When teaching beginners in English, the teacher speaks slowly, and is careful to articulate every sound. The teacher places major stress on the most important words, those carrying the most meaning. The teacher uses facial expressions, changes in voice quality and gestures to support the meaning of the spoken words. When learners listen to recordings, we try to give them the best acoustics. We close windows to keep out traffic noise, turn off noisy air conditioning units. We tell the students to keep quiet and not create noise in the classroom. When students listen to recordings at home, we encourage them to use headphones which will block out any exterior noise.
This “teacher-talk” does not match the reality which students will face in everyday life. It is reasonable that we should aim for perfect listening in the learning context, but we should also teach our students how to cope with noise in other environments.
What is noise?
It may seem unnecessary to define noise. Noise is unwanted sound. But from the students’ perspective, noise also includes several other factors. Noise may be;
1. Speech which is too fast.
2. Speech which is poorly articulated.
3. Speech in an unfamiliar accent (i.e. not in the familiar teacher’s accent).
4. Speech which is overheard (not addressed to the listener).
5. Sounds in the environment, music, traffic, weather, etc.
6. Interruptions or interference in the listening channel, linking the speaker to the listener.
Students tend to occupy noisy environments; discos, conferences, meetings, parties, sports events, air ports, railway stations, movie houses, etc. They often need to use imperfect channels for listening; mobile phones, landline phones, television, radio, etc. These imperfect channels create breaks of silence in the stream of speech or interference on the channels, may create noises which distort or cover parts of the speech.
Filling the gaps
In essence this means that listeners are receiving and interrupted or distorted stream of sounds. Understanding this stream will challenge the listeners’ knowledge of vocabulary, grammar and language structure. It is equivalent to a cloze test in listening. Noise distorts the spoken lines so they contain blank spaces ________ or dis*or+e6 words. Listeners will need to use all the strategies they have learned for decoding unknown words in order to make sense of what they hear.
All too often, there is a high density of unfamiliar words and listeners will struggle to understand the basic idea or the communicative purpose of the utterance.
An example from real life
In 1988, a Pan Am plane was destroyed by explosives carried in the baggage compartment. Following this disaster, airlines drafted a standard set of questions to be asked of every passenger with baggage, before boarding an international flight. The questions were as follows:
1. Did you pack these bags yourself?
2. Has anyone given you anything to carry in your bags or on the plane?
3. Since you packed your bags, have you left them unattended at any time?
4. Could anyone have interfered with your bags?
As often happens, when people are given a prepared script to follow, after many repetitions, the questions start to lose their meaning. The speakers start to repeat the words hurriedly, in a flat, expressionless voice.
Now, let’s consider the circumstances in which these questions are asked:
1. The passenger may not be a fluent speaker of English.
2. The passenger may be in a hurry, eager to get through to the departure lounge and board the flight.
3. The passenger may be in an emotional state, having just said goodbye to their hosts.
4. The passenger may be nervous, travelling on a plane for the first time.
5. The passenger may be travelling with young children and trying to keep them under control whilst going through this procedure.
6. The check-in area of an airport is extremely noisy environment. There is not only the noise of machinery but also public announcements and many different languages being spoken close to the passenger.
I would not like to be critical of airlines. The primary responsibility of airlines is the safety and security of their passengers. They take this responsibility carefully. I am concerned with the passenger, attempting to understand and respond to these important questions in this noisy environment.
If we look back at the way in which the questions are phrased, some expect the answer Yes, while others expect a negative response. The questions could be rephrased, so that all would require a Yes response, but if this were done it would not be a real enquiry.
Preparation for noise
As our learners develop mastery in English we should expose them to more examples of English with different forms distraction and distortion by noise.
Once, I recorded the sound heard inside a train as it travelled, I mixed this with the sound recording of a story. It started with a low rumble from the train and then gradually increased until the story was inaudible, under the noise from the train. I asked my students to say at which point in the story they started not understanding. The different scores correlated with each student’s general listening skill.
Most recordings are of a single speaker. Listening to many speakers makes comprehension more difficult. The listener needs to identify and separate the different voices, in order to follow what they are saying. This usually starts with dialogues in which the speakers respond to each other and when one character is speaking, the others are silent. Comprehension becomes more difficult when speakers start to overlap one another. This will often happen in discussion, where all speakers want their opinion to be heard. They will often talk over each other, speaking louder in order to get attention.
Another comprehension challenge is created when there are rapid changes of topic. Imagine a breakfast table conversation. The main conversation concerns the choice of a movie to watch at a local cinema. They discuss the different films which are being shown at local cinemas and try to decide which one to see. Another voice interrupts to say “Do you want milk on that? Oh and, by the way, eggs: scrambled of fried?”
Students can first learn to cope with these topic changes by seeing the scene on video. Students can see which character speaks each line. This helps them to separate the two conversations which are taking place simultaneously. This is a good preparation for enjoying situation comedies on television.
When students begin to study academic or business English, the skill of dealing with rapid changes of topic is extremely useful, when trying to follow informal academic seminars, business negotiations or planning meetings.
English is frequently used for communication, when using traditional landline telephones, mobile phones and VOI (Voice over Internet) programmes, such as Skype. In this type of communication, the participants in the conversation cannot see each other and cannot respond to facial expressions or gestures. On Skype, callers with webcams, can see each other, and this greatly enhances the quality of the communication. It is very important that students should learn to converse using these channels. Each channel has its own limitations but they allow the learner to exchange spoken messages and interact with people from all over the world.
If your class is twinned with an English class in another country, your students can chat to students from the twinned class, exchanging ideas and sharing experiences. When classes are twinned for the first time, it is usually best to choose a class at approximately the same level. In this way, the two speakers are likely to have the same command of English. When there is a big difference in English fluency, one speaker may feel linguistically inferior to the other and this creates a barrier to chat as equals.
Movies and TV programmes
In films and on television, sound recordists often use dialogue over sound or dialogue over music to create mood and atmosphere in their productions. Rapid, overlapping dialogue creates tension. This makes the films more exciting, but creates difficulties for the non-native speaker viewer. They must learn to concentrate on the stream of dialogue and not be distracted by the other sounds they hear.
In many countries, foreign cinema films are shown with the original language sound track, but with on-screen subtitles in the local language. Most of the audience do not need to listen to the spoken dialogue, so they talk to each other while the film is screening. This noise can be annoying for the viewers who can understand the original language sound track. I have often felt the need to read the subtitles, in order to check my understanding of the dialogue.
When making videos for English language learners, we insist that the camera should always be pointing at the character who speaks each line. We all lip-read much more than we imagine, particularly when our comprehension is limited. In commercial cinema and TV, directors like to point their cameras at a different character, so that we can see their reactions. This is another challenge for non-native speaker viewers.
Accents are effectively ‘noise’ for the non-native speaker listener. They are unexpected, non-standard sounds which must be decoded into meaning. Foreign accents are like a background noise which the listener must overcome. When ‘talking pictures’ were first introduced to Britain in the 1930s, British people complained that they could not understand the American accents. This was partly because sound recordings were very noisy, in the first talking pictures, but also because most British audiences had never heard American accents before.
Beginners start by understanding their teacher’s voice. For them, this is the standard and they expect all speakers of English to speak in this way. But, even at beginner stage, we need to introduce learners to different voices, female and male, young and old. German speaking learners will first begin to understand English spoken with a German accent. Hungarian learners will understand English, spoken with a Hungarian inflection because they may hear this version of English on TV and in life outside the classroom.
We should introduce learners to different varieties of British and American accents. There is considerable variation in accent from different parts of Britain and enormous differences in accent across the USA. Depending on the trading links of your nation, students may need to become accustomed to Australian English, Indian English or Nigerian English or the accent of one of the many other nations in which English is used for trade or business. When doing business or travelling, learners are likely to use English as a common language (lingua franca) when speaking with people who do not know their L1. They will have to learn to understand the English accents of people from all over the world.
We want to build up the learners’ ‘accent tolerance’ so they can understand many different English accents, both native speaker and non-native speaker English accents. Within the normal school curriculum, there may only be time to introduce learners to a few different accents.
We live in a noisy world. There are continuous noises, like the hum of an air conditioner, or intermittent noises, like thunder. Some noises are created in our environment and other noises created by the listening channels we use. Successful listening does not require the comprehension of every single word. Students of English need to learn how to cope with noise, separating meaningless noise from meaningful speech.
Nick Dawson 2014