Understanding 'Listening' and Assessing Listening Competence of Entry Level Undergraduate Students of Eight Degree Colleges Affiliated to Punjabi University, Patiala


  • Ms. Madhu Sharma Associate Professor and Research Scholar S. D. Kanya Maha Vidyalaya Mansa, Punjab,India
  • Dr. Shivani Thakar Assistant Professor and Co-Supervisor Dept. of Distance Education Punjabi University India


Listening as a Skill

This paper attempts to understand the importance of listening as a macro skill of language learning and to assess the existing level of listening competence of entry level students of eight degree colleges affiliated to Punjabi University, Patiala. Listening is fundamental to the process of communication. It is the most common communicative activity undertaken by human beings in daily life as Morley observes, "We can expect to listen twice as much as we speak, four times more than we read, and five times more than we write" (82).  An average person spends more than 50 percent time during his waking hours on listening as Rankin also observes "... of the time adults spend in communication activities, 45% is devoted to listening, only 30% to speaking, 16 % to reading, and a mere 9 % to writing" (177). It is a common activity in our day-to-day lives, but when it comes to defining listening as a skill, it is not simple. Among the myriad definitions put forward by various linguists and scholars to explain listening as a skill, the most simplified one,as given by Rociocalls it "a skill of understanding spoken language" (10). Often confused with random 'hearing' which is passive in nature, 'listening' is an activity in which a language user decodes auditory input, i.e. speech by employing lexical and grammatical control over the language in which the input is provided.ArunaKoneru defines listening as a process of"hearing with understanding, interpreting and responding"(4). Effective listening is a complex process which requires sustained attention to oral input to understand its meaning which is grasped by employing one's linguistic competence at phonetic, lexical and syntactic levels in addition to using  knowledge about the topic (particularly in an academic setting). A broader definition of listening as a process has been proposed by Rost who calls it a process of receiving what the speaker actually says (receptive orientation); constructing and representing meaning (constructive orientation); negotiating meaning with the speaker and responding (collaborative orientation); and creating meaning through involvement, imagination and empathy (transformative orientation) ( 2-4 ).This process may be further divided into sub-processes involving unique non-linguistic influences such as individual pronunciation of the speaker, riseand fall in his pitch, and background of the situation-- noisy or silent.These sub processes make listening a highly complex process, especially for the foreign/second language learners in a non-native classroom setting where they have to find out relevant information or ideas while listening to the spoken text which is generally not repeated. It is only the teacher, not the learner who decides if repetition is required or not; and if required, what should be repeated and when. Speed at which a speaker speaks also affects memory and retention of the listener to a great degree. Besides this, many listeners also encounter phonetic, semantic and syntactic limitations during the process. The nature of spoken material, its organisation, the interest that it holds for the listener, the way it is presented and the emotional/psychological state of the listener also influence the degree to which the process culminates in successful listening.  Thus listening, in the context of second/foreign language, has a character which is much more complex than what is generally perceived. For effective listening, a listener must be able to, "discriminate between sounds, and understand vocabulary and grammatical structures, interpret stress and intonation, retain what was gathered in all of the above, and interpret it within the immediate as well as the larger socio-cultural context of the utterance" (Vandergrift 168). A child gets prolonged exposure to listening in his first language and achieves spontaneous competence, not requiring rigorous formal training in vocabulary build up or formation of sentences. He develops the ability to correctly interpret an utterance in the local context. On the other hand, in the case of a second/foreign language,a listener has to be formally acquainted with various conventions and rules of grammar which govern that language. He has to proceed step by step; committing sounds of the target language to memory and learning to manipulate them to make meaningful words, both of which are complex processes. Sounds, to some extent, are fixed parameters, but words formed by combining them are endless. At the stage of formation of words also, a learner faces twofold difficulties. First, he has to deal with pronunciation and secondly, he has to understand the meaning assigned to each word as wordssymbolize something concrete or abstract. This exerts on his mind a burden of identifying and committing that particular sound, symbol and meaning to his memory for future use. In addition to difference in the number of sounds, another related factor which determines the competence level of a second language listener is the progression of decoding phonetic sounds which follows different courses in L1 and L2. Carroll also states in this regard that phonetic coding ability is vital in second/foreign language learning because a learner mustrecognise and remember the phonetic sequences represented by the morphemes, words, and intonation contours of that language after learning the identities of the new phonemes of that language (qtd. in Chan, Skehan and Gong 47). Moreover, the habit of a listener to impose the sound system of his mother tongue while listening in second language also causes ambiguity in communication. A native speaker can easily identify and differentiate between two similar sounds or words which a second language speaker may not be able to do because of his inability to understand subtle differences between the phonetic systems of two languages. The structures of words, or substitution of one sound for another may also cause ambiguity in deriving meaning for a second language listener who may prove successful or unsuccessful, depending upon his ability to memorise. Memory, focus and speed play vital roles in determining one's control over listening in second language. The manner in which these three factors influence listening performance in second language is discussed in brief as under:


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