How talking more can help you listen better – foreign languages

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The typical foreign language classroom spends much of its time listening to fluent speakers – a teacher or a recording – and doing other comprehension-oriented exercises, such as matching printed words and phrases to pictures. , but new research from the University of Wisconsin-Madison shows that students should be spending more time talking.

According to Elise Hopman, a UW-Madison psychology graduate student, foreign language classrooms are very input-driven, emphasizing the understanding of words and phrases conveyed to learners, as teachers want to emphasize on grammar and prevent students from reinforcing their own mistakes.

“The idea is that I can only learn from correct input,” says Hopman. “I cannot learn from my own production, because I am a learner and my production will be flawed.”

The alternative is to combine speaking exercises – in which students produce the words, phrases and sentences themselves, without repeating them after a teacher or recording – with immediate feedback, so that students learn always the correct form.

Elise Hopman

Photo: Maryellen MacDonald

Maryellen MacDonald

Hopman and UW-Madison psychology professor Maryellen MacDonald tested the benefits of this approach by teaching two groups of study participants the vocabulary and grammar of an invented language. One group was taught through traditional listening comprehension exercises with feedback on their accuracy. The other group had no comprehension exercises – they just talked and received feedback.

“It’s no surprise that conversational practice can help you speak better,” says Hopman. “But we wanted to see if practicing conversation could also help you understand the language better. So, at the end of the experiment, we tested grammar comprehension in several different listening comprehension tests.

If the traditionally favored, comprehension-focused teaching practices were more effective in teaching students to comprehend their new language, the group that practiced by listening would perform better on listening comprehension tests. However, the researchers found the opposite. When testing different types of comprehension, the group that practiced speaking was more accurate and much faster – even though they never completed a single comprehension exercise while learning the language.

“It’s no surprise that conversational practice can help you speak better,” says Hopman. “But we wanted to see if practicing conversation could also help you understand the language better.”

Hopman and MacDonald, who published their findings today (April 11, 2018) in the journal Psychological Science, believe that students who focused on learning through speaking were energized by building stronger connections in their brain.

“We think it works because when you’re trying to create and speak a sentence, you kind of have to shine a flashlight on the building blocks and hold them in what we call working memory,” says Hopman. .

Getting students to produce the new language themselves forces their brains to integrate multiple tasks at once.

“You go from having an idea to picking out the words, putting together their order for a sentence, connecting it to the idea, getting the pronunciation of the words, and connecting it to the idea,” MacDonald explains. “That’s called binding. You have a blueprint that you turn into a sentence that translates into a pronunciation, and in the process it all gets integrated and connected in your mind.

“What we’re advocating is more balance in the classroom, putting more emphasis on production and not seeing production as a bad thing,” MacDonald says.

The process “binds” vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation together, while comprehension tasks tend to require less integration and result in less binding.

“When people learn the language, they can take shortcuts,” says MacDonald. “You may recognize a word that helps you grasp the message, or an inflection in your teacher’s voice. And those situations just require good enough processing, not all the binding that we believe makes the production run better.

This does not mean that comprehension tasks should be replaced. They can be useful, and especially useful in many crowded classroom situations.

“What we’re advocating is more balance in the classroom, putting more emphasis on production and not seeing production as a bad thing,” MacDonald says.

The researchers plan to start testing their experimental results in a university German course this fall.

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