Why is the listening skill so important and yet so difficult for EFL learners?

Diary submitted by Mathilde S, Erasmus+ internship in Madrid

Amongst the four skills – reading, writing, speaking and listening – learners of a foreign language should master, listening is very intricate. Receptive skills are often considered easier, meanwhile transmissive skills tend to scare students more. The latter indeed require full engagement of the student. Surprisingly, I have noticed throughout my internship that students often struggle more during listening classes than during writing, speaking or readings classes. Why is that?

Firstly, listening has multiple dimensions

Listening involves many aspects of a language, such as pronunciation, getting familiar with thespeaker’s accent and intonation. Listening also entails identifying and understanding the lexis used by the speaker, as well as the tone (i.e. formal or informal). Putting aside the quality of the audio/video, speed represents a major obstacle for EFL learners. Similarly, the clarity of the speaker’s voice and the way he/she enunciates highly influences EFL learners’ understanding. Once, we were practicing listening with an episode of Kids Reacts, and students found it particularly difficult to understand kids, as they often mumble or speak quite low.

Secondly, rather than being a passive skill, listening is active. Listening requires particular attention from EFL learners and demands them to engage with the recording. In this respect, a mechanical way for teachers to make sure that their students understand it to ask them repeatedly if they understand and what they understand. Listening is not a mere receptive skill, and a methodological and critical mind is often needed to handle the activity. Different steps can be distinguished: before rushing into catching specific details, students should identify the number of speakers and their identity. Then they can identify what is the topic of the audio/video, and finally they can focus on getting detailed information.

Thirdly, what makes listening so crucial is that it implies speaking. Active listening is ultimately important when students have conversations with each other, or when they will be interacting with other English speakers. In fact, one of the main concerns of an EFL learners is not being able to understand and reply to an English interlocutor. A situation as simple and common as giving/asking for directions can be problematic.

As a result, practicing listening is of high importance for EFL learners. In the class, listening activities include dictation, listening to news, TV shows, movie trailers, podcasts… Dictation is also a good exercise during which students focus exclusively on what is said and can get familiar with English pronunciation. “How can I improve my listening skills?” is a question that comes up regularly. Answersare in fact numerous, since most of the listening activities can also easily be done at home. A prolific way for students to improve their listening competences is to incorporate some English into their daily life, by listening to music, watching films or series for instance. In this respect, listening to the radio is a fruitful and passive way of getting used to hearing English on a regular basis. An advice I give them is to look up the lyrics of the songs they like, and start watching a movie with their language’s subtitles.However, students often tell me that they tend to read the subtitles more than focusing on what is actually said. To counter that, I suggest them to watch a movie they already know with English subtitles, so that they can focus primarily on the speeches.

Listening is part and parcel of language learning and of everyday life. It may not be the most difficult skill, but is surely important.

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