What Is Listening? Listening involves making sense of spoken language, normally accompanied by other sounds and visual input, with the help of our relevant prior knowledge and the context in which we are listening. Rather than thinking of listening as a single process, it is more accurate to conceive of it as a bundle of related processes – recognition of the sounds uttered by the speaker, perception of intonation patterns showing information focus, interpretation of the relevance of what is being said to the current topic and so on. Usually we are unaware of these processes in our own language; achieving
comprehension seems relatively effortless unless we encounter unhelpful conditions, such as poor acoustics or an unfamiliar accent. Under more demanding conditions, we may become more conscious of listening processes, and the same thing applies in trying to understand a second or foreign language (L2). Not the least of the problems we face as listeners is the fact that we generally get only one chance to process the (linguistic and other) input, and have to do so in real time. Only sometimes do we get the chance to ask the speaker to repeat or rephrase. Traditionally, listening was viewed as a passive process, in which our ears were
receivers into which information was poured, and all the listener had to do was passively register the message. Today we recognize that listening is an ‘active’ process, and that good listeners are just as active when listening as speakers are when speaking. Active listening is also an interpretive process. Listening used to be thought of as
the exact decoding of the message. In fact, listening involves subtle interpretation. This has long been recognized in reading, but it has taken a long time for it to be accepted in terms of listening. Its acceptance impacts directly on our notion of ‘correctness’ – it requires an acknowledgement of the inherent variation in listeners’ comprehension of what they hear, and of the importance of context and non-linguistic variables in this interpretation. Finally, it is important to note that listening is not merely an auditory version
of reading, just as speech is not simply a spoken version of writing. Among the unique features of listening are the following:
• Its usually ephemeral, one-shot nature. • The presence of a rich prosody (stress, intonation, rhythm, loudness and more), which is absent from the written language.