Saturday, January 07, 2006

words that start with vowels

words that start with vowels are the hardest to understand when listening to English. This is partly because many of them are unstressed: think of "illuminate," "enable," "administration" or "obsession" as good examples. I'm not sure I can map out the mental process the native English listener uses when figuring out what he/she has heard; but the first sound is important, and the stressed syllables are important also. To the non-native listener, the identification of the stressed syllable is not as well developed, so he/she relies more on the first sounds. And the first sounds of these example words in particular are very difficult.

We classify words that we know by the sounds that they begin with, and tend to group them in large categories in our memory storage. But our memory does not treat vowels in the same way as it treats consonants.

I used to play a very simple vocabulary game that involved matching words with their definitions. Students would see a word on a card, but right before that, they would hear the same word; as quickly as possible they were to determine if one of the word-definitions they held matched the word they saw and heard. These students studied these hard as they wanted to win the game (and learn). But I learned from this experience the law above: It took them a few seconds longer to understand what they had heard, when the word began with an unstressed vowel...

In "advanced" listening one of the hardest things for students to pin down is names, because they have nothing to help them figure out exactly what it was they heard. This was not true for me in Korea, where everyone had one of about ten names, and 90% of the country was a Kim, Lee, or Choi. Here, names carry lots of cultural information, but to the outsider it's very hard just to pin down exactly what one heard, because, even if one knows it's a name, one has millions of choices; experience will rarely help determine what it was.

If I give lectures and then ask simple questions about the content of the lecture, the better listeners will often get all of the questions right. But if I ask them the names that I mentioned, they begin to slip up. It's hard to hear them correctly; even harder to spell correctly what was heard.

I'm sure TOEFL keeps track of this stuff, and takes advantage of it liberally, in sorting out the best listeners from the others.

Comments welcome! I'm just organizing my thoughts...


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