Speech Rate

Topics: Linguistics, Language acquisition, Defense Language Proficiency Tests Pages: 96 (27772 words) Published: September 8, 2014

What makes listening difficult?
Factors affecting second language listening comprehension
Amber Bloomfield, PhD
Sarah C. Wayland, PhD

Purpose—To establish what is currently known about factors that affect foreign language listening comprehension, with a focus on characteristics of the listener, passage, and testing conditions.

Elizabeth Rhoades, MA
Allison Blodgett, PhD

Conclusions—Research on second language (L2) listening comprehension strongly supports the importance of a number of factors, for example, a listener’s working memory capacity and the number of ideas in a passage. Much of the research, however, reports weak or inconclusive results, leaving many factors and complex interactions among factors unresolved and in need of further investigation.

Jared Linck, PhD
Steven Ross, PhD

Relevance—Identifying the factors that affect L2 listening comprehension will help Defense Language Institute Proficiency Test (DLPT) designers anticipate how qualities of selected authentic materials will impact listening comprehension.

Executive Summary
The U.S. Government administers the
Defense Language Proficiency Test
(DLPT) to military linguists and other
government personnel to assess their
listening and reading comprehension in
a number of foreign languages, including critical languages such as Mandarin, Modern Standard Arabic, Egyptian Arabic, and Persian Farsi. The DLPT is
updated every 10 to 15 years, and the
most recent transition—from DLPT IV
to DLPT5—included a greater emphasis on testing listening comprehension with authentic materials. In turn, this
has led to a growing interest in the
factors that make second language (L2)
listening difficult.
To examine these factors, CASL
reviewed the current scientific literature and summarized the characteristics of listeners, passages, and testing conditions. The review targeted features of particular interest to stakeholders at the

Defense Language Institute (DLI). The
long-term goal of the project is to support the selection of authentic listening © 2010 University of Maryland. All rights reserved.

TTO 81434 E.3.1 | CDRL A017 | DID DI-MISC 80508B | Contract No. H98230-07-D-0175

materials that accurately reflect different proficiency levels. Conclusions
Although the available research on L2
listening comprehension is limited,
CASL’s literature review identified several factors that affect listening comprehension. These factors are summarized below and in Tables 1, 2, and 3.


Characteristics of the listener

Understanding a foreign language taps several general cognitive abilities. For example, listeners with
greater working memory capacity—
that is, those who are most efficient at
attending to, temporarily storing, and
processing incoming information—
understand more of what they hear
when they are listening to their nonnative language.1 Further, listeners who effectively use metacognitive strate-

gies—that is, those who are aware of
and use effective strategies, such as
avoiding mental translation—demonstrate better L2 listening comprehension.2 In addition to these general cognitive abilities, a number of factors pertaining to experience with the L2
influence listening skill. These factors
include the amount of prior exposure
to the language; familiarity with and
an ability to understand the non-native
language’s phonology; vocabulary
size; and background knowledge about
the topic, text, structure, schema, and
Familiarity with the L2 changes the
extent to which the L2 listener uses
top-down or bottom-up strategies in
listening. For example, expert listeners
use both types of strategies: They are
able to accurately make sense of the
speech signal (bottom-up information)3
and integrate this information with
April 2010 i

What makes listening difficult?
Table 1. Effects of listener characteristics on L2 listening...
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