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How do Learners Construct Meaning in FL Listening Comprehension?
Maria Inêz Probst Lucena

Introduction

A considerable amount of research has been developed in the past few years in an attempt to provide an account of how incoming aural information is processed and comprehended by FL learners. As has been assumed, by means of complex processes listeners construct meaningful representations which are identified by short-term memory and then stored in long-term memory. Listening comprehension is thus considered a complex, active and conscious process in which listeners also make use of their prior-knowledge and contextual cues to process and understand meaning from texts (Call, 1985; O’Malley et. al, 1989; Richards, 1983).
This paper is an attempt to provide an overview of what is posited in the literature about listening comprehension; to call attention to the difficulty encountered by listeners when engaged in processing aural information and to present and discuss pedagogical recommendations to enhance listening comprehension in language learning/teaching.

Background

Human beings have a limited-capacity working memory that is used in tasks such as reasoning and comprehending To avoid exceeding the limit of cognitive resources in working memory, individuals transform sentences into chunks – the unit or segments of processed information. After this transformation, individuals extract basic units of meaning named propositions. This transformation of texts into segments in listening comprehension is possible because there is an interaction of syntactic, semantic and phonological knowledge. When transformations into chunks are not possible, problems occur in comprehension reflecting the fact that there has not been an interplay between the information presented and the listeners’ knowledge of the language or their knowledge of the topic (O’Malley et al., 1985; Richards, 1989).
After recognising linguistic elements, individuals need to retain them in their working memory in order to interpret meaning. Although meaningful mental representations are constructed based on the words and the message heard, rather than retaining details of syntax or wording, it is the general meaning that will be maintained in memory. In other words, once propositional meaning is interpreted and reconstructed, the original form of message is deleted (Call, 1985; Berquist, 1997).
During listening comprehension in second language, complex texts may be particularly difficult to be processed because memory is already overloaded with unencoded elements while having to deal with the combination of segments during comprehension. One way of facilitating this is to save cognitive resources by activating knowledge in long-term memory and then relating it to new information..
An incoming message is thus interpreted through creative and active processes in which listeners elaborate on new information by using old information, Different parts of the text may be connected by listeners based on what they already know about the topic. When incoming information and previous knowledge are matched against each other, comprehension occurs (Faerch & Kasper, 1986). Thus, during the listening comprehension process, the body of knowledge listeners have about a specific situation will enable them to interpret a great amount of information processed.
When meaning is interpreted based on linguistic knowledge, listeners can be said to use ‘bottom-up’ processing. In this case, meaning is being constructed word by word or by linking segments in order to generate larger units of meaning. Since ‘memory works with propositions, not with sentences’ ( Richards, 1983: 221), more of an individual’s cognitive resources and time will be required for processing the meaning of text. Less proficient listeners show that they directed their attention to the surface of the language to comprehend the aural information. Recognising linguistic elements, while essential to the process, is not sufficient for comprehending what is heard. Listeners must be able to retain these elements in short-term memory long enough to interpret the utterance to which they are attending. During the process of comprehending incoming information, listeners should be able to combine and integrate the most important parts in order to free cognitive resources which should be available for the construction of the general meaning which is constructed in terms of deletion, generalisation and construction (Kintsch & Van Dijk, 1978; Eysenck &Keane, 1996).
Incoming information is also inferred based on listener’s pre-existing schemata. As has been suggested, understanding spoken language is essentially an inferential process based on a perception of cues rather than straightforward matching of sound to meaning. When incoming information cannot be completely processed, inferences make texts comprehensible. As noted by Faerch & Kasper (1986), in order to ‘bridge’ gaps in input or knowledge, learners - especially L2 learners - make guesses based on any information available. The use of elaborative inferences helps in the creation of an overall mental model of a passage. This model is constructed by filling in the missing links of a sequence in a text, thus the coherence of constituents of a passage is maintained (Whitney et al, 1991). That is, contextual information and linguistic knowledge helps to infer meaning of unknown items. As stated in Smith et al. (1994), the ability to make inferences is central to efficient communication. They change general concepts into more concrete ideas. As a result, these ideas are more easily maintained in memory.
This conceptual view presented above offers a general view of listening comprehension and is the reference for a qualitative analysis of representative examples of how meaning is constructed by students at three different levels of competence.

Data and participants

The participants in this study were Brazilian secondary school students divided into three different levels of competence. The division into three different levels of competence followed the criteria established in the EFL program developed at the school, which distinguishes level one as advanced; level two as intermediate and level three as beginner.

Procedures

Students listened to two texts. One as warm-up and the other as the target text. Subjects were informed that their task was to try to comprehend the recorded passage. When the text ended, they were asked to write, in Portuguese, whatever and as much information understood as possible.

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