Are listening tests a waste of time?
What do you think of traditional listening tests? Are they:
- A useful way to check your listening abilities.
- A stressful exercise that scares you just thinking about it.
- A complete waste of time that encourages you to guess answers.
If you answered 1) then I hope to show you why I think 2) and 3) are closer to reality. Especially 3. First though, I’d like to take you back in time. To my story of exam success and real world failure. Ready to come with me?
A trip down memory lane
I grew up in the UK in the 90s and 2000s. The attitude in my country was (and still is) “why should I learn another language when everyone speaks English?”.
Even so, up to age 16 we had to learn foreign languages at school. And we all had to take a language exam. As you can imagine, not many people cared about learning French and German.
And, like many other subjects with exams, the teachers taught us to pass the test. Not to make us fall in love with the subject. Not to enlighten us. Not event to help us speak and understand another language. Just to pass a test.
Teaching to pass the test
The reading and listening tests were multiple choice. A multiple choice reading test isn’t too scary once you know some common vocabulary. And you have an idea of the verb conjugations.
But a multiple choice listening test is one of the most terrifying things you can imagine.
Why? Let me explain.
- We didn’t speak or hear much French in class.
- Our teachers spoke French with British accents.
- We didn’t learn anything about pronunciation. All I can remember is my German teacher telling me to smile when I said ‘ich’.
- When we listened to something, it was often a contrived textbook dialogue, not a real life one.
- In our family, we went on holiday to Spain with other Brits. You don’t hear much Spanish, let alone French.
- Almost nobody in the UK watches French films or TV shows in their spare time.
- Back then, listening to French outside of class was tricky.
Does some of that sound familiar?
Read on and tell me if this scenario reminds you of “developing your English listening” at school.
- We read the multiple choice or true or false questions.
- If we were lucky, we understood all the words in the questions. And had an idea of how they would sound.
- The teacher played the tape.
- We chose an answer, even if we weren’t sure.
- The teacher played the tape again to check.
- The teacher checked our answers
As you can see our “listening work” was exam listening. Not learning how to listen. And the teacher controlled everything. Is this how you learned listening too?
So what happened to me?
I was good at foreign languages. I took the time to learn the grammar and vocabulary. This gave me an advantage because:
- I understood the questions.
- I could catch enough vocabulary to make a decent conclusion about what I had heard.
Also, the exam culture was part of us. I knew that even if I wasn’t sure, I should take an educated guess, rather than leaving a gap. Guessing was good.
In this system, getting the right answer had little to do with listening ability and everything to do with:
You’ve got a 50% chance of choosing the right answer in the case of a true or false question. Or 33% in when you have a, b or c questions.
- guessing randomly or
- making an educated guess based on bits of vocabulary you either heard or misheard,
you learn nothing about how the spoken language sounds in real life.
My shock encounter with reality
The summer I finished my exams, we went to Canada and spent a week in Québec, the French-speaking province. I was looking forward to finally understanding some French in the real world.
My dreams were quickly shattered.
The only person I could understand was a guy on a boat talking to his little kid. Now, you could argue that the Québecois speak with a non-standard accent. That’s true, but had I gone on holiday to France, the situation would have been just as bad, if not worse.
- I wouldn’t have been able to follow everyday conversation.
- I wouldn’t have been able to understand answers to basic questions.
- I wouldn’t have understood announcements in airports or train stations.
- I wouldn’t have understood people chatting in cafés.
- I wouldn’t have understood TV programmes or the radio.
After 5 years at school, all I knew how to do wa:
- Listen once or twice to a short dialogue on a particular topic.
- Choose between 3 options on a piece of paper.
And yet, most English learners like you “learn” how to listen this way too.
- You learn to guess.
- You learn to listen out for key words.
- You learn that it doesn’t matter if you can’t catch everything.
- You learn to read questions about what you’re going to listen to.
And then you’re surprised when you can’t understand anyone other than your teachers or textbooks in the real world.
You can learn to understand natural, spontaneous, conversational English. But not through traditional school methods or listening exams. What you need to learn is:
- How the language really sounds. Not just the individual sounds. But how what happens when we combine them in fast speech. And what tricks natives use to make their lives easier when speaking.
- How people really talk. We take turns in conversation. We also interrupt, overlap, hesitate, change our minds and even make mistakes. We break the rules of grammar and word order. We don’t talk as if we’re reading out written words (like in many textbook dialogue).
- How to do more with less. Forget listening to long monologues. Use short sections of real speech and get into the details. Not sure how? Let me show you.
- What the experts are saying about how to get your listening ready for understanding conversations, TV shows, films and songs.
One you’ve done that you can understand more of what matters to you in real life.
- The English-speaking colleagues you’d love to be able to connect more with.
- The TV show and films you’d love to watch without subtitles.
- The group conversations you’d love to be a part of.
- The podcasts you’d love to listen to without the transcript.