Strength for Today and Bright Hope for Tomorrow

Volume 1:7 November 2001
Editor: M. S. Thirumalai, Ph.D.
Associate Editor: B. Mallikarjun, Ph.D.


Sam Mohanlal, Ph.D.


In the last three articles, we focused on the listening skill. Please check Applying Linguistics to the Teaching of Indian Languages - 1 , and Applying Linguistics to the Teaching of Indian Languages - 2, and Applying Linguistics to the Teaching of Indian Languages - 3 for ready reference.

In this article, we focus on the methods to develop better listening to the discourses. Briefly stated, a discourse is a block of connected sentences, in meaning and focus. There is no need that all the sentences in a discourse should be of the same structure. In fact, one may even say that a characteristic of discouse is that it has a variety of sentences. A discourse may have more than one participant. A conversation is an excellent example of a discourse. However, there is no need that the discourses should all be in the form of dialogues. While there are certain universal characteristics that are employed in all human languages, there are also language-specific characteristics of discourses in individual languages. Ultimately the students are listening to discourses in their daily life and so they should have adequate skills in listening to a block of related sentences and to derive some meaning out of these sentences. No body speaks a sentence and then waits for the listener to make something out of it, and then proceed to utter other sentences one by one. Yes, indeed, on several occasions we may use this strategy, but more often than not our discourses consist of a good number of sentences. A second language learner should understand the discourse strategies adopted in his target language. A mother tongue speaker should hone his skills in developing appropriate conversations. For this, both the second language and first language learners should develop skills to comprehend the discourse they are exposed to and flow with it.


The students may be introduced to the following strategies:

  1. i. Listen to and identify the elements that initiate a convesation.
  2. ii. Listen and identify the elements that change the topic of the conversation or direct the progress of the conversation.
  3. iii. Listen to and identify the natural ways of using the gap fillers used in the language, such as um, ah, etc.
  4. iv. Listen to and identify those elements that signify the use of fillers.
  5. v. Listen to the intonations, and infer what these signify. Stress in English, significant pauses in Indian languages, and tones in Panjabi and Sindhi, the use of juncture in the target language, etc., will help the students to comprehend the message correctly.
  6. The special characteristics of negative exposition in the target language.
  7. Use of sentence conjunctives such as but, and, because, etc.
  8. Use of sacrcasm. An affirmative sentence may give a negative meaning. It may convey some contempt even. Obviously such expressions have context attestations and also carry different intonation patterns.


While selecting discourses for training the students to listen to discourses, care must be taken that the selected discourses are real and natural situations. We should ask the native speakers to verify whether the sentences are indeed used the way we wish to present them to our students. In some ways even Hindi language teaching becomes artificial in our classes. For English we tend to create our own sentences that may be natural in the Indian English context, but not so for the native spekers of English.


The students should be told that it is not always possible to get full information at first instance from the natural speech. That is, the speed with which the natural speech is given to the second language learner may be beyond his capacity to grasp. It is hard to fully understand the dialogues at first instance in the second language. Even if the student is very attentive, he may miss a few points. We need to help the students to look for certain redundancy features. These redundancy features are found in the elements of sounds, and morphological, syntactical, and intonational formations. These features reinforce the focus of the message in a repetitive manner. For example, in a sentence such as Are you willing to join me for a cup of coffee this evening?, the word are signals that the sentence is a question. This is supported by the other features such as the rising intonation. Even if the student fails to listen to the interrogative form are, he may be guided by the rising intonation and this will signify that the question raised is to be answered with Yes, or No. The two features convey the same element of meaning. Hence, one of them is redundant. Yet for a sentence to be natural both the elements are necesssary.

The teacher should identify such redundancies in selected model sentences and ask her students to look for such features in order to understand the meaning of the sentences. These features function as cues to the structural meanings. Students can be very efficient in their listening if they can identify such features. Students may miss a part of the sentence or sentences, but the identification of redundant features helps them to arrive at the meaning generally intended. The very same technique helps also in vocabulary development.


As stated earlier, the listening skill is the basis for the development of all the other language skills. Since this is the most fundamental skill, and since most learners, whether they learn their mother tongue or learn another language, have great difficulty in developing the listening skill, we should organize our materials from the known to the unknown, and from the simple to the complex. In other words, we need a proper grading of the materials we wish to have our students exposed to.

The material for listening comprehension at an ELEMENTARY LEVEL may consist of the following:

After developing the necessary confidence in the students that they can indeed recognize and even understand the new material, we may take them to the next stage: PRIMARY AND UPPER PRIMARY LEVELS.


Remember that listening comprehension is not a skill that can be mastered once for all and then ignored while other skillsa re developed. There should be constant practice with increasingly difficult and stylistically variant materials. By its very nature, the listening comprehension increases with the growing familiarity with the vocabulary and structures of the language. Students need to develop an inclination to listen, and if they are interested in listening to a variety of materials and a variety of persons, they will soon develop excellent listening in the target language. And this inclination is also an important key to the development of other language skills.



In the next article we will explore the aspects of teaching speaking skill.

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Sam Mohanlal, Ph. D.
Central Institute of Indian Languages
Mysore 570006, INDIA