they don’t know and/or a lot of background noise. Non-native English teachers are perhaps more aware of the potential problems for students because their language learning experience is more recent, not having been exposed to the target language from an early age. But in the sense that listening is a skill which they themselves have mastered, all ELT teachers need to consciously put themselves in the position of their students who are starting to learn a new skill.

A second reason is the fact that there are virtually no 100% authentic listening materials on the ELT market. 

The challenging features of informal spoken English

When native English speakers or competent non-native speakers are talking informall,  the words they use are pronounced very differently from the words in isolation – the citation form found in dictionaries. This is because speakers tend to take short cuts in their pronunciation so that the words flow more easily and they can get their message across more quickly. This speed of delivery leads to the frequent complaint from our students that ‘English people speak too quickly’ and ‘English people don’t speak clearly’.

But what are these features of spoken English which students find so challenging?  Let’s begin with weak forms.  Some of the most frequently-used grammatical or function words in English have both a strong, articulated form and a weak, less-articulated form.  No doubt teachers are aware of the use of the schwa /ə/ in the prepositions for and to, the dropping of the final –d of and, the tendency to say ’em instead of them and so on, but the reality is that these small changes in sounds result in students not recognising these weak forms of high frequency words which are part of their active vocabularies.

Another feature is linking, where the end of one word runs into the beginning of the next.  This causes students to have problems distinguishing individual words in what Richard Cauldwell refers to as ‘the stream of speech’.  We know this causes problems because of the times our students ask ‘What does * mean?’ when ‘*’ is actually two words which are linked.  Linking frequently occurs when a consonant at the end of one word links with the vowel at the start of the next word, but it also occurs when the same sound appears at the end of one word and the start of another.  Linking also occurs with the final letter –s or plurals and the 3rd person, for example in the following exchange:  ‘Is this your car?’ ‘No, it’s­_not.’  If we go back to the sentence at the start of this paragraph we can see where linking is likely to occur:  Another feature_is_linking, where the end_of_one word runs_into the beginning of the next.

A third feature of informal spoken English is assimilation where words become blurred at their boundaries and a different sound emerges, for example tem people instead of ten people, corm beef instead of corned beef and hambag instead of handbag.

A fourth feature is elision, where the final letters –d, -t and occasionally –k are not produced in a steam of speech.  For example ‘I promise(d) to be there by 3’, ‘Did you go out las(t) night?’ or ‘I as(k)ed him to meet us here.’

These four features of spoken English receive virtually no attention whatsoever in ELT coursebooks, despite the fact that they all occur in even very short bursts of authentic speech and affect those words which, even at elementary level, are part of the students’ active vocabulary.


It makes you think.

I’ve been to  quite a number of countries in the past couple of years, and talked to a lot of groups of teachers about authentic listening, Sheila’s work, and my own experiences as a foreign language learner and foreign language teacher. I have found that few teachers disagree, but that only time and effort stands in our way to introduce more authentic listening and see the approaches work. They do work, and we do need to find the time and make the effort.  Otherwise what language are we teaching? A series of made-up listenings for testing in class, or real conversations for which the student needs effective training and with which a true connection to the culture is made?


*Sheila Thorn is the writer of Real Lives, Real Listening, a series of three skills books whose topics are, A Place I Know Well, A Typical Day and My Family (