© 2022 Michael Rost

I have talked often about the role of engagement in successful listening. And I’ve often been asked to “tease out” what this engagement consists of. In order to do this, I try to paint a picture of a “listening space” in which the listener decides to become involved in various ways – and not in others. I call this listening space the “experiential listening space.”

We can think of Experiential Listening as a holistic approach to teaching based on engaging the full personal “listening space” of the learner. We could also call this figurative zone the “engagement space” or the “involvement space” — this is where the listening happens (or doesn’t).  

The defining factor here is the listener being an active, agent role in the learning process. Being at the center of the communication process, it is the listener who is responsible for completing the exchange cycle, through complementary activities of comprehendinginterpreting, and interacting.  We often view listening from only one of these angles or perspectives, but it is beneficial for us as teachers to see the whole circle.

, Experiential Listening, Lateral Communications

The first perspective, Comprehension, is a very familiar one. This is the “objective” realm of listening, in which the listener decipers the linguistic elements of the input. For the neuroscience buffs, it is Wernicke’s area and Broca’s area, connected by a neural pathway, which are primarily involved in language processing and comprehension of input (

Friederici -, 2011). 

Comprehending consists of five overlapping psycholinguistic processes:

• Decoding the sound and other sensory signals in the input

• Identifying key words and syntactic structures in the input 

• Inferring the sense of any ambiguous or undecodable structures 

• Organizing the incoming input with prior knowledge  

• Encoding the new information to long-term memory  

Engaging in these  processes will improve comprehension and add positivity to the. listener’s experience. 

The second perspective, Interpretation, is familiar to us in our first language, but is often neglected in second language teaching.  

, Experiential Listening, Lateral CommunicationsInterpretation is the “subjective” domain of listening, in which we focus on the personal relevance of the input. In brain science terminology, interpretation of meaning involves a system of “higher order” regions in the frontal lobe of the brain that are involved in paying attention, determining relevance, organizing information, and making decisions (Friederici, 2011).  

Interpreting also involves five interrelated cognitive processes, which are always imperfect and incomplete (which may be why teachers can be uncomfortable working them into language lessons): 

• Building an internal “representation” of the input that makes sense to you

• Reflecting on the meaning of your representation in light of your prior experiences

• Considering why any new information is relevant to you

• Judging the validity and truth-value of the input in light of what you already know 

• Framing the event in a larger context, reflective of your purpose for listening 

As with comprehension processes, engaging in these interpretation processes improves the listener’s overall experience —  and drives engagement, giving a sense of purpose for listening. 

The third perspective  Interaction is the “social” sphere of listening, which is the heart of engagement.  Interaction in listening  focuses on the social or “shared” meaning of the input. In brain science lingo, the “social brain” is the network of brain regions that are involved in understanding other people and their intentions and includes the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) and the posterior superior temporal sulcus (pSTS) (Friederici, 2011). 

Interacting comprises five related social processes:

• Showing the speaker that you are attending to their intention to communicate

 Monitoring your emotions while listening and gauging how you want to respond

• Protecting the relationship with the speaker as you interact (i.e., maintaining social norms of politeness, etc.)

• Confirming-Clarifying any ambiguous information or intentions (when possible)

• Responding to the speaker in a relevant way (Even the listener does not explicitly respond to the speaker, the listener does formulate a response internally.)

About The Author

, Experiential Listening, Lateral Communications
Michael Rost, principal author of Pearson English Interactive, has been active in the areas of language teaching, learning technology and language acquisition research for over 25 years. His interest in bilingualism and language education began in the Peace Corps in West Africa and was fuelled during his 10 years as an educator in Japan and extensive touring as a lecturer in East Asia and Latin America. Formerly on the faculty of the TESOL programs at Temple University and the University of California, Berkeley, Michael now works as an independent researcher, author, and speaker based in San Francisco.

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