Alumni Profile • Larry Vandergrift '69
Thinking about listening

Larry VanderGriftAny student of a new language knows how it feels to be set down among native speakers midstream in conversation: panic, something like drowning.

Ten years of research have persuaded Larry Vandergrift ’69 that it can, instead, feel like fun.

Now a professor at the University of Ottawa, where he teaches graduate and undergraduate students who are preparing to teach foreign languages, Vandergrift for 22 years taught French at Edmonton (Alta.) Christian High School. Over and over he saw his students anxious and frustrated at their inability to grasp ordinary French conversation. He knew the way he was teaching listening comprehension wasn’t working well enough, but he didn’t have an alternative.

“Listening is probably the most essential skill for second-language learning, and yet it’s the one skill that’s been ignored by researchers,” Vandergrift said. “It’s because we assume students learn how to listen in a second language the way they did in their first—by osmosis.”

Vandergrift’s research in what he terms “listening strategies” began in the mid-1990s, during his PhD work. Since 1998, the importance of that research has been recognized and awarded with national grants from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

What he’s learned is that while listening—in any language—is natural, it’s also an acquired skill, and therefore one that can be improved using certain strategies.

Hearing a stream of more- and less-intelligible sounds is only one part of listening, Vandergrift pointed out. “The other part of listening builds on what is in our heads already. It’s what we know from life experience. For example, when we walk into a fast-food restaurant, we know basically how the conversation will go. So if students predict and prepare to hear the main words of that conversation and don’t worry about getting every word, they’re surprised at how much they do understand.”

Vandergrift’s listening strategies teach language learners to predict what they will hear, then to listen attentively but selectively, using a range of cues and opportunities to self-correct. In these two steps, students are simply making conscious and deliberate what they do unconsciously when listening in their first language. In the last step they verify what they’ve heard against classmates’ impressions and a written text.

As Vandergrift teaches it, there’s another important transfer from first- to second-language learning: lots of opportunities to listen without evaluation.

“Without the threat of a test after a listening experience, students can relax, and the more relaxed they are, the more information they can process quickly, which is what listening requires,” he said.

“Students’ typical response to this way of foreign-language listening is, ‘Hey, I can figure a lot of this out, even if I don’t have all the details.’ They’re much more engaged because they see they could actually use the language in a real-life situation.”

Though research on listening has been the core of his academic work, Vandergrift has been active on many fronts of French language education in Canada. Most recently, as a Virtual Scholar-in-Residence of the Department of Canadian Heritage, he has researched and written a proposal for a framework for languages in Canada. Such a framework would establish a common standard that schools, employers and the government could use to rate any person’s proficiency in a language.

With that proposal moving through official channels for review, Vandergrift is back to teaching and researching. With his next project, he hopes to begin to develop the first theoretical model of second-language listening. Because he knows there’s still more to listening than meets the ear.