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Skill Courses, Listening: Difficulties and contradictions

Actualizado: 15 jun 2021

By Professor Gerardo García López

We usually approach listening in two ways: listening for gist and detail. And in detail we do not only put content but also we asume that the sounds systems are included. Taking for granted that students have studied and practised these in the initial part of their learning, we normally do not pay attention to them much and most of textbooks, until recently are including pronunciation materials.(English File,Oxford 2005; Speak out, 2016; etc.) This writing will deal with this aspect, the workings of the sound system and their relevance at this level.

To be truth listening is one of the most difficult skills to master in the context of foreign language. Ironically, it is the one that in the natural order is first. (Harmer, 2005) When you start learning English seriously in Mexico you usually choose a school with a certain prestige, then the teacher speaks in English all the time, like in the old school, when nobody said a word in Spanish, it was taboo to speak in L1. Audiolingualists did not just discourage to speak the mother tongue in a manner that we understood that speaking but it was a serious problem because everything was learnt that way in a behavourist manner by forming habits.

The input does not always justify the output is what Chomsky would discover at some point and that is one of the main arguments of his complete theory of innatism. “Hopefully”, everybody has an inner machine that monitors our language and that is the capacity of generating a “universal grammar” that we all humans have. Chomsky and the revolution in the view of language meant to send back the main language elements at birth; we were born with the capacity of producing this “universal grammar”, based on the scientific theories of the time he had the idea that most of the knowledge was inherited through generations. Everybody has criticized that idea, but still nobody is capable of saying the opposite. This idea gave birth to the communicative approach where materials are not specially designed for the learners of the language but they are “real materials”.

But then again, What is the role of exposure and the capacity of the language learners through following and imitating accents and pronunciation of native speakers? What is the role of studying the language in order to improve it and practising a particular skill for the sake of practising the language, or trying to get a better grade in a certification, because I want to improve that particular skill? Specially this particular skill is so difficult to improve in the context of foreing language because we have the tendency of ‘tuning in’ and ‘tuning out’, meaning that we do not need to use the language in or country except when we have encounters with our teachers and with native speakers and there are problems with this particular “input” one is the “motheresse” language that teachers use when speaking with students and the other is the limited exchanges that students have with native speakers.

I think that Cambridge has a well defined policy regarding the “comprehensible input” but because if we usually take classes for a certain period in the second language, then we can guaranteed certain levels of performance in the skills, but what is the balance between the skills acquired in the classes who can guaranteed this? We normally have the situation of studying a textbook, no serious, successful language school in Mexico uses no textbook. That may be a bad thing because it lacks imgination from the teachers but at the same time, it is a good thing because it is designed by experts and they make sure they cover all the necessary knowledge to be learnt in a particular level, depending if they follow the European Framework or if they follow the Tesol Standards. More widely in Mexico we, Mexican teachers always debate between the use of British or American:vocabulary, pronunciation, accent and even materials.

This is the context where we find ourselves in the dilema of learning a particular skill to improve. Listening and pronunciation have always had a direct link, we cannot hear what we are not able to identify and pronounce. That is the whole situation with going back to principles of pronunciation. It may well be that students recognize empirically how certain words sound, how certain phonemes work in English but it is true that the principles are stored in the beginning of the learning of the language. It is needed to recycle them because in most advanced classes in Mexico we tend to take for granted that we are dealing with students who do not have the daily exposure and they do not confront these rules often enough.

Here I would like to give an example of this works and how the subjective factor (the teacher) can play an important role at modifying the pronunciation. When I started teaching the skills course, Listening at La Salle, I had this good impression of a variety of students who could speak very well and fluently but had certain problems understanding and pronouncing the regular verbs in past, but if you do not know how to pronounce it,you are unable to identify it in regular speech when you hear a native speaking, so we have to go back and practice for a while with the rules: once the mastered them, they felt more confident in their pronunciation.

I want to explain why being communicative with advanced students pays, I am also more inclined to deal with the sound workings theoretically in English and at the same time I tend to agree that all the knowledge that these students have, has to be rescued and used in the improvement of the language even the one that they have in their first language, when we talk about skills, for example, students have a good chance to better their skills in reading if they read in their first language. The matter is when and where we learn, I think that we learn when we are ready and that is when we know the workings of the matter, in this case the language and knowing these workings we need to have chances to face the particular problems of these. Doing it consciously gives you speed, then you only need the practice.



Harmer, J.(2005) The Practice of English Language Teaching: Longman U.K.

Oxenden C. & Seligson P.(2012) New English File. OUP.China.

Claire A. & Wilson. J.J.. (2016) Speak Out, Second Edition. Pearson Longman.Italy


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