Why Listening (and Pronunciation) Is a Life-and-Death Matter

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 (Conceptual Article By)
 Dr Hal Swindall, Ph.D.
 Director, Global Listening Centre.
Prof  : Jinan University, Guangzhou, China.
Published On 22nd July 2017

A few days before being invited to contribute an article to the Global Listening Centre by your member Sardool Singh, my attention had been arrested by a news item about a Dutch teenager who bungee jumped to her death in Spain due to what the headlines called the “terrible English” of the bungee operator. Therefore, I immediately decided to write up the lessons I believe we can draw from this tragic event. The clearest account I can find is from an Australian news site (http://www.news.com.au/travel/travel-updates/incidents/bungee-jumper-plunged-to-her-death-due-to-instructors-poor-english/news-story/46ed8fa5279abbcbbba5a5174a384927) stating that the poor girl misheard “no jump” as “now jump.” Two bungee jump operators have been charged with gross negligence not only for their English, but also for not checking the girl’s ID to see if she was 18 (she was not), and not even having a license to operate a bungee jumping activity on the site where the incident occurred. All these details are relevant to language use, I believe.

Such an event serves as a grim reminder of the essential nature of proper pronunciation and listening, since the girl might have been partly to blame for her death by not making sure of what the operator said and checking that her rope had been secured. Pronunciation and careful listening are not just for nitpickers—they can save people’s lives! Other examples of practical misunderstandings can be found in our daily lives, not just the net. Just a few weeks ago a colleague of mine—an oral English professor and a former lawyer to boot—confused me by telling me that “they don’t teach korsiff in schools anymore.” I had to ask him several times what “korsiff” is before he explained he meant handwriting, or “cursive.” Needless to say, I was put out, and now reflect that they need to teach pronunciation and listening in schools even more, including to teachers. This incident, although not as shocking as a girl’s death, reminded me yet again of something that has troubled me throughout the over 20 years that I have taught English in East Asian universities: the cavalier way that oral English courses, which focus on speaking and listening, are taught, and the social and administrative cultures that let it continue.

Right from the beginning, I found that most oral English professors are generally lax in the way they teach pronunciation and listening, and that they are practically expected to be by their employers. At every university where I have taught, students only get one oral English class per week, which is divided into two 45- or 50-minute periods; this is standard even with English majors. Most professors teach from a textbook for the first period, then do some kind of expansion exercises of their own design during the second one. Textbooks selected by administrations are almost invariably low-quality in both physical and linguistic material, with bindings that easily crack and inane “Hi, I’m Bob” dialogs. Other exercises in them merely drill students in grammar rules they have already memorized, and provide little room for meaningful practice. Of course, good professors skip pointless exercises and can capitalize on good ones with their own ideas, and many brings some good material of their own for the second period. Too often, though, students beg to see a TED talk or Youtube video, and the professors give in, since it takes no effort on their part to show students visuals and they want good evaluations. A hundred minutes per week, furthermore, is not enough to gain ground in pronunciation and listening, notwithstanding that students can practice with each other out of class.

My main point is that the teaching of pronunciation and listening at all levels is not done carefully enough, since many or even most teachers and certainly most students lack any kind of ethic about pronouncing and listening effectively. Even at major universities where I have taught, oral English courses are handled too casually, with students regarding them almost as leisure time, and professors feeling much the same way. In ordinary Korean universities, furthermore, students refer to their mandatory freshmen oral English classes as “bird courses,” meaning they do not take them as seriously as others. Hardly any professor or administrator has ever done anything to change their minds.

This situation mainly has to do with the East Asian culture of listening, or rather half listening. If the main pedagogical problem faced by foreign teachers of East Asian students is their extreme reluctance to speak, the main practical problem in and out of the classroom is having their utterances only partially understood by students, colleagues and most people they encounter. I have my own store of stories on this subject, but the issue has been covered less anecdotally online, both on blogs (https://www.quora.com/Why-are-some-Chinese-students-who-have-learnt-English-for-years-still-poor-in-English) and academically(http://www.academia.edu/2442165/Factors_Causes_Students_Low_English_Language_Learning_A_Case_Study_in_the_National_University_of_Laos), to give just two examples. This deficit in listening and ability to speak even if willing usually blamed on an educational culture that prioritizes tests and a social culture that prioritizes conformity, and suggestions on how to overcome it abound online (http://teachinginkoreanuniversity.com/an-esl-listening-lesson-plan-template/). Whatever their cause, these problems have been exhaustively researched and analyzed without any definite solution being found; for example, this academic article(http://www.academia.edu/3178088/English_Listening_Comprehension_Problems_of_Students_from_China_Learning_English_in_Malaysia). Nevertheless, to be successful in later life students must overcome their tendency to half listen and respond vaguely with inaccurate pronunciation, which I believe is also partly due to passivity and laziness; their culture and school system cannot be condemned for everything.

As an English professor specializing in writing and literature who also teaches oral English and who wishes to improve students’ spoken and listening skills in a meaningful way, my solution is partly to revamp traditional activities like dictation, group discussion and presentation with a firmer grounding in rhetoric, including syntax and paragraph exercises. Traditionally, of course, the four skills of reading, writing, listening and speaking have been seen as interrelated, with the passive skills of reading and listening paired in opposition to the active skills of writing and speaking. Listening is considered to come first and most naturally, followed by reading, speaking and finally writing, which gets the least attention and at which students are poorest. I, however, propose an approach involving rhetorical and syntactical principles in which writing strengthens listening and speaking, chiefly through having students do one-paragraph personal statements and Powerpoint presentations of around five minutes.

More specifically, I give my speaking and listening students a syntax handout at the beginning of each semester that explains and illustrates coordination and subordination of independent and dependent clauses to form compound and complex sentences. Students have already been taught this, but I find upon giving them diagnostic exercises that they have not internalized it. After demonstrating how clauses can be linked into compound and complex sentences on the board, I usually have students come to the board to write their own in front of the class, which I then correct for all to see. East Asian students are quite shy about doing this, but sharing their attempts at sentences with each other and learning from each other’s errors breaks the ice and develops some camaraderie. Finally, I assign homework of five compound and five complex sentences, and draw a picture of how their paper should look on the board so that they can use a uniform format. In grading, I give each sentence a maximum of five possible points, and take a point off for every syntactical, orthographic or punctuation error. I repeat this exercise as many times as possible during the semester, and find that with advanced students it improves their sentence-writing abilities quite sharply.

With this foundation laid, I explain to the students that understanding sentence structure is vital to understanding written and spoken content, besides giving them conscious control over their spoken discourses. Then I lead them to paragraph composition, which they have also already basically learned but not mastered. Drilling them in the topic sentence, support sentences and concluding sentence elements of a paragraph, and assigning them a paragraph-length personal statement on any topic they care about. In tandem with paragraph composition I teach presentation skills, at which East Asian students are notoriously handicapped, especially making eye contact with the audience and gesturing. By mid-semester, however, I have built up enough confidence that good-level students can make competent presentations without Powerpoint, which I reserve for the end of the semester.

These activities have the effect of giving students practice pronouncing and listening with each other in a more demanding context that mere pair or group discussion work, which is the form oral English classes typically take. They can and should be done along with traditional dictation practice, the most traditional form of pronunciation and listening comprehension exercises. However, many researchers have indicated that East Asian students are uncomfortable with learning materials they cannot read or at least see; being lectured without a visual component causes them anxiety, and this relates to their general learning style and social structure, with its wide power differential and formal educational philosophy (http://romielittrellpubs.homestead.com/files/littrell_eu_asean_crossculturallearningstyles.pdf). Therefore, I follow up dictation exercises with a typed transcript of the text dictated so that students can see it, which also helps them understand their errors—and there are many of those, even with high-level students who score well on standardized tests like the university entrance exam.

Yet the listening culture of China is different; somehow people seem to communicate, or not communicate, or miscommunicate, one a totally different plane from Westerners, which also has listening skills problems (http://www.colorado.edu/conflict/peace/problem/poorlist.htm). One former student of mine whom I have known for over twenty years insists that Chinese listen to each other just as well as Westerners, and that there is no real difference except that Chinese are less open with strangers, being basically shy. Then the Chinese writer Xie Hong (http://lithub.com/on-xie-hong-master-of-chinese-unreality/) claims that Chinese used to not be interested in communication and listening, but that today they are. Xie’s explanation is that Chinese focus on their own opinions and want to appear authoritative, so they express themselves loudly without heeding what others say; he has even written a Chinese article about it (http://sztqb.sznews.com/m/article.htm?url=http://sztqb.sznews.com/html/2015-11/17/content_3389596.htm). Having been in and out of China for a long time, I can attest to an improvement in Chinese listening abilities in this century. Still, the large number of homophones in spoken Mandarin, even though they are distinguished by the four tones (level, rising, falling-rising and falling) makes mutual understanding challenging for Chinese. This could be a major reason why Chinese prefer to see things in written characters.

I will conclude where I began, with the failure to pronounce and listen accurately that caused a girl’s demise. It is a testament to what has become of careful communication in the digital age, when everyone is distracted by devices. The bungee operator’s negligence in not checking the girl’s ID and securing her rope are, I think, correlative with his poor pronunciation of “no” so that the girl thought he said “now.” Likewise, the girl, no doubt in an excited state, was probably too eager to jump and did not listen precisely. The only way we as proponents of accurate listening can prevent more tragedies like this is to ensure higher standards of listening education, starting in schools. Reinforcing listening and speaking skills with syntax and paragraph practice is one way to accomplish this, and these combined skills can lay a foundation for effective listening in later life.[/mpc_textblock]

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