Monday, October 23, 2006

Aural and Oral Skills

By Peter McKenzie-Brown

The two most basic language skills, listening and speaking, sound exactly alike when we describe them as oral and aural skills. “Aural” language, of course, refers to language as we hear it. “Oral” language is what we say.

These two words are “homophones” – words spelled differently that sound alike. There is no good reason why they should be homophones, but they are. Perhaps that accident of spelling can serve as a reminder that, while these two skills cannot be separated, they need to be developed in different ways.

Teaching Basic Skills: According to a hoary adage, “We are given two ears and one mouth so we can listen twice as much as we talk.” This is a maxim to remember when we plan our lessons – especially when we are dealing with a classroom of new learners.

Logically, listening should be the first skill you teach. In practice, however, most teachers get their students talking on the first day of class, and many make speech the major focus of their lessons. They tend to downplay the skill of listening, as do most foreign language textbooks. Yet listening is probably the more important skill involved in foreign language learning, as it certainly is in the acquisition of one’s native tongue.

Stephen Krashen and other thinkers have stressed that we acquire language best by using it in communicative ways. He was also one of the first to stress that language acquisition and language learning are not the same. Language learning (in the sense of making conscious discoveries about grammar, for instance) involves different mental processes, and those processes play distinctly secondary roles to those we use when we acquire language naturally. Language develops, he says, through exposure to and use of “comprehensible input” – target language the learner can understand and assimilate. All of this is textbook Krashen.

One reasonable conclusion from these observations is that language learners should understand what they are listening to before they begin to speak. Especially at the initial phase of language acquisition, teachers should avoid oral practice to some degree. Instead, they should have their students concentrate on comprehending what they hear. This idea parallels the experience of young children, who spend almost two years in linguistic silence before they begin to speak.

To use listening-focused learning, a communicative language teacher needs to incorporate active listening into their classes. This is done with activities in which the learners demonstrate that they understand, and receive gentle correction when they err. More advanced students must be explicitly taught to recognize reduced language forms heard in colloquial speech – as in “Whaddaya say?” Also, of course, part of aural comprehension is learning to decipher nonverbal clues.

Pure listening is rarely a good strategy for sustained language acquisition. Even if students are still in their silent period – a common phase for beginners, in which they speak very little if at all, – teachers should encourage active participation from them. This is the only way to confirm that they have understood. Participation can mean as little as a nod or a headshake, for example, or the words “yes” and “no” in English or their native language. Listening without speaking is important for foreign language learners, especially when their language learning has just begun, but at some level that listening should be participatory.

Listening activities do not always involve some other skill, but they generally do; the best classroom activities cross skill boundaries. Since the most typical pairing for a listening activity is to combine it with speech practice, a focus on listening can actually promote the effective development of speaking skills. To see how, let's turn to the activation of speech.

Focus on Conversation: Speaking activities best occur in classrooms in which learners feel comfortable and confident, free to take risks, and have plenty of opportunities to speak. While there are countless kinds of activities teachers use to develop speaking skills, they most commonly promote conversational speech. This, of course, requires the use of both listening and speaking skills.

Conversational language has four characteristics. It is interactive, in the sense that we talk back and forth in short bursts. Often, we do not even use complete sentences – “nice day, eh?” Conversation also has narrow time limits. We have to listen and respond without the luxury of thinking much about what we want to say. Conversation is also repetitive, in the sense that we tend to use a relatively small amount of vocabulary and a relatively small repertory of language structures.. And finally, of course, it is error-prone. Because of time limits, we may use the wrong word, pronounce something wrong or mangle structure. While we may hear the mistake and back up and correct ourselves, often we don’t.

Bearing in mind the earlier comments about listening, these characteristics of conversation illustrate an important difference between listening activities and speaking activities. Because listening is a learner’s primary source of comprehensible input, aural activities depend heavily on accuracy. To understand, learners must listen carefully, and their comprehension must be good. In many listening activities, we play a short recording of speech repeatedly until we think our learners understand it.

By contrast, learners shift heavily in the direction of fluency during conversation practice, which combines both listening and speaking skills. At this portion of the language class, the teacher kisses student accuracy goodbye. During speaking activities, the focus is on interactive, time-limited, repetitive and error-prone conversation. As is often the case in the language classroom, as we move from skill to skill, or from language study to language activation, we willingly compromise accuracy in the interest of fluency.

The How and Why of Language: Language originated with the two linguistic skills we have just reviewed – listening and speaking. But why? What is the purpose of language? And how did it evolve to play this role in our lives?

Whether we hear it or voice it, the purpose of language is to do the things that speech can do. In no way is it abstract. Like an axe, language is a tool with which we do things.

According to linguistic philosopher J.R. Searle, we use language to perform five kinds of “speech act”. These are commissive, declarative, directive, expressive and representative. Commissive speech commits the speaker to do something – for example, “I promise to bring it tomorrow,” or “Watch out or I will report you.” Declarations change the state of things – “I now pronounce you husband and wife,” or “You’re fired!” Directive speech gets the listener to do something – “Please come in,” “Watch out!” or “Why don’t you take your medicine?” Expressive language explains feelings and attitudes: “Those roses are beautiful,” or “I hate broccoli.” Finally, representative speech describes states or events – “Rice is an important Thai export,” or “The United States is at war again.” All of our speech seems to do one or more of these five things.

Language is such an important part of our lives that we use it to meet virtually all of our daily needs. Consider psychologist Abraham Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs, which is often illustrated as a pyramid. In Maslow’s model, we can only move to a higher level of need after we have scrambled up the lower levels.

In his view, people have five kinds of need. Our most basic needs are physiological – food and water, for example. The next level up is the need for safety and security, which we achieve, for example, by dealing with emergencies. Tier 3 involves needs for love, affection and belongingness. The need for esteem – self-respect and respect from others – comes next, but the highest level in this hierarchy is the need for self-actualization. According to Maslow, in this last level “A musician must make music, an artist must paint, and a poet must write.” The point of this discussion is that we meet virtually all those needs through speech acts.

The gradual evolution of language has profoundly affected the nature of our species. As Stephen Pinker observes,

Human practical intelligence may have evolved with language (which allows know-how to be shared at low cost) and with social cognition (which allows people to cooperate without being cheated), yielding a species that literally lives by the power of ideas.

It is impossible to overstate the value or complexity of language. It is perhaps the most fundamental feature of our lives.
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