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A Reminder about Academic Listening

July 26, 2013

970687_10201130969974429_1638641005_nDuring a recent vacation in Spain, I attended a Flamenco show, where I sat next to a young American woman. We started chatting and she mentioned that she had just completed a semester abroad at a Spanish university. I asked her how it went, and she paused a moment, put her head in the hands, and then looked up and said, “It was really, really hard. I’m amazed I passed all my courses.” She was an advanced speaker of Spanish when she arrived at the university, but the linguistic challenge of academic work in another language was greater than she had predicted.

She went on to describe her classes.  She told me how she tried to listen and take notes in class, but usually only filled her notebook pages with random words. I asked if the lectures were based on a textbook that she could read in preparation, and she said no, the professors talked about different topics, and some of them didn’t use a text.  I asked if she was able to make friends with any Spanish students to help her study and review the content.  She said no, because while most students studied courses for one particular major and moved from class to class in a group, she took classes from different majors, and therefore it was hard to make friends with the other students. I asked her which class was easiest linguistically.  She replied that the content in her sociology class was easiest to understand. However, she became frustrated because, although there were 10 other Americans in the class, the professor only wanted to talk about how the concepts related to Spanish society, not to the U.S. or other countries. Of course, the American students had little to contribute to this discussion.

Implications for L2 Listening

This five-minute conversation illustrated to me a couple of principles to keep in mind to support academic listening comprehension:

  • Give students multiple ways to access the content, either before and/or after a listening. There are many ways to prepare and support a student’s understanding of the spoken lecture: background readings, lecture outlines, lecture notes, study groups, etc.
  • Provide opportunities for students to engage in the topic by making connections with their own experience, which in turn enhances comprehension.
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