Comprehension

Obviously, one goal of learning how to communicate in a language is to create and understand meaning. But there is an important element of listening that is often overlooked because of the conflation of literacy versus fluency – that there is a difference between being able to hear the sounds of another language which carry meaning, and the ability to interpret the meaning of those sounds. We can call the ability to hear the different sounds “parsing”.

This fact is so important to effective fluency development that it can almost explain all the problems that Americans have learning to use another language in interpersonal situations. We can explain it by analogy. If you read English, you can look at a sign in Spanish, and you can try to pronounce what you see, even though you don’t understand it. But the fact that you can read the letters and make some “sense” out of them really is a skill. Imagine now that you are looking at a text in written Arabic. You can’t even try to pronounce it because all of the lines are not familiar enough to make any sense of them. You are functionally illiterate in Arabic. With practice, you would be able to pronounce what you see, even if you didn’t understand/comprehend it.

When listening to an unfamiliar language, you can’t separate out what the words are, much less what they mean, which means it doesn’t help your interpersonal communication to be able to pronounce all the words (even if you know what they mean!) if you can’t hear the word when it’s spoken. You’d have to ask your friend to pass notes to you to have a conversation. What this means is, you need to train your ear to parse the sounds so you can perceive what is carrying meaning, then you can begin to interpret it. Notice that this difference between “pronounce” and “read” is not very available to most of us either; we generally say, “Can you read that out loud?” and “Can you read that?” to mean essentially the same thing, but one is about being able to process/perceive the strings of letters and produce the sounds that go along with them, and the other is to understand that meaning of those words.
P-P-Ts methods, because they are fluency based, first work to practice parsing the sounds without necessarily being concerned with whether the nuances of meaning are apprehended. It’s not that we don’t want people to understand – it’s just that if we work on developing competence in parsing oral input, then learners will be able to process much more aural information, vastly accelerating their ability to communicate with other people. Writing things down can definitely help – but for us, writing is primarily a method for supporting the development of listening skills. Some who observe our techniques are worried that it’s “pointless” to write down a word that you don’t understand, or repeat a word that you don’t understand. But it isn’t; it’s practicing the fluency skill of matching the aural form to the oral or written form. And this is the missing piece with a lot of language teaching.

A final thought: spoken language is ephemeral, and written language is durable. This is such a huge distinction in the way we process meaning that it’s amazing that we don’t have more practitioners theorizing and doing research about how to blend these two starkly different channels. Only speech therapists really seem to get it. You can look at a word on a page for as long as you want, and it’s either going to fit or it’s not. Spoken language is fleeting so you have to repeat it over and over to get enough durability for it to stick. The native speaker (the facilitator) feels like it’s insultingly repetitive by the third time they say it – but the learner starts to learn it with the third repetition. Is it surprising that we struggle creating effective language learning programs when our practitioners get bored of teaching at just the moment that learning starts to happen?

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