Listening Comprehension


People hearing without listening. Paul Simon

We have all kinds of ears and change several pairs throughout the day. We have live ears and digital ears, dialogic ears and monologic ears, scholarly ears and funny ears, linguistic ears and musical ears. Our ears help us understand diverse utterances in multiple languages, music from all over the world, direct and mediated statements, political speeches, stand-up comedy, podcasts, and press talks. We are probably hearing more today, and with greater variety, than any previous generation. Therefore, it is safe to assume that listening plays a part in the acceleration of our lives by speeding up both the production and reception of information, often without pausing to reflect on what we receive.

Moreover, today one can easily isolate oneself communicatively, closing the door to the outside world and entering the virtual world of the digital listener. We are witnessing a technologically-driven rise in the sensory load of hearing and thus in the communicative importance of listening comprehension. Listening needs to be learned because hearing is not the same as understanding, and understanding is not the same as comprehending. What is said is not always exactly what is meant. Knowing what is heard is different from understanding what it means.

We can routinely determine what we will listen to regardless of our location or circumstances: someone exercises while listening to a podcast, another writes while listening to folk-rock, another sits on a train while repeating a lesson, and someone walks down the street while reacting to the latest work problem. Few times do we just listen. In typical listening moments, hearing is on, receiving sounds, but one may not fully perceive them; they may serve as a backdrop to another event, an auditory distraction, or aural entertainment. Try asking teenagers how many have headphones with them - how many don't have headphones at all?

Hearing is the sense by which we begin to perceive the world. It opens first, even before birth, and usually closes last when we pass from life. It is a key means of learning language - thanks to hearing, we can listen to the speech of others, imitate it audibly, learn its meanings, and then express them. Children speak in accordance with most grammatical rules before entering school; for example, they can correctly inflect familiar words without being able to spell them. They have learned grammar through their ears. Thus, the development of speech is primarily due to hearing. Hearing provides stimuli that develop speech in all its dimensions and expressive qualities. Of all the senses, hearing most significantly determines the initial and later development of speech, including its written form. When we speak of hearing, we primarily think of understanding speech, less of the physical transmission or physiological processing of the speech signal.

The ambition to understand speech requires a special setting. Such listening should be concentrated and continuous, a state of calm where the focus of attention is maintained by perceiving the sounds of speech. Speech flows: words emerge from beneath the sound surface only to quickly disappear. Words appear and quickly disappear, but meanings remain in short-term memory, forming temporary cognitive constructions. The longer the speech continues, the clearer and more detailed the received content becomes. This process is similar to reading: both involve the reception of information through language. Listening and reading are key to most human-to-human communication experiences and, nowadays, to interactions with artificial intelligence. We understand simple statements in a literary heroine's speech as well as in a spouse's repartee, in a computer game hero's monologue, and in artificial intelligence chatter.

Understanding spoken language is not easy, even though most of us can hear. It is unwise to assume that everyone understands spoken utterances to the same extent. Detecting manipulation in a telephone conversation is a significant cognitive feat based on listening. Simply reproducing the content of overheard speech can be seen as cognitively empty if it serves only as an exclusive learning process. Functional listening involves knowing the goal of listening, understanding what to find out, and following specific parts of the heard content to discuss later. For example, before listening to a literary text or a radio play, delineate areas of observation: some pupils focus on characters, others on relationships, plot development, the nature of conflicts, situational solutions, and so on. Such listening is purposeful and directed, focusing only on specific sequences from a certain perspective.

Thus, we distinguish between hearing as a biologically conditioned disposition and listening comprehension as its cognitive counterpart. Listening comprehension competence is the cognitive development of thinking through the physical processing of sound content. The disposition is conditioned by a physiological given (hearing), while competence is the degree of its cognitive refinement. Listening to speech in a known language does not mean immediately and fully understanding what is meant.

In summary, listening comprehension can be explained as a social competence that facilitates interpersonal contacts in private and public life. Developed listening abilities foster trust and cooperation among people. More important than hearing itself is the cognitive process based on auditory perceptions: what we remember, what we think about, what we react to, or what we ignore. Hearing is an important sensory medium of speech, influencing how we record, recognize, and think about things. Listening is an auditory way of observing how things are, finding out how things could or should be.

We don't listen to everything the same way or for the same reasons. Teaching tweens and teens to listen patiently and intently is a big responsibility, especially when many of us don't listen easily. Listening, though it requires silence, is not a passive process. It is a living activity, and its development creates the preconditions for successful contact with people, the world, and society. We change our "ears" throughout the day, deciding what to perceive and from whom. We are relatively free in this, perhaps freer than ever. Listening with understanding is a particular cognitive action with a certain responsibility attached - in relations to other people, to a shared past and future.

Understanding another person's speech is not always easy. In listening, we share both the other person's voice and the meanings best understood in particular circumstances. In the classroom, teachers help young people understand what is said and what is meant. It won't be easy or immediate, but listening must not be forgotten. Otherwise, two opposite monologues might be regarded as a dialogue, and ears used mainly to shut out the world.

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Karel Dvořák PhD. – DaCoSiDe expert tasked with the creation of A2/B1-level methodological guidelines and certification tools


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