The Role of Listening in Understanding Language

Instructor: Clio Stearns

Clio has taught education courses at the college level and has a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction.

If you are interested in how language development works and what really happens as we try to understand each other, then you will want to think about the role of listening in understanding language. This lesson addresses the importance of listening.

Language and Listening

Have you ever wondered how it happens that you understand other people when they talk? Maybe you are someone who spends a lot of time listening to others, socially or in your workplace, and you are simply mystified by your own cognition in these situations.

Or maybe you are trying to master a new language, and you wonder how you will ever understand communication at a normal conversational rate.

Well, one of the things that helps us understand language is the act of listening to it! In other words, the listening process itself is what helps facilitate comprehension, and the more we listen, the better we become at it.

What do we really mean by listening, however? Listening is the combination of hearing, processing, and bringing your schema to bear on the language your receive.

The Listening Process

To really understand the role of listening in understanding spoken language, it might help to break down the listening process a bit.

Listening is a complex process that affects our understanding of language.

  • Hearing

The first step to listening is hearing. Hearing is a physiological process that occurs as your ear receives sound and transmits it to your brain. It might seem obvious, but if we want to understand language by listening, we have to hear it first.

We can hear language in face to face conversation, on the telephone, via other communication technologies, and even from far away when someone shouts.

  • Processing

After and even as we hear oral language, we engage in auditory processing, making sense on an auditory level of what we have heard. This is something that happens in our brain when we make meaning from words and sentences.

Some people can process auditory information very quickly, while others may need a little longer. This variation, which can all be within the range of normal, impacts the way listening helps us understand language.

  • Applying a Schema

As we process oral language, we activate our schema, or what we already know about the topic we are hearing about. Then, we assimilate, or merge, the new information into our schema, and this enables us to understand it.

How Listening Facilitates Communication

How does listening help us communicate with others? Well, it is really hard to understand where another person is coming from without listening to them. The following example illustrates the significance of listening.

Ben and Matthew are two colleagues who have e-mailed back and forth a few times because they disagree about how to approach a project they are working on together. They decide they should meet in person to discuss the disagreement.

Ben and Matthew take turns sharing their points of view. While Matthew talks, Ben leans in and really focuses on what Matthew is saying. He even asks Matthew to repeat himself a few times, so that he can fully process Matthew's words and perspectives.

Matthew does the same for Ben, and once each of them has listened carefully and actively to the other, they realize that there is more overlap between their perspectives than they initially believed. Listening to each other has helped them find common ground so that they can develop a stronger project in collaboration.

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