One of the most difficult skills to acquire among the 4 major skills of language learning (reading, writing, speaking and listening) is Listening. If the learner is not living in the country of the target language, then it is exceptional that language skills improve. This is simply because the learner rarely hears the target language. There is such a contrast with how the Mother Tongue is acquired in this situation.
It is therefore vital that any students in Japan who are serious about improving their English to such a level that they can study abroad or consider using English in their future jobs, focus on listening during each day. My students are encouraged to create an English Environment which contains all-English landscapes and soundscapes, and visit it for at least 30 minutes every day. During their 15 week courses, the principal homework is Listening with tests every 3 weeks in class. It works in the following way.
At the beginning of the semester I explain to them in simple terms how babies acquire their mother language in general, and how they themselves acquired Japanese in particular. As Japanese education is based on Confucian ideals in which the learner sits back and allows knowledge to flow to them from their revered sensei or teacher, students often seem passive in institutions of formal learning by European standards. So, they find it interesting and inspiring that they did not need a revered teacher to learn their own language in infancy. They think deeply about the following. The fact that they spent the first 18 months or so of their lives listening to their parents and family members, storing up the sounds of Japanese even though their understanding was limited and primitive. They did not need a classroom or an erudite teacher to become quite proficient in Japanese communication skills by the age of 3 or 4. A baby spends several years listening and imitating the sounds it hears before it attempts to speak in coherent patterns.
So, if they want to truly improve English as a Foreign Language whilst spending the majority of their time listening and responding to Japanese, they have to become an English baby by developing a good listening habit every day to English. To promote this idea I assign them listening homework for each week between once-a-week lessons. They download sound files via the internet, which are either dialogues between students studying English, or short lectures given by me on the topic of learning English. Their weekly assignment is to listen many times to the sound files (about 5 minutes of natural native-speaker speech) for that week, and to complete 50 questions in written homework based on it without seeing the script.
The homework sheet is laid out to promote their preparation of unknown items of vocabulary, and they are requested to study it before listening to the sound file. This will prepare them for the words which may be new to them they will hear, and they are encouraged not to translate them into Japanese, but to use an English/English Learners’ dictionary of intermediate level and copy down the Simple English meaning into their vocabulary book or list. This is one way of practicing English, which they get very little opportunity to do in Japan. There is some chance that what meanings they copy and the way they classify their vocabulary will be retained.
They then listen to 3 sound files in this way and start to prepare for the listening test to be done in class. A few days before their test I send them the answers to the set of homeworks by email, they check them, and try to work out why they made mistakes. I encourage reviewing of homework and tests, which is often something alien to them.
The Listening test asks 50 slightly different questions about exactly the same sound files they have heard many times in order to do their homework. There is an element of memory involved in the test too. Memorising is something they rarely do in English because the majority of their English studies have been executed using the visual memory and not the auditory memory. The auditory memory is essential for learning how to communicate in English, or in any language.
For Japanese students who have had little exposure to English communication with native speakers, their first experiences are a shock: They are used to every word of English being translated into Japanese either by their teachers or their classmates. The Japanese collective spirit means that classmates who do understand and are not in the full firing range of this communication, will translate it verbatim into Japanese, and so the translation method destroys any real communication. The other worrying factor is that the interpreter’s translation may not be correct. In this way, so much energy and time are wasted.
It is an extraordinary thing that the communication, a complex combination of verbal and non-verbal signs, will often cause the person being communicated with to immediately avert their eyes, and desperately attend to the translation and commentary in Japanese given by a classmate. It is as if they are deaf and not even able to lip-read. Such direct communication, often coated in emotions on so many levels, will initially overcome them.
More about listening to come.