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On listening and English language education in Bangladesh

In Bangladesh, when we consider the competence in the English language, we primarily mean the reading and writing competence in English. However, we often forget that the language at first is verbal
S M Akramul Kabir
On listening and English language education in Bangladesh

Language experts broadly divided language proficiency into four skills: listening, speaking, reading, and writing. They now recognise ‘listening’ as fine art that can transform the quality of our interpersonal communication and relationships in our everyday life.

Even I should say that ‘listening’ is also a fine art to improve overall competence in a language. Therefore, as language learning is an ongoing process throughout one’s life, it is important to inculcate the fine art of listening. There is no denying that listening is an active skill for language learning. However, in language learning, many of us think that L2 listening develops automatically only by listening to that target language. However, researchers argue that it is not as simple as we assume. Steven Brown, in Listening Myths, debunks several myths of listening. One of those debunked myths is: “listening is the by-product of speaking practice.” Verbal communication is reciprocal; therefore, speaking is actually the result of listening. Of course, both listening and speaking are symbiotic. Both listening and speaking work in a complex covenant to help each other; however, sometimes work in isolation to complement each other for oral proficiency in a language.

In an academic context, speaking, reading and writing are subservient to listening. Listening comprehension is a vital skill in all areas of academic life. Listening is thinking. The thinking is for making oral discourse, whether only to reply to the speaker or comprehend him or her to understand his or her inner intention of the discourse. Effective listening is required for students to understand formal lectures and tutorials, to take lecture notes, to deliver an oral presentation as well as to interact with other students in small groups, in project work, and in social situations.

Researchers have already claimed that a disconnection between phono-orthographic representations of the same word often creates trouble for the listeners. Again, often a considerable phonological modification of the spoken words (such as assimilation, elision, vowel reduction) requires much knowledge of the phonology of the language. Nonetheless, unlike written texts, spoken texts must be processed in real-time and listeners cannot control the timing of speech delivery. So, a listener must be fast and efficient to be with the speaker’s pace of delivery for better comprehension.

In this regard, I would like to share my anecdotes. Back in 2001 in Aligarh, I was pursuing my graduation. Graduate Programsare mainly taught in English at Aligarh Muslim University although some degrees are taught in other languages. Being a student of Bangla-medium background, Ihad hardly any oral competence in English. I had to have much trouble with the verbal language barrier, especially, while listening closely. I faced problems with comprehension and note-taking during lectures. It is claimed that when students listen to their teachers in class actively, they increase the chances of learning more. So, the constant frustration of not getting the lectures sapped my confidence as well as stimulation.

At that time, I had a fairly good range of vocabulary with sufficient grammatical knowledge that made me a reasonably good reader and writer. However, I discovered no connection between knowing vocabularies in reading and perceiving those vocabularies in listening. So, to connect the knowledge of one’s own vocabulary to both reading and listening, one has to hone the understanding of the phone-grapheme relationship. The range of linguistic factors that contributed to my listening difficulties in comprehending lectures was mainly for the lack of knowledge about phono-orthographic knowledge, e.g. the ability to distinguish homophones, unit boundaries, false starts and hesitations, stress and intonation.

The phoneme-grapheme relationship always helps a learner to identify and understand the word simultaneously in both oral and written forms. For example, I could not perceive many common words while listening to them in lectures although I knew them in written form (such as debt, education, canal, sugar, Wednesday, Tuesday, procedure, comfortable, plumber, vehicle, etc.). I firmly believe that it happened to me only because of the lack of exposure to authentic listening inputs of the English language.

In Bangladesh, when we consider the competence in the English language, we primarily mean the reading and writing competence in English. However, we often forget that the language at first is verbal, so the spoken language is in the first place. If a person is asked whether s/he knows English, it actually indicates the ability to communicate in English, not the ability of the written form of English. That is why the written language is the record of spoken language, and the written language is secondary when the question is for communication. Another reason for this perception is that almost everyone needs to communicate verbally in this world but not everyone may not be required to write even a sentence in his or her life. In other words, listening is the communicative ability of understanding and absorbing the verbal information, and speaking is the communicative ability of verbal expression and transmitting the information. The speaking ability can be cultivated and improved on the basis of listening. Listening is the key to speaking, and beyond that, reading and writing. The presence of auditory input in reading-while-listening conditions allows learners to solidify their reading skill for language learning. Furthermore, being an active listener in a conversation can immensely improve someone’s writing skill! Listening actively to a conversation can trigger ideas for one’s own writing, can help someone solve problems with his/her writing dilemmas, and gather knowledge to make his/her writing more interesting. Therefore, fluency in listening can be a building block for overall language learning.

As far as the English language education is concerned, the English language learners in Bangladesh are not equally exposed to both oral and orthographic skills of the language. This is one of the main reasons for the students to be weak in oral skills. In particular, the secondary and higher secondary students mainly from Bangla-medium and Madrasa background do not get aural inputs frequently for English language proficiency. However, it is claimed by several language researchers that listening skill precedes the other three skills (speaking, reading and writing) in improving overall language proficiency. Listening is a great source of language nutrition for language learners. It is also among the first language skills that learners need to acquire before they learn how to read/speak.

Our current English language teaching and learning tend to start with words and grammar by explaining in Bangla, which leads to students neither understand nor speak the English language well. The beginning of English language learning with words and grammar assumably indicates that students’ reading and writing skills should be improved. However, unfortunately, after continuous learning of English for twelve years, a significant number of students remain with a low level of English proficiency. This claim becomes evident when one sees a huge number of students fail in English in SSC and HSC exams. One of the major reasons behind this scenario is the absence of the basic sequence for the learning of the language that oral skills normally precede orthographic skills.

In Bangladesh, the existing exam-culture and its emphasis on examination compels students and teachers to focus on the areas, which are relevant to the examination. The examination system has directed the absence of listening in the classroom. The English language testing system is deeply flawed and operated mostly on grades and CGPA, rather than improve English learning and skills. Although listening gets only 10 marks to be assessed in language assessment, it is neither taught nor tested in reality. Nonetheless, a number of secondary English teachers try to conduct listening tasks in the classroom. However, they often confuse the listening practice with the teaching of listening.

In fact, listening is more than 'listen and repeat'. Listening includes features of linguistic knowledge (phonetics, phonology, homonyms, homophones, homographs, vocabulary, spelling and grammar) and skills of motivation, cognition, meta-cognition. Therefore, the cultivation of listening ability can contribute to consolidate the learned language knowledge and improve speaking, reading and writing ability. For this reason, the nourishment for Bangladeshi students’ listening comprehension can never be neglected to consolidate their overall learning of the English language.

S M Akramul Kabir, PhD, is currently a Research Assistant at Otago University, New Zealand.



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Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
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Editor : M. Shamsur Rahman
Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
Editorial, News & Commercial Offices : Beximco Media Complex, 149-150 Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1208, Bangladesh. GPO Box No. 934, Dhaka-1000.

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