I became interested in the role of listening in language learning early in my career. As a novice teacher in a high school in West Africa, it gradually became clear to me that the most successful students in my classes were the best listeners. It wasn’t that they understood more or had a better command of English, but these successful students were obviously engaged, curious, and invested. They wanted to be involved. Over my first few months of teaching, I came to equate successful listening with these same affective qualities: engagement, curiosity, and personal investment.
Indeed, during the invaluable two months of my Peace Corps teacher training in Togo, it was hammered into the young cadre of trainees that the primary goal of teaching large classes was keeping everyone engaged. We learned the art of rapidly pacing activities, providing precise directives, assigning everyone clear roles for exercises, leading choral repetition, inserting intermittent “busy work” that everyone could do, and offering personalized feedback.
And we learned the art of storytelling.
We developed the skill of creating continuing, drawn-out stories in short dialogue-based vignettes. An entire class might be based on just an eight-line dialogue, eventually transcribed on the blackboard (as we didn’t have textbooks), depicting the drama of one of our lead protagonists. We learned to develop believable characters, based on the students’ local experience, and to craft surprising story lines, often involving family dramas and personal challenges.
Above all, our primary goal was to get the students invested, to be willing to work to understand the language in the story. We wanted the students not only to internalize the current scene, but to build a sense of anticipation for the next episode. Of course, we were given models of time-honored African stories to use as sources, but I believe it was the story-teller’s belief in the power of the story that made it all work.
My stint as a teacher/griot at Lycée Tokoin in Lomé, Togo certainly helped ignite my passion to explore listening. My experience there planted the seeds of two principles that have sustained me in my career: (1) Listening is the natural basis of successful language acquisition, and (2) Personal investment – anticipation, engagement, curiosity, pleasure — is the source of energy for improving listening ability.
Based on this principle of learner engagement and incorporating research discoveries about the listening process, I now call my approach “Experiential Listening” (Rost & Brown, 2022).