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With nearly 1,5 billion people learning a second language and over 1 billion studying English globally, the majority of students often say that speaking and listening are the most challenging skills in learning a new language.
Moreover, according to some sources (Hedge 2000), these two skills are the most frequently used skills in everyday life.
Compare the numbers: in daily communication, writing takes up 9% of the time, reading — 16%, speaking — 30%, and listening — 45%, which illustrates the special place of speaking and listening in language acquisition.
It is true that mastering them requires a great deal of hands-on practice, but would pure exposure actually suffice? What other factors should be taken into account?
Have you ever worked with students who had achieved their level of speaking and listening mainly by being exposed to the language? What were the outcomes?
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In my experience as an EFL and ESOL teacher, the results varied a lot. There were students with excellent listening but difficulties in speaking, there were those who could easily hold a conversation, even with lexical and grammatical inaccuracies, and there were others who showed very little progress even after living in an English-speaking environment for a while.
So is there a universal way to teach listening and speaking?
On the one hand, the more we are exposed to the target language, the easier it gets. There is a considerable amount of evidence that such an approach works effectively.
For example, learners who study a foreign language in the native environment often pick up new expressions and grammar structures and boost their fluency.
Take a learner who only studies the language in class and one who constantly does additional speaking and listening practice outside the classroom: it is hard to argue that the former will make progress and become a confident speaker sooner.
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On the other hand, there are also examples of learners who have been living in a different language environment for years and even decades, yet they are still struggling with expressing themselves and listening comprehension despite being exposed to the other language practically all the time.
So, how effective can exposure be for improving students' listening and speaking skills?
According to the Cambridge Dictionary, exposure stands for the fact of experiencing something or being affected by it because of being in a particular situation or place.
However, it is pretty obvious that the level of experience and types of the situations may be different and therefore have to be taken into account.
For instance, Chandrasegaran (1979), who conducted research on Malay English learners, claims that students who were studying in the city had better results than students from the rural area.
While explanation seems to be predictable, the scientist “eliminates the factor of quality of teaching in rural schools as being lower because government schools follow the same curriculum and the teachers have similar qualifications” and states that “the principal hypothesis here is that learners' relative proficiency in their two languages is in some sense a function of the amount of language to which they are exposed in those languages”.
Another interesting case was presented by Steinberg (1982) who proves that, contrary to popular belief, overhearing conversations, parts of television programmes still can’t be enough to give an English learner the highest level of proficiency.
Also, Ghaderpanahi's (2012) study regarding using films alone as a form of language exposure, showed that watching is neither more effective than communicative activities, nor as effective as speaking, which requires more learner participation and interaction.
To sum up, there are different levels of exposure which rarely facilitate all the skills at the same time. And while exposure certainly gives some outstanding results, the form of exposure still matters in terms of the pace of the improvement of certain skills.
When it comes to teaching speaking and listening skills in ESOL, it is also crucial to consider the learner's proficiency level.
Learners at a lower level of proficiency may face challenges in improving these skills through pure exposure alone. They may struggle to comprehend and engage in meaningful conversations without additional support and guidance.
In contrast, learners with higher proficiency levels and additional learning experiences may find it easier to enhance their speaking and listening skills through exposure to the target language.
They are more likely to grasp nuances, engage in complex interactions, and develop a deeper understanding of the language due to their rich academic background and learning experience.
Yet, even high-level ESL learners often require additional support when improving their listening and speaking skills. Therefore, it is reasonable to state that several factors play an important role in developing speaking and listening skills.
By considering these factors, learners can enhance their learning experience and boost their progress.
Merely being exposed to a language passively is not sufficient for effective language acquisition. Learners need to actively engage with the language through meaningful interactions, which include meaningful conversations and active listening to graded and authentic texts.
In addition to exposure and practice, learners can greatly benefit from familiarizing themselves with various listening and speaking strategies. These strategies can be particularly helpful for learners facing learning difficulties or language barriers.
Listening strategies, such as active listening, note-taking, and predicting content, and speaking strategies, including paraphrasing and using gestures, can significantly facilitate skill acquisition.
Naturally, some learners with strong motivation and self-discipline are able to master listening and speaking on their own, but undoubtedly, a more structured approach and feedback provided by qualified teachers, educational centers and language learning resources are invaluable.
Every learner is individual. There is no universal way which would guarantee the result at a certain time, which is why self-awareness is one of the crucial factors in improving speaking and listening.
Learners should be able to reflect on their strengths and weaknesses in order to consciously address their specific needs.
Surely, by being constantly surrounded by the target language, we will inevitably pick up certain expressions and grammar. However, it is our inner motivation that serves as the main catalyst to the successful language acquisition.
Low motivation can be a serious obstacle even for the most naturally gifted learner!
A level of commitment the student is ready for matters a lot too. It is essential to explain that there are no short ways or “hacks” that will help them to learn a language in a week.
The student should be ready for long hours of practice and realistic goals is a never-ending motivation source.
As for the question, how much does it take to learn a language, here are some numbers for reference:
|Level of English (CEFR)||Number of hours of instruction|
|Zero to A1||70 hours|
|A1 to A2||150 hours|
|A2 to B1||300 hours|
|B1 to B2||200 hours|
|B2 to C1||200 hours|
|C1 to C2||200 hours|
While pure exposure can indeed have a significant impact on learners' pronunciation in some instances, it is important to acknowledge that certain subtleties may be overlooked or unintentionally disregarded without proper guidance or due to phonetic disparities between English and the learner's native language.
Cultural awareness may be developed greatly if learners are exposed to the new cultural context and constantly interact with the local community.
Yet, similarly to the previous point, they may overlook or ignore certain nuances, non-verbal cues, social norms and expectations unless they are pointed out by a knowledgeable mentor.
It is well-known that each learner’s learning journey is different even in the same circumstances. If one person thrives in the classroom but can barely say a word in a real-life situation, another one can demonstrate poor academic performance, however, interact in a language community with ease.
And it is normal in both cases.
Success in developing speaking and listening also depends on personal preferences and natural language learning abilities. The best we can do as ESL teachers is to identify learners’ needs and find an approach that works best for each.
How to develop listening skills
In conclusion, while exposure to a language is undeniably beneficial, it is not the factor in teaching listening and speaking skills.
Active engagement, familiarizing with strategies, targeted practice, effective instruction, personal motivation, purposeful practice of pronunciation, and cultural awareness — all of these contribute to the overall language acquisition process.
By combining these elements, learners can maximize their potential and achieve greater proficiency in listening and speaking a new language.