Saturday 11 August 2012

A guest post by John Maidment

How to listen (or Lend Me Your Ears)

Not everyone learning a language other than their native tongue has the ambition to achieve native-like competence in pronunciation. For many learners the ability to make themselves understood is enough. However, I am convinced that all learners can benefit from paying attention to improving their pronunciation skills. Every little step towards perfection is a step away from potential misunderstanding. So how does one best go about this?

One problem for the learner is that they may have their work cut out simply understanding what they are hearing and can’t afford the time and effort involved in concentrating on how the speech they are hearing is pronounced. This primacy of “meaning” can be a very resistant barrier to attempts to concentrate on details of the pronunciation. One possible way of overcoming this is a technique called Analytic Listening (AL). The technique was introduced by my colleague Michael Ashby and me. We started using it in our teaching of first-year linguistics undergraduates at UCL quite a long time ago. Then it was also introduced in the undergraduate course for Speech and Language Therapists. There is no reason why the technique cannot be used for the learning of foreign languages.

Perhaps an example is the best way of explaining how AL works. One of the things that many learners of English find a problem is the occurrence of /ə/.  The use of a “full vowel” where most native speakers of English use schwa certainly makes the learner’s speech sound “foreign”. And of course English orthography is no help at all. Using AL to tackle this problem involves targeting schwa in simple utterances and asking the learner to make a simple yes/no decision about its use. A typical AL question might look something like this:

You will hear utterances of English words all of which normally begin with /ə/. You are asked to decide for each word whether the speaker produces initial /ə/ or some other vowel. Underline your choice in each case.

1          allow               begins with /ə/          begins with some other vowel
2          ago                 begins with /ə/          begins with some other vowel
3          omit                begins with /ə/          begins with some other vowel
4          offend            begins with /ə/          begins with some other vowel
5          attract             begins with /ə/          begins with some other vowel

The stimuli for a question like this can be delivered live in the classroom, on a recording, or indeed online. A typical script for this question might be:

1 əˈlaʊ, 2 æˈɡəʊ, 3 ɒˈmɪt, 4 əˈfend 5 əˈtrækt

Each item should be repeated a number of times before continuing to the next. Experience has shown that three repetitions are usually sufficient. Of course, the question can be re-used with different stimuli. Other questions focussing on /ə/ could ask about word-final, or word-medial positions, or indeed whether a word or phrase contains a /ə/ at all.

I hope you can see that the technique can be used to draw learners’ attention to all sorts of features that they might find difficult to hear, both segmental and suprasegmental. For instance, rising versus falling nuclear tones can easily be practised. Lexical stress placement too could be the target of a number of AL exercises. 

It is probably good practice to limit the amount of time spent on AL exercises to about ten minutes per session and occasionally to revisit exercises already used.

A further advantage of AL is that it furnishes a simple and objective method of testing a learner’s perceptual ability. A test of a few AL questions is pretty easy to concoct and very easy to grade. A test of this sort is, I think, a lot less stressful, for both teacher and student, than most other forms of assessment. 

This technique obviously needs a teacher, or at least a question setter. However, I think learners can also be encouraged to take charge of their own “ear-training”.  Nowadays it is very easy to find recorded speech online. If you are a learner of English, for example, and you want to get more practice at recognising /ə/, try this activity. Find a bit of speech online and listen to a short section of it, about 10 seconds should do, listen to it a number of times and try to spot the occurrence of /ə/. This is probably more fun if you do it with a friend. Don’t try to go on too long. A little practice often is probably better than a marathon once every month. And vary your target regularly. /ə/ today, /θ/ tomorrow, /w/ next Friday…

If learners can manage to hear the correct targets reliably, then they are much more likely to produce the correct sounds in their own speech.

A fuller description of the Analytic Listening technique can be found at


  1. This is another example of the role 'noticing' plays in language learning and teaching. Having students 'notice' certain feautures of the language (in this case 'pronunciation features')makes them aware of them, thus enhancing their chances of producing them in a better way in the future. Many teachers just don't devote enough time (if not at all) to pronunciation and prosody features during class due to lack of time, competence or even lack of understaing of how important these aspects are.

  2. After drawing a learner's attention to a particular sound feature produced by other speakers, the next step is to sharpen his ears when he articulates the sound(s) himself. And then learners have to automatise the newly learnt features. A long way to Tipperary ...