The Nature of Listening Comprehension

A Theoretical Discussion

This is a discussion on how to study second language listening comprehension. Firstly, we provide a simple overview of what scholars know about listening comprehension, and then secondly we conclude from that how to teach, and study, listening comprehension.

We hope both teachers and students will find this useful.

Listening is Different from Reading

There are many skills necessary to listen to spoken English. Some skills are similar to the skills used in reading. But many important listening skills are different from reading skills. That’s why if you want to learn to listen, you must practice listening. Listening skills are different from reading skills because speech is different from writing. Below are some of the main ways speech is different from writing.

Speech Consists of Sounds

The biggest difference between speech and writing is that speech consists of sounds. This is very important, because processing the sound adds a whole new set of skills that are not necessary for reading.

  • You must know the sound system; if you don’t, you cannot understand the speech.
  • You must also know how the sounds change in fast speech. Fast pronunciation is very different from the dictionary form of the word.
  • The English sound system varies from place to place, and from speaker to speaker.

Speech Uses Different Language

Written English consists of neat, correct sentences; speech does not. Speech usually consists of idea units. Each idea unit is a short piece of spoken language; usually about two seconds long, and consisting of just a few words; on average about 7 words.

Sometimes idea units are complete sentences, but sometimes they are not. The main differences between spoken idea units and written sentences are:

  • Spoken idea units are usually shorter than written sentences.
  • Speech usually has simpler grammar–idea units are usually just strung together–but writing usually has more embedded and complex grammar.
  • Speech contains many mistakes, including grammatical errors; so it also has corrections and repairs. Written language is usually more correct and polished.
  • Speech contains many pauses and hesitations. There are also fillers, meaningless words that give the speaker thinking time. Examples of fillers are um, well now, uh, let me see. Written language has none of those.
  • Spoken language is more modern and up to date; there are more slang words, swear words, new expressions, figures of speech, and humor. Written language tends to be more conservative and old-fashioned.
  • In speech a lot of things are not actually stated. Speakers often use their tone of voice, or stress and intonation to express important information. For example, emotions such as pleasure and anger, attitudes such as disbelief or sarcasm, and so on, are often not clearly stated in words although they may be very important.

Speech is Fast

Speakers decide how fast they will speak, and most speakers speak very fast—three words per second is average in English. Many speakers are much faster. So listeners have to listen fast. When reading, the reader can choose a comfortable reading speed, but the listener cannot choose the listening speed. Listeners must listen at the speaker’s speed.

  • The speed of the speech is called the “speech rate”. This is important for second language listeners: usually, as the speech rate increases, comprehension decreases. If the speech rate is too fast, comprehension stops.
  • Because speech is generally fast, the listener must understand the meaning very quickly and very efficiently. There is no time to stop and wonder about the meaning; no time to think about the vocabulary or grammar.

In order to understand fast speech, the listening process must be automatic.