Listening is the ability to identify and understand what others are saying. This involves understanding a speaker’s accent or pronunciation, his grammar and his vocabulary, and grasping his meaning (Howatt and Dakin 1974). An able listener is capable of doing these four things simultaneously. Listening places a far greater load on the memory because the listeners cannot go back to the previous text in order to check or revise comprehension.
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According to Rivers (1968) there are two basic levels while learning to listen, they are the levels of recognition and selection and the levels of selection. When the learners begin to hear a second language, they hear only meaningless sounds but when a person is continuously exposed to a language, he/she may begin to recognise elements and patterns of the phonological, syntactic and semantic codes of the language automatically.
Listening comprehension attained the signpost of a wide range of theories of second language acquisition (SLA) and classroom teaching, which focus on the beginning levels of second language proficiency.
Further, in L2 teaching classrooms, not only English but also other L2 learning situations, the centrality of listening comprehension in L2 learning process has been exceptionally established with appropriate theories and practices. For e.g., Rost (1994) summarizes the importance of listening comprehension in L2 learning process as follows:
Listening is vital in the language classroom because it provides input for the learner. Without understanding input at the right level, any learning simply cannot begin.
Spoken language provides a means interaction for the learner. Because learners must interact to achieve understanding, access to the speakers of the language is essential. Moreover, learners’ failure to understand the language they hear is an impetus, not an obstacle, to interaction and learning.
Authentic spoken language presents a challenge for the learner to attempt to understand the language as native speakers actually use it.
Listening exercises provide teachers with a means for drawing learners’ attention to new forms (vocabulary, grammar, new interaction patterns) in the language.
(Rost, 1994. 141)
Place of Listening Skills in Second Language Acquisition
In the sixties, behaviourists influenced language teaching. Language learning was understood as basically habit formation. The audio-lingual and audio-visual teaching methods were based on the above view. Moreover, in this approach, teaching of listening comprehension in second language profession was viewed as only mastering discrete skills and the main focus was on teaching and testing those discrete skills; listening was considered a passive skill and the learner a passive receiver of information.
In the early 70’s, listening comprehension was given importance in learning a language. For e.g. in Total Physical Response (TPR) approach and in The Natural approach this trend can be seen. Krashen and Terrell (1983) brought awareness about the role listening as an instrument for understanding and insisted that listening skills play an important role in facilitating language learning. Thus, listening has emerged as a significant component in the process of second language acquisition (Feyten, 1991). It is believed that listening helps to internalize the language system and thereby acquire language. In other words, by listening to a language a learner not only will learn to comprehend listening inputs but also will be able to improve his/her reading, writing and speaking skills.
Listening Comprehension Process
Listening comprehension has been realized as high-level active process and the listener has an important role by way of interacting with the text interpreting the text based on several other factors such as his/her background knowledge, the context and the purpose of listening. This is evident from some of the recent definitions of listening comprehension.
“Listening comprehension is an inferential process in which the listener constructs meaning through this interaction and the interpretation of the text is guided and influenced by the context of situation listener’s purpose for listening (Buck, 1997. 28).
Lynch & Mendelsohn, 2002. 193) defines listening, ” listening involves making sense of spoken language, normally accompanied by other sounds and visual input, with the help of our (listeners’) relevant prior knowledge and the context in which we (listeners) are listening.”
Rost (2005. 503) opines, listening refers to a complex cognitive process that allows a person to understand spoken language.
From the above definitions, one may conclude that, listening comprehension is not a simple process and the processes cannot be overtly observed. Buck (1997) claims that, listening comprehension is an “inferential process” and through that operation listeners take the responsibility of ‘constructing meaning’. Listeners interact with the text, which is supported by the context. And listener’s purpose also plays a key role in making meaning. According to Lynch and Mendelson (2002) , listening comprehension a bundle of related processes such as recognition of sounds uttered by the speaker, perception of intonation patterns, interpretation of the relevance of what is being said to the current topic and so on. Rost (2005) precisely says that, listening comprehension is a ‘complex process’ and this process is carried out by the listener to construct meaning of ‘spoken language (P. 503).
The Process of Encoding and Decoding
An act of communication requires encodes- the speaker and decoder- the listener. The speaker encodes the concept or message through a set of code. The listener decodes the concept or message from the set of code used by the speaker. That is, on the one hand, the act of encoding involves cheering the sounds into words, words into sentences, sentences into discourses. On the other hand, the act of decoding involves identifying the sounds, understanding the utterances and their meanings, and recognizing the prosodic features like tone, intonation, pitch, stress etc. used by the speaker.
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Learner factors also play an important role in L2 learning process in general and specifically listening comprehension. In a very recent study, Kumaravadivelu (2006) presents a continuum to demonstrate different learner factors. He names it “intake factors continuum’ and interprets using acronym, INTAKE: individual factors, Negotiation factors, Tactical factors, Affective factors, Knowledge factors, and Environmental factors. He categorizes learner factors into two: learner internal factors and learner external factors.
Learner internal Intake factors continuum
Factors Individual ——– Age, anxiety
Affective ——– Attitude, motivation
Tactical ——– Learning strategies
Knowledge ——– Language knowledge
Negotiation ——– Interaction, interpretation
Environmental ——— Social context
(Kumaravadivelu, 2006. 31)
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