Steven Brown’s “Listening Myths” tell-all. Read on!

by Claudia Leo on October 25, 2012

Steven Brown, author of Listening Myths and plenary speaker at Three Rivers TESOL in Pittsburgh on October 27, lets us in on the secrets of  how language acquisition myths form, which ones affect listening, how to debunk them and why, and gives advice to new teachers of L2 listening. 


You have written ESL textbooks on listening. How did you become interested in listening?

As a teacher. I became interested in listening when I was teaching in Japan in the eighties. It was their listening and speaking that my students wanted to improve. They’d had enough reading and grammar. Actually, they said they wanted to learn conversation, and they didn’t always understand immediately that conversation was two-sided: if you want to improve your speaking, you have to improve your listening so that you can respond to the other person. I started going to workshops and reading about listening. There was a lot of energy in Japan in the eighties. People were publishing books based on authentic conversations. People were exploring task-based listening, though I’m not sure we called it that at first.

When I came back to the states to work on my Ph.D. I was still working on the first edition of Active Listening. I thought about taking listening as the topic for my dissertation but decided against it because there were too many potential problems. I had a large ready-made sample of students in Japan, and I thought doing a reading study would give me greater control over the study from far away. So I shifted to studying reading comprehension. The question of whether reading and listening are really the same takes up the first chapter of Listening Myths.

Why do you think the Myths books are so accessible/popular with teachers?

I think our editor, Kelly Sippell, is good at selecting people who can convey complex ideas in simple language, and she keeps after us to do that. I think if you really understand something you can speak about it simply, without making things simplistic. Isn’t that what a teacher does, after all – or should do?

I think teachers appreciate that there is research out there that speaks to the classroom. Yes, some of it doesn’t, or speaks in ways that I for one can’t understand – or, in some cases, stand. A lot of what’s published is relevant to what teachers do. But teachers, even if they have access to academic libraries and journals, don’t have a lot of free time. The Myths books take what is relevant, make it accessible, and point out the follow-up in the classroom. In a few hours, you’re up on the latest research.


 Talk about some of the myths debunked in this book.

Sometimes when you’re writing about myths, you worry about setting up straw men (a way to cheat at argument by caricaturing other people’s positions). And then life gives you a good example confirming the myth. The second myth is “Listening is passive.” This has been a recurring myth, and it surfaced just the other day in class. A student tried to tell me that anybody could pick up listening skills because it was basically a passive activity. Apparently another teacher had told him this. I jumped out of my chair, told him in a joking manner I never wanted to hear that again, and began to describe just how active listening is. Listening is an incredibly active process, pulling together what we know, what we hear, what’s gone before in the conversation, our knowledge of the language, etc., etc.

The book has a couple of chapters on what are called bottom-up processes in listening, the processes that students use to assemble an understanding of the incoming information. So, recognition of individual sounds, individual words. I think the recognition of the importance of these processes, as opposed to our over-reliance on top-down processes like prior knowledge over the past twenty years, is the cutting edge of listening research right now. In terms of teaching, we’ve gone from a listening-as-reading model to a listening-as-speech-processing model in the past few years, and we’re just beginning to flesh this out. By that I mean that the standard model of listening has been to focus a lot on pre-listening, on what students already know, when research suggests that what trips them up is word recognition and small-scale things like that.

I also addressed the “listening is inside the head” myth. I tried to show that a lot of listening is interpersonal listening, in speaking classes, for example. Our understanding of listening has been centered around pre-recorded audio, when in fact listening is a social process.


Based on your teaching experience, how do you think language acquisition myths form? Why is it important to debunk them?

I think people are busy and the world is full of (I think this is Emerson’s phrase) “booming, buzzing confusion.” In order to make sense of a lot of information, people consolidate and simplify. Then they simplify again. And you get myths. Some of the problem, and I say this somewhat facetiously, is conference presentations that don’t get digested all the way. You’re running around for two or three days hearing something new every fifty minutes. You start constructing take-away points that might not always be helpful.

Debunking myths gets people thinking about their assumptions, which gets them out of ruts, which I think will make them more satisfied in their teaching and less burned out.


In your experience training future ESL teachers, what do you think is the most difficult thing of teaching listening in an ESL setting? How about in an EFL setting?

Lately, I’ve been working with a lot of Arabic speakers who are pretty good about taking risks and getting out into the community. For them, the diversity of American accents is a challenge. I live in Youngstown, Ohio, which has a regional accent close to Pittsburgh’s, but the general area is the northern tip of Appalachia, so there is another model to hear. Then there are large African American and Puerto Rican communities. The students are always bringing in things they hear, and a lot of the questions concern pronunciation and words. Not the sort of thing that comes up in listening textbooks. How do we address that in class?

In the old days, teaching EFL listening was difficult because there was so little input. Along came the internet and solved that. Now I suppose the problem is finding ways to help students process all that information, helping out by producing generic worksheets that can guide outside listening. The big EFL issue is still motivation, I think, making it real. Students are not going to hear the language on the street. The internet is there, but they need guidance on using it to effectively build skills.


Do you have a favorite “In the Real World” story in the book?

I always use the one about buying post cards in Vienna because it so beautifully illustrates schema theory. I wanted to buy some post cards and added up the cost of several in my head, figured the total would be 16 schillings, and gave the clerk 20 schillings (this was in the pre-Euro days). She opened the till, looked in, and said something to me in German, which I do not speak. Without thinking, I handed her a one-schilling coin, and she gave me a five-schilling note back. I was struck, and still am, how automatic my response was. I was using my shopping script, my prior knowledge gained from many such interactions. I didn’t need language. (But I go on in the book to show that we can’t rely on that sort of listening.)


If you were to give one main piece of advice to new teachers of L2 listening, what would it be?

I was asked this question a couple of weeks ago in the context of contributing a few hundred words to a new book. I must be getting old. What I said then was learn the basics of your students’ language(s). Just the basics. It conveys respect, but it also helps you figure out errors, which is the way to understanding what’s going on in the students’ heads. This is probably harder in listening than, for example, in writing, but knowing typical pronunciation errors helps with listening.


Do you have any upcoming presentations, events, or activities related to Listening Myths?

I’m giving the plenary at Three Rivers TESOL in Pittsburgh this weekend (October 27). I’m on a panel for International TESOL in Dallas in March. I also have some guest editor role (there are many of us) for a journal that’s publishing a special issue on listening in a couple of years.


Are you available for training workshops or presentations on the topic of L2 listening or SLA? How can colleagues contact you for such activities?

In principle, though I have just begun directing the graduate program in English, which makes some parts of the semester more difficult than others. I can be contacted at srbrown02 (at) ysu (dot) edu


The MICHIGAN ELT Team would like to sincerely thank Steven Brown for taking the time to do this interview at a very busy time. Don’t forget to attend Steve’s plenary talk on “Listening to Research: Applying Second Language Listening Research to Classroom Teaching” at Three Rivers TESOL on Saturday October 27!

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