Research Proposal Modern Languages Analysis English Language Essay

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A key initial factor in foreign language acquisition (L2) is the ability to listen to oral speech. In the English MFL teaching curriculum, oral speech has been considered pivotal and placed at the heart of L2 acquisition; also in my teaching experience, I have seen that both, Spanish & English speaking learners have a hard time before they recognise the content in any oral utterance or the mere understanding of slow paced oral discourse becomes discouraging in their first stages of L2 learning.

In this research proposal, I still consider listening as the first and primal skill to be developed in the Spanish and English language class, although I propose the use of computerised study of language and speech patterns to create new audio teaching material so as to generate a switch from the traditional listening exercises, graded according to grammar structures towards a speech-pattern sequenced model that I envisage will make the development of listening skills less threatening and faster.

After obtaining my Master's Degree in England in 2004, I have worked as Teacher-Trainer for native speakers of Spanish willing to become English teachers and as a Spanish language teacher for students of other languages. The task has been challenging and rewarding, though the development of listening skills remains the most difficult objective to reach.

Recently, I have studied that in England the National Curriculum for MFL and locally the Chilean Ministry of Education [2] place the Attainment Target for Listening as first place. This is not a random issue; it reflects that Listening has number one priority in L2 learning and if we relate to the history of Spanish and English language teaching, we find that until the late nineteenth century language learning was presented primarily in a written mode, with the role of descriptive grammars, bilingual dictionaries and 'problem sentences' for correct translation occupying the central role. Listening in language teaching only began to assume an important role in the late nineteenth century when linguists elaborated a psychological theory of child language acquisition and applied it to the teaching of foreign languages.

In the mid twentieth century, Bloomfield declared that 'one learns to understand and speak a language primarily by hearing and imitating native speakers' (Bloomfield 1942). This 'oral approach' was later formalised by applied linguists into what we know as the 'audio lingual method' which was and still is extensively applied. Even to this date, in the case of Chilean education, large sums of money are being spent into building language laboratories, which have unfortunately had doubtful results.

In the 1970s, applied linguists recognised that listening was the primary channel by which learners get access to L2 'data', and that it therefore serves as trigger for acquisition. Subsequent work in applied linguistics done by Long, 1965; Chaudron, 1988; Pica 1994 has defined the key role of the listening input in language acquisition, hence I can say that only since the 1980s, listening has been viewed as a primary vehicle for language learning.

As stated in the national curriculum for MFL in England and also in Chile, in the first stages of learning, L2 learners are only expected to respond to oral stimuli. According to Krashen "language acquisition occurs when comprehension of real messages occurs, and when the acquirer is not 'on the defensive..." Language acquisition does not require extensive use of conscious grammatical rules, and does not require tedious drill. It does not occur overnight, however. Real language acquisition develops slowly, and speaking skills emerge significantly later than listening skills, even when conditions are perfect. The best methods are therefore those that supply 'comprehensible input' in low anxiety situations, containing messages that students really want to hear. These methods do not force early production in the second language, but allow students to produce when they are 'ready', recognizing that improvement comes from supplying communicative and comprehensible input, and not from forcing and correcting production". (Krashen 1981)

As described in the English National Curriculum for MFL and also in the way it is stated by the Chilean Ministry of Education, Listening relates to Krashen´s view in that learning MFL is to be achieved by "acquisition" in the first stages rather than by "language learning". In non-technical terms, language acquisition can be defined as 'picking-up' a language and language learning, on the other hand, refers to the conscious knowledge of a second language, knowing the rules, being aware of them, and being able to talk about them.

In principle, the objective of the listening comprehension practise in the classroom is that students learn to function successfully in real-life listening situations. Needless to say, classroom listening is not real-life listening, and parroting listening exercises, in a language laboratory, does not help L2 learning either; it only helps reinforcing grammar schemata in the students´ minds. I believe that rewinding tapes or CDs in modern MFL classroom must be avoided gradually as some other features of language are taught overtly so as to make listening in the classroom closer to what real life is.

Modern research in L2 speech processing takes into account the phonetic quality, the prosodic patterns, the pauses, the speed of the oral input, the schemata related to real world people, places and actions. It is widely acknowledged that knowing the phonological code of the L2, its grammar and lexis will make our understanding easier, but this research in spoken language recognition also shows that each language has its own strategies for 'aural decoding', which are readily acquired by the L1 child, but only partially acquired by the L2 learner.

Based on my own experience as L2 learner and Teacher-Trainer, I believe that stress system learning of L2 (the way in which lexical stress is fixed within an utterance) plays a key role as a way of helping foster Listening. Spanish has been described by Rost as a "bounded or syllable-timed language i.e. a language where stress is located at fixed distances from the boundaries of words, whereas English has been described as an unbounded or stressed-timed language where the main stress is pulled towards an utterance's focal syllable. Bounded languages consist of binary rhythmic units (or feet) and listeners tend to hear the language in a binary fashion, as pairs of equally strong syllables. Unbounded languages have no limit on the size of a foot, and listeners tend to hear the language in clusters of syllables organised in trochaic (strong-weak) rhythm or iambic (weak-strong) rhythm. Stress-timing produces numerous linked or assimilated consonants and weakened vowels so that the pronunciation of words often seems slurred" (Rost 2002).

Finally, as I have seen in my own experience as L2 learner and as Teacher-Trainer, the listening-understanding problem described above applies to both Spanish and English L2 learners. I have also experienced that the learners' knowledge about stress is likely to cause difficulties or help in the students´ success in the spoken-word recognition and, as I mentioned above, repeating "per se" has not been and will not be a great help to students´ understanding of L2. Consequently, there is a great chance nowadays to study stress features of language through speech recognition and computerised models to generate new audio teaching materials that will overtly switch the present grammar graded audio teaching materials into stress pattern graded audio resources.