Listening difficulties in second language acquisition


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Recently, listening has gained more and more attention in foreign language learning. In learning a foreign language, it is suggested that the most important step should begin with an effort to listen. (Rubin & Thompson, 1994) Listening provides input for learners to make learning occur and listening exercises draw learners' attention to new forms in language, such as new vocabulary items. (Rost, 1994) Listening can be regarded as a necessary skill in the diagnosing and preparation of foreign language students and can even be served as a good predictor of language achievement. In consequence, listening comprehension acts as a pivotal role in foreign language learning. (Oxford, 1993)

In this essay, three issues are discussed. Issue 1 states listening difficulties in second language acquisition. Underwood (1994), Chiang and Dunkel (1992) and Rubin and Thompson (1994)‘s viewpoint are discussed. Issue 2 proposes taxonomies of the factors affecting listening difficulties. Boyle (1984), Yagang (1993) and Rubin (1994) ‘s point of view of the factors affecting listening comprehension are referred to. Issue 3 mentions studies in listening difficulties of L2 listeners in foreign countries. Tauroza and Allison's (Rubin, 1994) study is about speech rate. Boyle (1984)'s study is factors most frequently mentioned in listening comprehension. Lynch (1997)'s study is a case study of a intermediate-level learners progress in listening comprehension. Goh (2000)'s study discusses listening comprehension problems.

Chapter 1 Listening difficulties in second language acquisition

Underwood's (1994) point of view?

Underwood (1994) identified seven potential difficulties in listening comprehension as: (1) lack of control over the speed at which speakers speak, (2) not being able to get things repeated, (3) the listener's limited vocabulary, (4) failure to recognize the signals, (5) problems of interpretation, (6) inability to concentrate, (7) established learning habits. Many language learners believe that the greatest difficulty with listening comprehension is that the listener cannot control how quickly a speaker speaks. (p7)

They feel that the utterances disappear before they can sort them out.

They are so busy working out the meaning of one part of what they hear that they miss the next part. Another difficulty is that listener is not always in a position to get the speaker to repeat an utterance. This is particularly likely to be the case when students are ‘on the edge' of conversation outside the classroom. For people listening to a foreign language, an unknown word can be like a suddenly dropped barrier causing them to stop and think about the meaning of the word and thus making them miss the next part of the speech (p 17). And students need to learn to listen for the ‘signals' in order to be able to connect the various utterances in the way the speaker intended them to be connected. (p18) Students who are unfamiliar with the context may have considerable difficulty in interpreting the words they hear even if they can understand their ‘surface' meaning. (p19). Inability to concentrate can be caused by a number of things, but in listening work it is a major problem, because even the shortest break in attention can seriously impair comprehension. (p19) Outside factors may well make concentration difficult, too. An inferior machine or poor recording can make it very hard for the students. As for establishing leaning habits, when the learner can more readily accept the frustrations involved, he will be more prepared to strive for a partial and incomplete understanding of what is being said. (pp16-19)

Rubin and Thompson's (1994) point of view

Rubin and Thompson list three common problems in learning to listen to a foreign language. The first problem is that the speaker talks too fast. If the listener can not follow the speaker, the listener can let the speaker know that he is not following. He can ask for repetition and slowing down the speed, seeks clarification, rephrase, and repeat. The listener can pay attention to intonation and tone of voice, focus on question words such as who, what and when and assume that the ‘here' and ‘now' are relevant. That is, the sentence is directly related to the subject they have just been discussing. Assume that what a person says is directly related to something he or she is experiencing at that very minute. The second problem is that the listener is not getting anything out of foreign language TV and movies. If the listener could not understand the foreign language TV and movies, they should try to take control of his listening by predicting what he was likely to hear. For example, use visual clues and use his background knowledge. Anticipate information in a segment by relying on your knowledge of what such a segment is likely to contain. Listeners could also use information from the segment itself and determine the genre of the segment. Knowing the genre of a segment will help you determine how best to approach it. For instance, if it is an interview, then concentrate on the questions. If it is a news report, a who, when, where strategy will work best. If it is a drama, look for the story line. Listeners could listen to familiar elements, listen to familiar-sounding words, listen to and jot down repeated words, learn to recognize numbers and learn to recognize proper names. The third problem is that the listener tends to stop listening when he hears an unfamiliar word or phrase. Many learners, particularly in the early stages of language learning, panic and lose their concentration when they hear an unfamiliar segment. As a result, they miss portions of the passage that might have helped clarify the unfamiliar word or segment. The listener should concentrate on familiar elements and keep listening. Understanding something is better than getting nothing at all. If you continue listening, chances are that you will comprehend at least some parts of the massage. It is possible that the portions you missed were not very important after all.

Chiang and Dunkel's (1992) point of view

Chiang and Dunkel (1992) pointed out that listener's comprehension in English may be thwarted by a number of cognitive and linguistic factors as well as academic and cultural issues, including: (a) inability or lack of opportunity to engage in communicative interaction with the second/foreign language teacher or lecture; (b) inability to detect the main points of the lecture or to “ grasp the usual goals of particular genres of discourse situation of which the discourse is a part'; (c) unfamiliarity with the structure and type of the discourse ; (d) inability to apprehend discourse markers and logical relationships in the English lecture; (e) inability to comprehend lecture speech delivered at faster rates of speed; (f) limited short-term memory for English input; (g) failure to use appropriate cognitive or learning strategies; (h) poor inference abilities in English; (i) limited proficiency in English; (j) lack of prior knowledge about the content of the spoken or written text; and (k) inability to process L2 input devoid of speech modification such as elaborations or redundancies. Of these difficulties confronting L2 learners, Chiang and Dunkel explored the effect of three of them. The first situation was when the listeners had limited listening proficiency in English, the second situation was when they lacked prior knowledge about the topic of the L2 lecture, and the third situation was when they were not supplied with modified speech. The results revealed a significant interaction between prior knowledge and text type.

Chapter 2 Taxonomy of the factors affecting L2 listening difficulties

Boyle's (1984) three categories of factors

Boyle (1984) began with a survey of the factors most frequently mentioned in the literature on listening comprehension, including three categories of factors. The first category referred to the listener factors, including experience in listening to the target language, general background knowledge of the world, educational background and type of school, knowledge of the target language in its various aspects, memory, powers of analysis and selection and motivation and attitude of the listener to the speaker and to the message. The second categories, the speaker factors, contain language ability of the speaker: native speaker—beginning level non-native speaker. Speaker's production: pronunciation, accent, variation, voice affect, too. Speed of delivery and prestige and personality of the speaker count. The third category, factors in the material and medium, comprise difficulty of content and concept, especially if the material is abstract, abstruse, highly specialized or technical, lengthy or poorly organized. Acoustic environment such as noise and interference and amount of support provided by gestures, visuals also have influence on listening comprehension.

Yagang's (1993) four aspects of factors

Instead of three categories, Yagang (1993) proposed that the sources of listening difficulties came mainly from the four aspects: the message, the speaker, the listener, and the physical setting. The message factors comprised content and linguistic features. In content which is not well organized, listeners cannot predict what speakers are going to say. And if listening materials are made up of everyday conversation, they may contain a lot of colloquial expressions, such as guy for man. Students who have been exposed mainly to formal or bookish English may not be familiar with these expressions. The speaker factors consists of redundant utterances, such as repetitions, false starts, re-phrasings, self-corrections, elaborations, tautologies, apparently meaningless addition such as “ I mean” or “ you know” and speakers' personal factors such as their accents. Learners tend to be used to their teaching accent or to the standard variety of British or American English. They find it hard to understand speakers with other accents. The listener factors played a more important role in EFL student's listening. For example, foreign language students might be not familiar enough with cliché and collocations in English to predict a missing word or phrase. For example, they can not be expected to know that rosy often collocates with cheeks. EFL students might be lack of sociocultural, factual, and contextual knowledge of the target language. (Anderson and Lynch 1988).It can present an obstacle to comprehension because language is used to express its culture. Factors in physical setting included noise, both background noises on the recording and environmental noises, could carry the listener's mind of the content of the listening passage. Listening material on tape or radio lacks visual and aural environmental clues. Not seeing the speakers' body language and facial expressions makes it more difficult for the listener to understand the speaker's meaning. Unclear sounds resulting from poor quality equipment can interfere with the listener's comprehension.

Rubin's (1994) five categories of factors

Rubin (1994) classified these listening factors into five categories: text, interlocutor, task, listener and process characteristics. Text characteristics referred to acoustic-temporal variables, acoustic-other variables and morphological and syntactic modifications (including restatements). Acoustic-temporal variables are speech rate, pause phenomena, and hesitation. Acoustic-other variables are level of perception, stress and rhythmic patterning perception and L1 and L2 differences. Variables of morphological and syntactic modifications are redundancy, morphological complexity, word order and discourse markers. Text characteristics referred to text type. Visual support for texts is also an important variable. Interlocutor characteristics referred to variations in the speaker's personal characteristics, such as gender, pronunciation, accent, expertness and so on. Listener characteristics are listeners' language proficiency level, memory, attention, affect, age, gender, learning disabilities in L1, and background knowledge as well as aptitude, processing skills, background biases, motivation, and confidence level. Process characteristics referred to how listeners interpret input in terms of what they know or identify what they don't know. Top-down, bottom-up and parallel processing is being examined in L2 contexts. Current views of listening comprehension propose that listeners actively process language input. Two types of processing have been discerned: cognitive strategies and metacognitive strategies. Research on listening strategies includes: work on several languages; work contrasting strategy use at several proficiency levels; work with interactive or transactional listening; work with cognitive and metacognitive strategies; work considering the relation of strategy use to text, task, and setting.

Chapter 3 Studies in listening difficulties of L2 listeners in foreign countries

Tauroza and Allison's ( )study--speech rate

Griffiths suggests that different language have different “normal” rates and the rates defined in studies using English can not be applied exactly to studies of other languages. Most research quotes a normal speech rate of 165 to 180 words per minutes for native speakers of English. On the other hand, while Foulke reports a threshold (the rate at which comprehension begins to decrease rapidly) level between 250-275 w.p.m., others states that comprehension decreases as a function of mental aptitude and difficulty level. Tauroza and Allison compare normal speed of British speakers for four types of speech. They found that while the mean for radio and interview speech events lies within the range of 160 to 190 w.p.m., the means for conversation and lecture categories are outside this range. The mean rate for conversation in words per minute was 210, while for lectures, 140. They note further that thirty-three percent of their lecture data was slower than 130 w.p.m. and twenty-three percent of the conversation data was faster than 220 w.p.m. The issue of normal speech rate is one that still needs a great deal more research that takes into account all of the variables mentioned above. (Rubin, 1994)

Boyle's (1984) study—factors most frequently mentioned in listening

In Boyle's (1984) study, 30 teachers and 60 students in Hong Kong were asked to list the six factors which they considered the most important in aiding or hampering the effectiveness of listening comprehension. It was interesting to know that the students gave much more importance to vocabulary than teachers did. It was surprising that the students mentioned two factors, memory and concentration, barely mentioned by the teachers. In addition, the students considered that there was a possible relationship between their reading habits and their listening comprehension, which was not mentioned by the teachers. On the other hand, the teacher seemed to specify the linguistic factors more sophisticatedly. The teacher would specify the factors as ability to pick up clues, complex syntactical structures, stress and intonation and interference from Chinese. On the contrary, the students just indicated that the lack of general language ability or the difficulties in English listening comprehension.

Lynch's (1997) study—a case study of an intermediate-level learner's progress

Lynch (1997) conducted an ethnographic study of a Japanese student who attended English language courses at the Institute for Applied Language Studies, the only one taking an undergraduate course in economics at the University of Edinburgh. His scores on the listening tests were relatively low in comparison with his reading and grammar scores with the other students in class. A number of possible reasons were found to explain his difficulties in listening comprehension. First, he was the youngest member in his class so that he was unwilling to engage in negotiation with his seniors. Second, he was the only undergraduate student with an economic background in his English class so that he viewed himself as insufficient in some general background knowledge. Third, he joined Course 3 in the EAP program, skipping the basic class, Course 1 and 2. Therefore, he thought he needed more time to get used to negotiate with others in English. Fourth, his lowest listening score disappointed him greatly. The perceptions of the subject had made a substantial influence on his English learning.

Goh's (2000) study—listening comprehension problems

Goh (2000) investigated the comprehension problems of second language listeners in a cognitive perspective. She identified real-time listening difficulties faced by 40 Chinese undergraduates and examined their difficulties within the three-phase model of language comprehension proposed by Anderson. (1995). The data were collected from learners' self-reports in their diaries, semi-structure interviews and immediate retrospective verbalizations. The data revealed 10 problems that occurred during the cognitive process phases of perception, parsing, and utilization. She also, made a comprehension between two groups, high ability listeners and low ability listeners. Each group consisted of eight students selected according to their grades in a post-instruction standardized proficiency test, the SLEP test of Educational Testing Service 1991. She found that listeners with highly ability and low ability both had a perception problem with recognizing words they knew. Another problem they both shared was parsing problem that they quickly forgot what they thought they had understood. In addition to these two problems, high ability listeners reported a utilization problem that they were often unable to extract the meaning out of the message even if they had understood all the words. On the other hand, low ability listeners reported another perception problem that they often did not hear the next part of a text because they spent too much time thinking about what they had just heard.


Boyle, J.P. (1984). Factors affecting listening comprehension. ELT Journal, 38 (1), 34-38

Chiang, C.S. & Dunkel, P. (1992). The effect of speech modification, prior knowledge, and listening proficiency in EFL lecture learning. TESOL Quarterly, 26(2), 345-374

Goh, C.C.M. (2000). A cognitive perspective on language learners' listening comprehension problem. System, 28(1), 55-75.

Lynch. (1997). Life in the slow lane: Observations of a limited L2 listener. System, 25 (3), 385-398

Oxford, R. (1993). Research update in L2 listening. System, 21(2), 205-211.

Rost, M. (1994). Introducing listening. London: Penguin.

Rubin, J. (1994). A review of second language listening comprehension research. Modern language Journal, 78(2), 199-217

Rubin, J. & Thompson, I. (1994) How to be a more successful language learner: Toward learning autonomy. MA: Heinle & Heinle Publishers.

Underwood, M. (1994). Teaching listening. Longman Handbooks for Language Teachers.

Yagang, F. (1993).Listening: problems and solutions. English Teaching Forum, 31 (2), 16-19

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