10 September 2014

Why everyone in listening texts is a moron

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**?

via http://savona93.blogspot.co.uk/2012/07
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.


  1. I wouldn't think your favourite film was anything other than the one it is.

    As for the post, it's just excellent to me. Those listening texts make me at the very least smile, but more often openly chuckle together with my students. At the weirdness of sounds they make (in the track), the stiffness of reactions, absurdity and theatrical feeling. Writers, actors, requirements, norms and levels - whatever that is, it's just too often too dumb. It's even worse when assigning a task to students to come up with their own dialogue, you get good imitations (that sound so artificial).
    I try to avoid moronic listening.

    I like your grumble, for its idea and good reasoning)) And I love your writing. Thanks!

    1. Anna thanks as always for your support! It's reassuring, isn't it, that students know how odd the dialogues are? 'I try to avoid moronic listening' - there's a mantra to live by :)

  2. Awesome post. Seconded. I think that the abysmal quality of course book listening texts is right up there along with the needless ring-fencing of "phrasal verbs" as a scary and toxic form of vocabulary, or the inexplicable mystification of the present perfect when it comes to features of EFL that appear to benefit nobody in real life.

    In addition to all the excellent points you make, there's one other thing about listening that gets my goat.

    I've taken to running extra listening classes after school, where I play my students some samples of me or friends saying things in a natural way, and making gap fills from the text.

    B1 / B2 students of my acquaintance are utterly hopeless at things like " _____ _____ know what you're talking about" [you don't] when this is spoken in an unaffected way, as you might say it to me in a pub somewhere.

    It gets me to wondering how B1+ students have got this far without being able to recognize "you don't". After all, I don't say it much differently... my /u:/ is shortened to a schwa, more or less, and the /t/ is pretty much dropped, but still.

    Which begets which? Do I overenunciate to my students because that's what they're used to from all their course book audios, or do the course book audios prissily pronounce their /u:/s because that's what EFL teachers do? In either case, why?

    No doubt, in the fullness of time, someone somewhere will find it propitious to change something, and things will be less weird. Maybe Scott Thornbury will save us. Until then, I do rather enjoy a little bit of impotent fist waving!

    1. Thanks so much for reading and commenting, Paul. Your listening classes sound awesome (and I recognise that experience of having B1/B2 learners look at you in utter disbelief when you expose them to natural native-speaker English). The thought that we might all start talking like coursebook characters is a terrifying and also highly amusing one. I might spend the rest of my day trying.

  3. Music to my ears. Bravo! The inauthentic content and sound of ESL audio materials have been driving me crazy for as long as I’ve been teaching and writing listening texts. (and that’s a looong time) My publishers (with the exception of one) claim that overseas markets demand carefully graded and enunciated audio materials. My hope is that with all the easily available authentic recordings online (and tools to create one’s own), teachers will start asking publishers to create materials reflecting real language in the real world.
    And speaking of real, have you heard of the text Real Talk? I think this may be the only text out there with authentic recordings or real people. Pearson Ed. was forward-looking enough back in 2006 to allow my coauthor and me to record conversations, phone calls and lectures by friends, family and acquaintances. No shoehorning, just building the activities around the language that was actually used. And miracle of miracles, the publisher used the actual recordings – nothing redone by actors in a studio. The book is still very much in print and highly praised by adopters. Our only regret: accompanying videos would have been lovely. Maybe the next edition…

  4. I'm going to have to check out Real Talk now :)

    For a while, I've had me a notion to start a podcast in which I interview an interesting native speaker or proficient non-native on some topic or other - maybe each week a different stupid EFL exam question, or whatever - and then use the material to craft some listening exercises.

    Comments, suggestions, encouragement, ideas from the TEFL hive mind? :)

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  6. Hi Laura,
    I've been meaning to reply to this for ages. I was nodding all the way through when you wrote it. I recently had some listening materials published which I wrote based on recordings my friends sent to me (with their permission). The most frustrating thing was hearing the final version at C1 and thinking "That's not C1 level listening!" :( Apart from the level of the language used, there doesn't seem to be any real difference between listenings from B1 upwards - they're all just as slow as each other, perhaps with the odd interruption or unfinished thought to show willing. Listening and writing seemed to be the two skills my students in Newcastle had most trouble with at every level, particularly at advanced, where they had really spiky profiles.
    I've got some recordings on my computer which will one day make it on to my blog, and I hope that between us all, we can try to move towards more realistic listening in our materials.
    I think there are some books out there which are starting on this route. Speakout takes video and audio from the BBC for at least some of its content. The Collins English for Life is also based on much more authentic recordings. Slowly but surely, things may be changing.
    By the way, I'll be in Chiang Mai for the next few months, so I really hope we can meet!