Developing listening comprehension using Voice of America broadcasts from the Internet and Russian language satellite TV in the classroom

Natalie Lovick, Monterey Institute of International Studies

News broadcast speech's concentrated organization and structure require efficient handling by the listener. Because foreign language learners have imperfect control of the linguistic code, they find it difficult to filter out less important items and have more problems identifying key input, often giving up when speech rate is too rapid for them. Important components of human speech are pauses, hesitations and corrections few of which occur in broadcasts. News broadcasters need to express meaning efficiently, which leads to diminished word, and even sentence boundaries, as well as omission of some vowels and consonants. Broadcasts are often rehearsed and read, rather than produced spontaneously. Therefore, there are fewer normal "pausal phenomena." Not only is the number of words per minute higher, but there are fewer and shorter speaker "rests." In his article on listening comprehension Jack Richards refers to Krashen's proposal that authentic learning experiences "should provide comprehensible input which requires negotiation of meaning and which contain linguistic features a little beyond the learner's current level of competence." However, even at the Advanced level of language study, students often find that news broadcasts, such as heard on SCOLA, are much more than "a little beyond their current level of competence." Student frustration often follows.

SCOLA, a source of news programs for schools, is an example of a satellite television program in which speech rate is a strong factor in non-native speaker comprehension. A study by Conrad (1989) concluded that comprehension decreases after certain levels of speech rate are reached, even with high-proficiency non-native speakers. To deal with this phenomenon, some models of satellite television programming used in language learning have been introduced, mainly in French and Spanish. Several researchers, such as Campana (1992) and Vande Berg (1993), have concentrated their efforts on how to overcome some pedagogical problems that news programming brings to the classroom.

Now the Internet, readily available at most schools, brings another, possibly more flexible medium of news broadcasting to the classrooms. Voice of America broadcasts can be downloaded into a computer and saved for use in a specialized computer laboratory classroom, such as is available at MIIS, or they can be copied onto audio cassettes. This provides the student not only with authentic language and current news reports, but also the capability of repeat listening and slower speech typical of Voice of America broadcasts. With the help of their instructor, students eventually become skilled in capturing essential ideas without necessarily understanding every word.

Now, in addition to SCOLA, Russian language teachers have access to round the clock, regular Russian satellite television programming. Russian television broadcasting has undergone tremendous change since the fragmentation of Soviet television. In the past Soviet television promoted conformity and was subject to censorship and control by Soviet authorities. Glasnost changed that. Journalists began to express their personal views on the air. Live broadcasts dealing with previously forbidden topics began to appear. More entertainment oriented programming became available. At the present Russian television has a wide variety of programming that includes game shows, talk shows, feature films, cartoons, documentaries, interviews and cultural programs. These materials can be incorporated into content based courses on Russian history, culture or civilization, and they can enrich conversation courses and the curriculum as a whole. Many of these programs have a speech rate that, with the guidance of the instructor, can aid in enhancing listening comprehension and vocabulary, at the same time increasing knowledge of the social and political issues in Russia. How to incorporate these possibilities in the classroom will be covered in this paper. Segments from various satellite television programs will be used to illustrate the points made. A sample lesson using a Voice of America broadcast will also be demonstrated.