July 16, 2024


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Learning a Language: What Makes Listening Difficult?

Of the four basic English language skills, reading, writing, speaking and listening, the most difficult to acquire is listening comprehension. It is also the one skill which cannot be “taught”.

In evaluations that university English and foreign language institute EFL students must take at least three times a semester, the area which is most critical and the one in which they experience the greatest difficulty is listening comprehension.

What makes Listening Difficult?

There are four clusters of factors which can affect the difficulty of language listening tasks. Here is what they are and how they affect listening comprehension skills.


o How many are there?

Is one person speaking at a time? Are there a number of speakers? Do some of them speak at the same time?

o How quickly they speak

Does the pace of the speaker allow sufficient “time” for mental processing of the speech by the listener? Does the language of the speaker flow at a faster or slower rate than the listener is accustomed to?

o What types of accent they have

Does the speaker (or do the speakers) have an unfamiliar accent or manner of speaking that is less comprehensible to the listener? Is the listener accustomed to variable accents and speech types?


o The role of the listener

What is the listener’s purpose in listening? General comprehension? Specific information? Pleasure? Business? Extraction of critical data?

o The level of response required

What does the listener have to do in response to the speech? Act? Respond? Think? Enjoy? Nothing?

o The interest in the content or subject

Is the listener involved in the content or subject matter? Is it something they want to, need to, or must know?


o Grammar

Is the grammar and structure in use familiar to the listener? Is the listener able to use or assimilate the grammar – structure used in this context?

o Vocabulary

Is vocabulary or lexis that is new to the listener being used in the speech? Is the quantity of new words substantial? Noted linguistics author Scott Thornbury says, “Count 100 words of a passage. If more than 10 of the words are unknown, the text has less than a 90% vocabulary recognition rate. It is therefore, unreadable.” The same holds true for a listening comprehension passage.

o Information structure

Is the information or material being presented by the speech in a form that is clear and understandable to the listener? Is the presentation order logical, progressive, have redundancies or is presented non-sequentially?

o Background knowledge assumed

In comprehension of the speech, is prior knowledge required? Is any prior knowledge required substantial, highly specialized or technical in nature?


What kind of support, if any, is available? Support in this context refers to whether there are pictures, diagrams or other visual aids to support the text.

While there are a number of approaches that can be utilized to improve listening comprehension, one important key is regular and consistent practice. An EFL or ESL teacher may also provide a measure of guided practice in developing key listening comprehension skills. Taking these other factors into account, listening comprehension segments can be identified which may tend to cause problems for learners or that have a sufficient number of suitable aspects to make them practical and useable.