Deep Listening Listening to any language is the first exposure to that language that we experience.

Notwithstanding the importance of listening to learning a second language, this skill is often overlooked or even ignored when we assess language learning. The simple reason for this is that it is impossible to accurately measure what is going on inside a person's head.

This inability to objectively quantify an activity does not negate its existence nor its importance in learning. While listening is an intensely personal experience, there are clues that show us whether effective listening is taking place. Superficial indicators such as facial expressions and back-channeling are informal ways to monitor attention, noticing and the learning process. Rightly or wrongly though, it is common for instructors to rely upon written and oral output to determine the effectiveness of the language instruction. Tracking oral input in the form of listening remains elusive.

While it is impossible to exactly duplicate the sounds of any speech by writing the words, there are ways to indicate at least the approximate intonations and stresses that are enunciated when we speak English.

Speaking as a native-speaker or with what's often referred to as 'no accent' is less important than speaking with the appropriate cadence of English. Non-native speaker accents are unique to the speaker and as long as they don't interfere with communication should be preserved. We no longer emphasize the importance of mastering individual sounds (segmentals). Instead we focus on achieving a balance between the pronunciation of individual sounds and incorporating intonations and stress (suprasegmentals) into speech patterns. We emphasize fluency and the communicative process rather than an "accurate" pronunciation.

Content words are often stressed and function words characteristically are unstressed. Content words are nouns, main verbs, adjectives and some adverbs. Function words are structural. They include articles, prepositions, pronouns and auxiliary verbs. New information is also often stressed while given information is not. Prominence is the term used to refer to the individual syllable that is most emphasized. Rhythm, on the other hand, refers to the entire group of syllables within the sentence or phrase being spoken.

When a positive and a negative sentence are placed together and spoken, it is clear that the stressed word (or syllable) is different. Other than the presence of the auxiliary verb do and the negative not, the two written sentences below are identical. When spoken however, the stress falls differently on both sentences. The stressed syllable is underlined.

She listens to the music.
She does not listen to the music.

The placement of stress in a sentence draws attention to the element that is being emphasized. As in the example above, the negative not in the second sentence is usually stressed. This highlights the negative element of the sentence. It could be however, that new information being introduced is thought by the speaker to be important. In that case, music (as opposed to say, the conversation) might be emphasized. It is entirely possible for more than one word or syllable in a sentence to be stressed. The utterances must be evaluated in the context of the situation. By actively listening, the language learner can be aware of nuances and meaning present in speech that go beyond what is put on paper.

I recommend that the following passages be read aloud. Just as poetry is meant to be spoken, it is impossible to learn the rhythms of prose without speaking aloud. In this exercise it becomes clear that listening and speaking co-exist. Listening (input) cannot occur without speaking (output). It is very difficult for speaking to occur without simultaneously listening to what is being said (This opens the door to self-correction.). In the following exercise of course, reading is also necessary.

On the next page the stressed words (typically content words) appear to the left of the text and the prominent syllable is displayed in capital letters to indicate its emphasis. If you read the passage aloud and pay attention to the intonations indicated, the natural rhythm of the language can be heard. After reading the passages and noting the cadence, follow the Banks Share Information link and listen to the story while you read it.

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Intermediate Reading

Advanced Reading


Last Updated: January 7, 2016