If you’ve ever done voice work for an ELT listening text, I apologise. This is not a criticism of your acting abilities. I’m sure you did your best to imbue the dialogue with the gravity, levity or Marco-from-Brazil accent it required – but you still came off as a moron. Wow, that film sounds really interesting! Shall we see it together? Hey settle, Malibu Stacy. I love science-fiction films! What kind of films do you like? What, seriously? Oh, right. I like romantic films. Can’t get enough of that shit, matter of fact. My favourite film is The Notebook*. Have you seen The Notebook**?
Why are listening texts so crap? If I was an actor, I’d probably blame the writer. But I’m a writer, so I’m going to say that actually, although I have penned 10 appalling dialogues this very afternoon, it’s not (entirely) my fault either. And this is why.
Listening texts are inherently crap, and they always have been. Back in the day, when men were men and a television set was a luxury, they sort of made sense. In 2014, it’s nothing short of madness (Dear Hackney Council) to persist with them. When, in the real world, do you listen to, but not participate in, a conversation between two or more people that you can’t see? EAVESDROPPING, that’s when. And while eavesdropping may be a skill worth learning in both a first and second language, it ought to be part of a much, much larger aural repertoire.
Listening texts are crap for the same reason that radio advertising is crap: in the absence of visuals, context must be made verbally explicit. In Listening World, if someone spills their milkshake on my skirt I have to say Ohhhh! The milkshake is all over my skirt! in a ludicrous Home Counties way, because you can’t see the milkshake or my skirt or my terribly British, trying-not-to-mind face. What would actually happen (in normal Britain) is something like
A: Oh god, I’m so sorry.
B: Don’t worry about it. It’ll come off.
A: Are you sure? Sorry. God, SORRY. I’m really sorry.
On top of the visual issue, writers are often asked, for the purpose of exemplification, to shoehorn particular vocab items or grammatical structures into their dialogues – resulting in formality where there should be idiom, full sentences where there should be ellipsis, and ‘short answers’ that make you sound like you’ve got a twig up your bum. Can you speak Turkish? Yes, I can. Bzzzz. The correct answer is either Yeah a bit (if you’re fully proficient) or Haha no (if you’re not).
And that’s before you’ve even started on level-grading and appropriacy. For its apparent simplicity, the dialogue above is a nightmare on toast: come off is a phrasal verb at C2 (i.e. the highest possible) level; Are you sure? actually means ‘thanks for being nice about this’; and you can’t put god in there because religion and don’t take the lord’s global marketplace in vain.
So basically there are three problems – visuals, shoehorning and levels – with, I think, three reasonably straightforward solutions. If I was a proper writer who designed her own materials from scratch instead of spooning and smoothing words into someone else’s template, I would of COURSE implement these straight away. But I’m not, I’m just having a grumble, so proper authors (and dogmeticians) will just have to take responsibility until I pull my finger out. Many thanks in advance.
Visuals. Why are we still just listening to dialogues, when we can easily watch them? We have DVD players, laptops, projectors, interactive whiteboards, tablets and smartphones. Yes, there are classrooms around the world where none of this technology is present, but right now we’re treating those exceptions as the norm to the detriment of everyone else. There’s no reason to keep churning out ‘pure’ listening texts except maaaybe for certain context-free pronunciation activities, or because That’s the Way We’ve Always Done It. Which is pretty much the worst reason for doing anything, ever.
Shoehorning. The issue here is that we’re working backwards. Instead of writing a dialogue around a lexical set or grammar point, why aren’t we finding authentic dialogues and highlighting the language that’s actually used? As long as we work in this arse-over-tit way, even well-intentioned writers with desktop shortcuts to four different corpora are making their own lives more difficult and feeding students artificial language in the process.
|"Excuse me. Have you ever won a|
competition? What did you win?"
Levels. But what about the levelz? You can’t just go chucking authentic dialogue at beginners. Or can you? In a short exchange, is there any reason why we can’t focus on short chunks and collocations? The lexical approach says not (example: I knew and used the common Thai phrase mai bpen rai – ‘no problem’ – long before I knew the meaning of its three component words). If we insist on sticking to present simple and continuous at A1, present perfect simple at A2 and so on, we condemn learners to endless spiralling drivel about what time Zhang Li eats breakfast and whether Mohammed has ever ridden a horse. Motivation? Relevance? Poof.
I know I’m oversimplifying. More nuanced takes on the issue would be welcome. I’m just bored of scripting vacuous conversations and cross with myself for adding to the problem. Everyone in listening texts is not a moron; they’re forced to speak a version of English that doesn’t exist outside of coursebooks. But if, in five years’ time, we’re still skipping to track 32 and wondering why grown people are not fascinated by Maria’s morning ablutions…well, that makes all of us pretty moronic.
* My favourite film is Jurassic Park. ** I have never seen The Notebook.