Can students’ over reliance on strategic competence when attacking difficult listening material actually hinder (rather than enhance) long-term language learning?
Yes, I believe it can. Let me explain why.
I have just come back from a 5-day stay in Buenos Aires, which is hands down one of my favorite cities in the world. Despite their alleged reputation for grumpiness, my Portenho friends have always been gracious with my feeble, embarrassing attempts at Spanish, and despite my atrocious Portunhol (=mix of Portuguese and Spanish), I usually manage to get by. I can understand everyday conversations, the weather forecast, the gist of the local news and the occasional traffic report. In other words, I can get things done.
“That’s because of all the cognates”, you must be telling yourself. Yes, to a certain extent, but that doesn’t tell the whole story.
One of my last adventures in the city was a 40-second shopping transaction in which I was able to (1): move to another check out line, (2) switch credit cards, (3) produce my ID and (4) exchange the stuff I’d just bought.
All of that without understanding a single word of what I heard. I was drawing on strategic competence alone.
Well, I might’ve grasped a word or two, but I missed 95% of what was said. It was my shopping schemata that helped me make it through the whole interaction. In other words, I was able to get things done because of background knowledge and strategic competence, rather than my command of the language.
So the question that prompted me to write this post is a simple one:
Did my over reliance on strategic competence matter? Maybe not.
Would it have mattered if I’d been trying to learn Spanish at the time?
Yes, I believe it would.
No one knows exactly how people learn or acquire (I tend to use the two terms interchangeably) a second language, but this much we know for sure: first, you must understand what is said. Comprehension is the raw material for the whole process, regardless of whether we believe that this input must be noticed or even analyzed. The discrepancy I described in my anecdote (getting things done vs. decoding the message) might be an extreme example, of course, but in our daily lessons, aren’t we constantly watching small doses of this conflict unfold before our very eyes? If twenty years ago, most adult learners didn’t have a good repertoire of listening strategies and tried to understand every single word, now I’m under the impression that some of them might be doing just the opposite: relying too much on strategic competence / contextual clues and bypassing a lot of what is actually said.
In other words, over relying on strategic competence and top-down processing.
For example, have you ever played an audio / video extract in class and, at the end, simply asked students what they could recall from the passage? Chances are high that some of their contributions were never even remotely mentioned in the text, which exposes a rather perverse side effect of over-reliance on schema-driven inferencing skills and strategic competence:
The inability to understand what was actually said.
Now, does that matter?
From a “getting things done” perspective, not necessarily. Students will continue to be able to answer gist questions, circle true or false and even grasp more specific details – often on a “that sounds plausible” basis, drawing more or less heavily on strategic competence. However, understanding less and less of what is actually said does matter in terms of long-term language acquisition, I think.
Thanks for reading.