Why you should listen to authentic material

In my last blog post, I discussed why listening is important in language learning. It’s clear that being a regular and active listener in your target language can significantly improve not just your listening skills, but your speaking skills too.

Yemeni men deep in conversation

Two Yemeni men deep in conversation at a livestock market in Beit al-Faqih.

But not all listening is created equal1. Broadly speaking2, listening options for language learners can be divided into material that is created specifically for language learners and graded to their level, and authentic3 material that native speakers also listen to.

When you first start learning a new language and you’re only at a beginner or elementary level, it’s difficult to listen to authentic material. Instead, in language classes or using self-study language materials (e.g. the Teach Yourself or Colloquial series), the audio clips4 will be graded for your level. That means that the speaker(s) will speak slowly and only use vocabulary and grammar that is considered appropriate for your level. This is perhaps necessary at lower levels, but it’s inauthentic material nevertheless5 and does not reflect the way the language is actually spoken.

Traditional language teaching and learning has often involved graded listening material at higher levels, too, and this can cause problems. If you’re at an intermediate level in English or any other language, you might do well in classroom or self-study listening activities using graded material and feel that your listening skills are good or at least improving. But then when you find yourself having a real conversation or watching TV in your target language, you might understand much less and become frustrated. That’s because the graded material in the classroom is designed to help you understand certain specific things but not to help your overall comprehension in real-life situations.

“If we limit the listeners’ experience to what has been graded to fit their language level, then they will not be equipped to cope6 if and when they come face to face with the target language in the outside world.” – Ji and Zhang, Humanising Language Teaching.

For this reason, I find that many of my students’ weakest skill is listening, which is really noticeable when I use authentic material in the classroom. As soon as you reach an intermediate level, therefore, you should start listening to authentic material instead of graded material whenever possible.

That’s where English in 10 Minutes comes in, because the conversations are real and unscripted; in other words, they’re authentic. That means that the conversations are appropriate for advanced learners (or even native speakers), but the transcripts and worksheets allow intermediate listeners to access the conversations and benefit from them as well.

“Authentic listening clips are sources of idioms, contractions, and pronunciation practice that can help students grasp7 ideas on how to cope with actual speech with native speakers when the need arises.” – ‘Swooosh’

Let’s look briefly8 at one way to demonstrate the difference between authentic and inauthentic material. One of the things you may have noticed about the English in 10 Minutes episodes is that Nick, Wendy and the guests use a lot of interjections or fillers like umm, uhh, you know, sort of and kind of. The speakers also repeat words, make false starts9 and self-correct as they go. These are important features of the way people actually speak in real life, but they don’t typically appear in graded material and almost never in writing, although I do put them in the transcripts to show you how people actually speak.

If you’ve only ever listened to graded material, you might struggle10 to understand the natural way of speaking because it isn’t as well planned and organised as inauthentic coursebook material. So the more practice you get listening to the authentic material, the better it will serve you in real life. To get started, look through our list of podcast episodes, find topics that interest you, and start listening!

  1. created equal: the same. Think of Martin Luther King’s famous speech when he said: “All men are created equal.”
  2. broadly speaking: generally speaking, not being too specific
  3. authentic: genuine, real, not fake
  4. clips: audio or video texts
  5. nevertheless: regardless, in any case, even so
  6. to cope (with): to manage or to get by in a difficult situation
  7. grasp: to hold, to understand or comprehend
  8. briefly: quickly, not in great detail
  9. false starts: when you start, stop, and start again, like in a running race when someone starts running before the gun has gone off
  10. struggle: to have difficulty

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