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Aural and Oral Skills

By Peter McKenzie-Brown

The two most basic language skills, listening and speaking, sound exactly alike
when we describe them as oral and aural skills. Aural language, of course,
refers to language as we hear it. Oral language is what we say.
These two words are homophones words spelled differently that sound alike.
There is no good reason why they should be homophones, but they are. Perhaps
that accident of spelling can serve as a reminder that, while these two skills
cannot be separated, they need to be developed in different ways.

Teaching Basic Skills:

According to a hoary adage, We are given two ears and one mouth so we can
listen twice as much as we talk. This is a maxim to remember when we plan
our lessons especially when we are dealing with a classroom of new learners.

Logically, listening should be the first skill you teach. In practice, however, most
teachers get their students talking on the first day of class, and many make
speech the major focus of their lessons. They tend to downplay the skill of
listening, as do most foreign language textbooks. Yet listening is probably the
more important skill involved in foreign language learning, as it certainly is in
the acquisition of ones native tongue.

Stephen Krashen and other thinkers have stressed that we acquire language best
by using it in communicative ways. He was also one of the first to stress that
language acquisition and language learning are not the same. Language learning

(in the sense of making conscious discoveries about grammar, for instance)
involves different mental processes, and those processes play distinctly
secondary roles to those we use when we acquire language naturally. Language
develops, he says, through exposure to and use of comprehensible input
target language the learner can understand and assimilate. All of this is textbook

One reasonable conclusion from these observations is that language learners

should understand what they are listening to before they begin to speak.
Especially at the initial phase of language acquisition, teachers should avoid oral
practice to some degree. Instead, they should have their students concentrate on
comprehending what they hear. This idea parallels the experience of young
children, who spend almost two years in linguistic silence before they begin to

To use listening-focused learning, a communicative language teacher needs to

incorporate active listening into their classes. This is done with activities in
which the learners demonstrate that they understand, and receive gentle
correction when they err. More advanced students must be explicitly taught to
recognize reduced language forms heard in colloquial speech as in Whaddaya
say? Also, of course, part of aural comprehension is learning to decipher
nonverbal clues.

Pure listening is rarely a good strategy for sustained language acquisition. Even
if students are still in their silent period a common phase for beginners, in
which they speak very little if at all, teachers should encourage active
participation from them. This is the only way to confirm that they have
understood. Participation can mean as little as a nod or a headshake, for
example, or the words yes and no in English or their native language.

Listening without speaking is important for foreign language learners, especially
when their language learning has just begun, but at some level that listening
should be participatory.

Listening activities do not always involve some other skill, but they generally
do; the best classroom activities cross skill boundaries. Since the most typical
pairing for a listening activity is to combine it with speech practice, a focus on
listening can actually promote the effective development of speaking skills. To
see how, let's turn to the activation of speech.

Focus on Conversation: Speaking activities best occur in classrooms in which

learners feel comfortable and confident, free to take risks, and have plenty of
opportunities to speak. While there are countless kinds of activities teachers use
to develop speaking skills, they most commonly promote conversational speech.
This, of course, requires the use of both listening and speaking skills.

Conversational language has four characteristics. It is interactive, in the sense

that we talk back and forth in short bursts. Often, we do not even use complete
sentences nice day, eh? Conversation also has narrow time limits. We have
to listen and respond without the luxury of thinking much about what we want to
say. Conversation is also repetitive, in the sense that we tend to use a relatively
small amount of vocabulary and a relatively small repertory of language
structures.. And finally, of course, it is error-prone. Because of time limits, we
may use the wrong word, pronounce something wrong or mangle structure.
While we may hear the mistake and back up and correct ourselves, often we

Bearing in mind the earlier comments about listening, these characteristics of

conversation illustrate an important difference between listening activities and

speaking activities. Because listening is a learners primary source of
comprehensible input, aural activities depend heavily on accuracy. To
understand, learners must listen carefully, and their comprehension must be
good. In many listening activities, we play a short recording of speech
repeatedly until we think our learners understand it.

By contrast, learners shift heavily in the direction of fluency during conversation

practice, which combines both listening and speaking skills. At this portion of
the language class, the teacher kisses student accuracy goodbye. During
speaking activities, the focus is on interactive, time-limited, repetitive and error-
prone conversation. As is often the case in the language classroom, as we move
from skill to skill, or from language study to language activation, we willingly
compromise accuracy in the interest of fluency.

The How and Why of Language: Language originated with the two linguistic
skills we have just reviewed listening and speaking. But why? What is the
purpose of language? And how did it evolve to play this role in our lives?

Whether we hear it or voice it, the purpose of language is to do the things that
speech can do. In no way is it abstract. Like an axe, language is a tool with
which we do things.
According to linguistic philosopher J.R. Searle, we use language to perform five
kinds of speech act. These are commissive, declarative, directive, expressive
and representative. Commissive speech commits the speaker to do something
for example, I promise to bring it tomorrow, or Watch out or I will report
you. Declarations change the state of things I now pronounce you husband
and wife, or Youre fired! Directive speech gets the listener to do something
Please come in, Watch out! or Why dont you take your medicine?
Expressive language explains feelings and attitudes: Those roses are beautiful,

or I hate broccoli. Finally, representative speech describes states or events
Rice is an important Thai export, or The United States is at war again. All of
our speech seems to do one or more of these five things.

Language is such an important part of our lives that we use it to meet virtually
all of our daily needs. Consider psychologist Abraham Maslows famous
hierarchy of needs, which is often illustrated as a pyramid. In Maslows model,
we can only move to a higher level of need after we have scrambled up the
lower levels.

In his view, people have five kinds of need. Our most basic needs are
physiological food and water, for example. The next level up is the need for
safety and security, which we achieve, for example, by dealing with
emergencies. Tier 3 involves needs for love, affection and belongingness. The
need for esteem self-respect and respect from others comes next, but the
highest level in this hierarchy is the need for self-actualization. According to
Maslow, in this last level A musician must make music, an artist must paint,
and a poet must write. The point of this discussion is that we meet virtually all
those needs through speech acts.

The gradual evolution of language has profoundly affected the nature of our
species. As Stephen Pinker observes, human practical intelligence may have
evolved with language (which allows know-how to be shared at low cost) and
with social cognition (which allows people to cooperate without being cheated),
yielding a species that literally lives by the power of ideas.

It is impossible to overstate the value or complexity of language. It is perhaps

the most fundamental feature of our lives.