Listening Comprehension: An Important Language Skill
Speaking as a part of language learning is highly overrated, and before you protest, I’m going to explain why.
Of course we all want to learn to speak the language we are learning, and to speak it well. That is probably most language learners’ number one objective. The question is just how to achieve that, and how to incorporate speaking in a program of language learning. In my view, the pressure to speak, and to speak well early on, can create frustration and tension and delay achieving genuine fluency.
To speak well, first you must listen well.
I meet a lot of people who tell me they would like to speak the language they are learning better. Some people tell me that they can understand well, but they can’t speak well. Often, however, when I probe a little further, I find that this is not really the case.
Certainly there are people who read well and who can’t speak well. I don’t recollect, however, having met many people who understand the spoken language well, who are totally comfortable listening in most situations, but who have trouble speaking.
Many people who seem to be able to speak the language in fact don’t understand when you speak to them quickly, or don’t understand a conversation that is going on around them, or don’t understand movies. In other words, these people don’t have a high level of listening comprehension.
I believe that listening comprehension, not speaking, is the most important skill in language learning. If you can achieve a high level in comprehension, all other skills will follow. The speaking will come. The grammar and correct usage will come. If you have had so much exposure to the language that you understand comfortably when the language is spoken around you by native speakers, and not just when they are talking directly to you, you will be able to develop an excellent speaking ability as soon as you get enough opportunity to use the language.
Listening provides a language companion.
Listening has a number of other advantages: it’s very easy to organize. When I’m listening I’m not just listening to the language. As I progress past the beginner stage, which consists of listening to simple stories, I move on to enjoying a novel, learning about the history of the country or following a political or historical podcast. I can have a fascinating language companion with me when I do the dishes, drive my car, exercise or go for a walk. I simply can’t arrange to have a language tutor with me when I am doing these things.
It’s not that I don’t speak, I do speak. Once I reach a certain level of comprehension, I will usually arrange online discussions with our tutors at LingQ. I can now understand a wide range of subjects and have in depth conversations. When I speak I’m made aware of my problems, where my hesitations and doubts are. I work on them in my listening and reading. If I am lucky enough I can even arrange a trip to the country where the language is spoken.
Even reading, in a way, is a form of listening because when we read in a foreign language we tend to subvocalize. In a way, we are hearing the language when we read.
I think there’s too much emphasis on speaking at the beginning, too much emphasis on speaking correctly. There’s too much pressure on people to produce the language correctly at a stage in their learning where they’re unlikely to do be able to do so because they haven’t had enough exposure.
Unrealistic expectations are created in the mind of the learner. Learners can become overly concerned about making mistakes. They may start second guessing themselves. They can become hesitant to speak. If they have solid comprehension skills, they will speak more naturally and with more confidence.
It is a bit of a tortoise and hare situation. It is not necessarily the person who is able to say things early on who will become the most fluent speaker of a language. Often, it will be the person who understands the language the best, who has the largest vocabulary and who has spent the most time listening.