Thoughts on How to Listen

I’m always thinking about how to communicate ongoing listening practice to ESL speakers.

I find they (or you, if you’re an ESL speaker reading this) frequently focus on how, exactly, to pronounce a consonant or vowel, or how on earth to remember which syllable to stress in any word. I think learning how to slow down to listen is just as, if not more, important. “Slowing down to listen“: not “slowing down to speak.” And more importantly, to “listen with attention” to speakers of English as a native language. Conversing with other speakers of ESL, especially those with the same native language, habitual errors remain ingrained.

Very often, ESL speakers listening to each other, even if their native languages are different, understand each other perfectly well. It’s we native English speakers who seem not to “get it.” We’re easily thrown when we don’t hear recognizable patterns.

While it’s important to listen to the radio, the internet, to films, etc., I’m also a big fan of discreetly “eavesdropping” on anglophones speaking to each other. Heck, these days, with people having loud conversations on their cellphones, we don’t even need to “eavesdrop.”  But don’t listen so much to what they’re saying. Listen to how they’re saying it. Listen carefully to the form, not the content, of what’s being said when you’re not engaged in the conversation.

Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not telling anyone to be rude. I’m saying look for opportunities to detach – slow down – and listen in a different way. Practising correct pronunciation is really useful and important, of course. But listening calmly and closely, you suddenly become aware of different sounds in the words that you’ve been using regularly. You begin to hear in a new way.

Out of nowhere, you become conscious of the syllable stress in a particular word that you were pronouncing differently. A single consonant or vowel that you could never distinguish before suddenly pops out. Or you suddenly realize that those crazy reductions, like “gotta,” “hafta,” “dunno,” aren’t just for informal speech. Hey, that’s the way we native speakers actually speak. That awareness of something “different” creates a little shift in the body and the brain that speeds up the rate of change in your own pronunciation. You open up to new sounds and rhythms in the music of English. It’s especially hard for advanced speakers. Habitual patterns are sooo hard to break, but simple awareness can make all the difference.

That’s something I often emphasize in my videos the Canadian Pronunciation Coach YouTube Channel.

If you have any thoughts on the subject, I’d love to hear from you.


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