Difficulty is essentially a subjective concept: what makes any input relatively easy or difficult is the listener’s familiarity with and ease with the input.  

Subjective factors are the “independent variables” that the listener brings to the experience:  level of anxiety, working memory capacities, prior experience with the content and format, metacognitive skills (for managing attention), and of course language proficiency. 

 Effects of listener characteristics on L2 listening comprehension

Anxiety    Anxiousness or aversive affect negatively impacts L2 comprehension
Working memory Greater working memory capacity correlates with better comprehension.
Metacognitive strategies     The use of attention-regulating strategies improves listening comprehension. 
Relevant experience  Greater familiarity with the experience (content and format) improves listening comprehension. Background knowledge enables the use of top-down strategies to compensate for mishearing or encountering unfamiliar words, which can improve comprehension. 
L2 proficiency  As proficiency increases, the listener’s ability to correctly use bottom-up information (including deciphering the L2 phonology and vocabulary) improves. 

However, there are external, multivariate factors that influence the listener’s experience of ease vs. difficulty. These are factors in signal clarity, language complexity, idea complexity, and organizational complexity that are objective, but it is the listener who experiences the “difficulty.” 

  Effects of passage characteristics on L2 listening comprehension

Length     Longer length increases listening difficulty, but the effect for length alone  is weak and inconsistent across studies. 
Information density —A large number of ideas in a passage has a negative effect on listening comprehension. 
Redundancy —Repetition of information consistently improves com- prehension, but whether the listener benefits depends on the type of redundancy (e.g., exact repetition, paraphrase) and listener proficiency
Complexity    Lexical – Syntactic features  Simplifying sentence structure does not consistently improve comprehension. Unusual syntax and infrequent vocabulary have a detrimental impact.
Pragmatic information     The inclusion of L2 pragmatic constructs such as idioms and culturally specific vocabulary decreases comprehension. 
Directness and concreteness   Passages with implied meaning can be more difficult to understand. Research in reading comprehension suggests that texts with more concrete objects or entities may be easier to comprehend, but little research has examined this factor in L2 listening. 
Position of relevant information    Overall coherence of a passage seems to have little effect, but only a few studies have examined its effects. Further, coherence may be difficult to define and measure objectively.Information is most Information is most easily recalled when it occurs near the beginning or at the end of a passage. 
Discourse markers Words and phrases that signal the relationship between adjacent propositions and the overall structure of the passage improve comprehension. However, this  
Auditory features    Speaker accent —Familiar accents are easier to understand than unfamiliar accents.
Hesitations and pauses  Disfluencies, like hesitations and pauses, generally aid comprehension, especially for more proficient listeners 
Noise and distortion                  —The presence of noise or distortion in the speech signal interferes with comprehension.
Speech rate                   How quickly someone talks can hurt comprehension, but slower speech rates do not necessarily help. L2 listeners may mistakenly attribute difficulties caused by other factors to a too-fast speech rate.


Can you make this extract easier for the listener?


There are a number of Japanese expressions that express unique concepts or at least these are concepts that are not easily expressed in English. One such expression is mono no aware. Mono no aware is literally translated as the pathos for ephemeral things or sometimes translated as an empathy towards the impermanence of nature or a sensitivity to ephemera, you know the details of consciousness. It’s a Japanese term for the awareness of impermanence, the transience of things. It connotes a kind of gentle sadness, or sometimes called wistfulness at their passing, as well, as well as a longer deeper Jen, kind of gentle sadness about the state of being me being part of the reality of our life. Now one of the most well known examples of mono aware in contemporary Japan, is the traditional love of cherry blossoms, which is found throughout Japanese art and perpetuated by the large masses of people that travel annually, if they can to view the cherry trees. The trees themselves are not considered to be of special value in terms of their beauty in relation to other flowering trees, such as the apple or the pear trees. But cherry tree blossoms are valued precisely because of their transience, normally associated with the fact that the blossoms fall from the tree only a week or so after first buddy. So it’s this Evanescence of the beauty of the cherry blossom that evokes this weary, pathetic perspective of mono no aware in the viewer

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About The Author

, What Makes Listening Difficult?, 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.