Way back, in my incarnation as an EFL teacher, we talked a lot about the four language skills – reading, writing, speaking and listening.
The skills were usually grouped in pairs. Either written versus oral (reading and writing versus speaking and listening) or active (speaking and writing) versus passive (reading and listening).
In fact, particularly when we’re talking about English, using the word “passive” to describe listening is inaccurate. English is a stress-timed language where the most important words – those that contain new or important information – are emphasised. The other words often disappear into a blur of unstressed sounds, including the schwa, which means the listener is presented with a kind of fill-in-the-blanks puzzle to deduce the speaker’s meaning.
This last week I’ve been busy with cvs – a translation for a client, assisting a friend with an on-line application, and general advice and encouragement for another friend who just got “let go” from his job. All of them need to include information about their language skills. And none of them mention one of the basics: there is no mention anywhere of listening.
The document I was translating included the phrase inglés: nivel medio-alto (hablado, leído, escrito). OK. She can speak, read and write the language – though not well enough to draft her own cv in it – but what happens when somone talks to her in English?
The on-line application again only offers the three skills – reading, writing and speaking. You can claim different levels for different skills (logical – I can read French well enough, but wouldn’t know where to begin to construct a written sentence) but there’s nowhere you can say how good your listening is.
So, we appear to be mainly concerned that we can communicate our own ideas – that we are skilled at speaking and writing. Maybe it matters, too, whether we can read, but that’s where we stop. No one seems to care about listening skills.
In fact, as far back as 1990, Fisher claimed, “There is a tendency for [children] to interpret only what the words say, not what they mean”, so I’m not sure how useful our reading skills are, even if we think they are good.
If we don’t really comprehend what we read, and we don’t even mention listening as a skill, what chance is there that we will understand – and maybe tolerate – other points of view? I do think perhaps we need to give more credit to listening – in foreign languages and in our own.