Why don't they understand?

This is the first of three articles on planning a listening lesson. It takes a look at why students often find listening comprehension so difficult, even when the language is apparently within their grasp. In the following two articles we’ll look at how this information can be helpful when we’re planning listening lessons.

One of my students had just come back from an international conference which was held in English. “How did it go?” I asked. “Fine” she said. “I understood almost everything. Except of course when the British guy spoke. I didn’t understand any of that.”

Why do students have such difficulty in listening to native speakers? Why is it that the tapes we use in the classroom often seem completely incomprehensible  to them, even though the general language level seems about right? And what is it about the speech of non-native speakers that makes them, whatever their nationality, so much more comprehensible to our students than native speakers?

When you’re trying to assess the level of difficulty of a text, you need to take into account the following features :
Unknown words and structures

Does the text contain words or structures that the students have never met before? If so, are they essential or non-essential to the meaning of the whole, inferable or non-inferable (1). If essential and non-inferable, they will inevitably block general comprehension. However, they may do so even if they are inferable or non-essential.

If the brain meets an unfamiliar word, it is going to need to devote more time and energy to processing that word than if it is familiar. Whether the processing means recognising it is non-essential, or whether it means actively working out the meaning, the time and energy devoted to doing so is inevitably taken away from processing the continuing text. The listener may therefore lose the thread of the text at least momentarily. This may be non-conscious, or in some cases the listeners may find themselves consciously thinking “What was that word?” rather than going on listening.

Familiar words but unfamiliar concepts
It’s sometimes possible to understand every word in a text but still fail to understand the meaning. This came home to me the other day when I came across the following text :
For those of you who have been trying to build client-side GData mashups but have been thwarted by the same-origin policy, we have some good news for you.
Apart from the G in Gdata, it’s not the individual words I don’t understand but their contextual meaning. How is the data being mashed up? Same origin of what?
For the learner, this lack of knowledge may not be technical (as here), but cultural. For example :
My neighbour runs every day, and she’s got her bus pass, so I thought – if she can do it, why not me?
Here, the reference to the bus pass would seem, taken at face value, to indicate that the woman could easily take the bus to get to where she wants to go – she doesn’t need to run. Only cultural knowledge tells you that it’s actually a reference to the fact that she’s over 60.

Meaning expressed through stress and intonation

Meaning is often expressed through stress and intonation in English. For example , in the sentence I can’t see you tomorrow the meaning if is different depending on whether the stress is on I (= I can’t see you, but someone else can), on tomorrow (= but I can see you another day) or on can’t (= so forget about it). If this type of feature does not exist in the student’s own language, it may not be picked up and the speaker’s meaning misunderstood.

Unexpected lexical and grammatical features of the spoken language
In the classroom, students have very little contact with authentic conversational English. Most of what they meet is either written text, scripted text or teacher-student discourse which, as was suggested in another article (2) is different in type from other forms of discourse. Students are therefore relatively unfamiliar with many features of natural conversation – exclamations (My goodness! For heavens sake!) fillers (I mean, as I say, I reckon, mind you) vague general words (sort of, thingy, stuff, wotsit) hesitations, false starts and repetition ( But the thing I liked, liked a lot was – erm, do you remember that thing we saw, that sort of umbrella thingy? ) ungrammatical sentences and grammatical patterns which are specific to the spoken language, for example question tags and repeated subjects in final position : … but they get a lot of holidays, don’t they, teachers? Another feature which can cause problems is ellipsis – the omission of items that would generally be included in the written language. For example, in the exchange - A :What time are you going to Richmond tomorrow? B :I don’t know. About eight. - both are in the question and I in the answer might well be omitted.

Unexpected pronunciation features
If listeners are not expecting words to be pronounced in the way they actually are, this also adds to the processing load. This may happen for three reasons :
Firstly, the learners may mispronounce the word themselves and be expecting their own version. A student of mine recently failed to understand the word Friday because she was expecting "freeday"
Secondly, they may know how the word is pronounced in one accent, but not recognise it when pronounced with a different accent – some intermediate students of mine were once thrown by hearing the northern British pronunciation of book /buk/.
However, the biggest problem by far tends to be not the pronunciation of lexical items like these, but the natural features of connected speech. These are :
Elision - the dropping of a sound. This happens frequently with /t/ and /d/ in word final position - for instance went round to becomes /wen raun tu/.
Vowel weakening – this can also be seen in the last example where the schwa (3) substitutes for the strong vowel /u/ . It’s probably the most well known of the changes, and is as a substitute for various vowels - for, at, but etc
Assimilation a change in one sound to make it phonologically closer to an adjacent sound and therefore easier to pronounce –Great Britain may become Grape Britain.
Linking between words - this may involve consonant/vowel linking – went out /wen taut/ - or in the case of two adjacent vowels the inclusion of a linking consonant /j/, /r/ or /w/. Thus, go and see becomes "gowen see"
This last example shows that these features are often used in conjunction. Here we had the linking /w/, the use of the schwa, and elision of the final /d/.

Putting all these features together in fact means that the apparently simple exchange about Richmond used as an example above may end up sounding like :
A : Whadaim yer goina Richmond temorrer. B : Dunno. Boudeight.
Again, native speakers are expecting these changes. They are able to take the reduced message and non-consciously “fill in the gaps”. In fact, if you say the exchange above to a native speaker and ask them to write it down, they’ll produce the full, well-formed sentence – including completely omitted words like are. Although their ears can’t have heard the omitted sounds and words, their brain was able to process the message immediately, and “heard” what was in fact not there.

Non-native speakers can’t do this, firstly because they may not recognise the equivalence of the connected and non-connected forms of the words, and secondly because they are not familiar enough with the structure of the language to know what must be there even if it’s not heard. All this means, yet again, more to process, more thinking “what on earth was that?” and more chance of losing the thread completely.

To come back to our original question - What is it about the speech of non-native speakers that makes them so much more comprehensible to our students than native speakers? – the answer lies in these features. Native speakers will use a wider range of vocabulary than non-native speakers, including phrasal verbs, idiomatic and other more colloquial items which non-native speakers will avoid. They will express meaning through stress and intonation more frequently, and they will use all the lexical, grammatical and pronunciation features we have mentioned – which, again, non-native speakers will tend to avoid.

How much we emphasise these features will therefore depend on who the probable interlocutors of our students will be. If they are learning English purely or predominantly as a lingua franca to use with other non-native speakers, the importance of developing this sort of comprehension ability is reduced. But if they will have frequent contact with native speakers, it becomes paramount.

In later articles we will therefore look at how we can take these sort of features into account when planning listening lessons and how we can actively improve, rather than just practising, our students’ listening ability.


1. For a discussion on why words may or may not be inferable, see the article Inferring Unknown Words from Context : Part One.
2. See the article Teacher Talking Time : Part One for a discussion of some features of classroom discourse.

3. Unfortunately the fonts provided by this site will not let me use phonemic script. The schwa is the vowel sound used for the first and last a in banana. Where phonemic symbols are the same as alphabetic characters I have used them in slashed brackets - / /.
Photo provided under creative Commons License by Alex_Mueller via flickr

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If you want to find out more about pronunciation features of connected speech, Gillian Brown's Listening to Spoken English is an excellent introduction.