Why are academic listening skills so important?
This is the first of four lessons about Academic Listening Skills. To complete this course, read each lesson carefully and then unlock and complete our materials to check your understanding.
– Introduce the concept of academic listening skills
– Discuss the three variables of academic listening
– Briefly outline how listening skills can be improved
It may at first seem quite obvious to a student why listening skills are important. Without such skills, a person wouldn’t be able to understand what someone else was saying and therefore couldn’t respond accordingly or acquire the knowledge being transmitted. However, what may not be as obvious (or at least properly anticipated by some students) is the true challenge of listening in an academic context. It’s the aim of this lesson to highlight why listening can be an area of particular difficulty in an all-English academic setting – particularly for students who are inexperienced or lacking in preparation.
First, lets consider a common scenario for non-native English academic students. Imagine a student who has been learning English at high school every week with the assistance of a teacher who speaks the local language. It’s possible that this student might have a reasonable reading and writing ability, and may additionally be familiar with the various English-curriculum audio recordings that so often accompany high-school classes. Perhaps also, this imaginary student might have had private lessons and is somewhat competent in a controlled one-to-one speaking and listening environment. However, now place that student in a lengthy lecture in which the lecturer is fluently detailing a complex and subject-specific theory, and it’s possible that this student may be feeling somewhat overwhelmed. Because lectures can be intensive and sometimes exhausting for the non-native listener, we’ve included some key variables the learner should watch out for below.
1. The Lecturer
It’s a common fact of higher education that tutors and professors are a multi-cultural collection of academics. Although lecturers should all be competent and proficient in English at an English-medium university (perhaps with many of them being native speakers), these lecturers will not necessarily speak with an accent that’s familiar, nor at a pace that’s considerate of language learners. Unlike a language tutor who’s specialised in grading and slowing down their language, university professors may not have the expertise or time to customise their teaching for students who are lacking experience in this environment. As a result, non-native language learners must very quickly develop the skills necessary to understand not only what their lecturers and tutors are saying, but to also understand differences in how the language is being pronounced and what speed it’s being delivered at.
2. The Subject-Specific Context
In addition to who is speaking, what’s being described in the lecture can also be one of the challenges for students new to an all-English academic setting. To fully understand a lecture will not only require a wide knowledge of general English vocabulary, but also an increasingly expert knowledge of the subject-specific vocabulary needed for that particular topic. Every student has to learn many new words throughout higher education; however, for non-native speakers of English, such subject-specific items can come sandwiched between other more general academic language which perhaps adds to the difficulty of grasping the meaning of such words. Combine such language with a fluent speaker who possesses an unfamiliar accent, and the complexity of the situation emerges.
3. The Need to Multitask
Finally, it’s likely that while a lecturer or guest speaker is presenting that a student will also have a number of other materials to interact with. There may be a PowerPoint presentation for instance that can either assist or potentially distract the listener, and there may also be worksheets or handouts which have to be completed or followed. There could also be an expectation to participate in a discussion, and therefore the listener may also be considering what their point of view on a topic is or anticipating what questions they may have to answer. Such a student may also be wondering how the information may assist with the learning of other topics in that subject, or perhaps how it links to an assignment that’s shortly due. Ultimately, listening doesn’t occur in a monotasked context, and so a student will be required to develop the skills necessary to listen as well as simultaneously perform a variety of other tasks.
Of course achieving this, like with all other academic skills, requires patience and practice. Now that you’ve considered the overall challenges of listening in an academic context, the next step to becoming a successful listener is to think about the specific skills you’ll need to practice, which are covered in Lesson 2.
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