Part 3 - Listening Processes (3 and 4)


Process 3 - Got the sounds, got the words but not got the meaning? Learning language provides lots of opportunities to feel like an idiot. You know what it feels like to understand basically 95% of words somebody just said to you but you still don’t really have any idea of what they were trying to communicate.

The third process is that of holding words in your memory for a long enough time to be able to attach them together into a grammatically sensical string of information. With this done you can store the understanding of the information in your memory rather than just the words. Keeping a running storage of dozens of individual words would be extremely taxing indeed. By storing a sentence as an image or a meaning we simplify the listening process massively and are able to keep our mind free to continue repeating processes 1 and 2 as the speaker continues relentlessly.

However, as mentioned above we can sometimes have a good understanding of all the words that we heard but not be able to put them together into something that clicks with us. This is why good listening also requires a good knowledge of syntax (whether learned or acquired) and, if possible, phrases, idioms and chunks of speech. If you have learned lexis in context with its grammatical structures intact then you will be much more able to notice these patterns during speech and take them as a whole rather than trying to piece understanding together bit by bit.

Process 4 - The fourth, and in some ways most advanced, stage is that when you take in a continual flow of speech you can only gain full understanding by interlinking clauses and sentences with those that come before or after. Some sentences may even link up with pieces of information from several sentences beforehand.

To give a simple example you will only be familiar with who ‘he/she’ is if you have been paying attention to names mentioned earlier. At a more complex level the context, mood and events in long turns of speech can colour the choices of certain words or turns of phrase.

To be able to gain such a deep level of connection with a speaker you have to be a proficient and speedy listener. A person cannot hold on to all the words that flow past them, they can only retain meaning by grouping words into memories of particular structures or meanings. Essentially if you can’t work at the level of process 1-3 then you will have a lot of trouble with number 4 while your overflowing brain tries to make connections between things that are no longer there.

Part 2 summary

Listening can therefore be looked at as a continual push for simplification. This simplification aids in retention of meaning and has varying levels of success depending upon the listeners mastery of the pronunciation features, vocabulary, syntax that allow them to absorb and combine smaller elements into ever ‘larger’ groupings. Phonemes into words or word groups (lexical chunks), word groups into sentences or strings of sentences, and sentences into overall meaning.

Next episodes..

Part 4: Listening to test or listening to learn?

Part 5: Structuring listening to aid in acquisition