Listening comprehension in the foreign language classroom: the cognitive receptive processes in the development of Spanish phonological perception

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Mayberry, María del Socorro

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This dissertation examines how the acquisition of the Spanish phonological system by English-speakers contributes to the development of learners’ listening skills. The study addresses theoretical and pedagogical issues regarding the understanding of the receptive processes from cognitive perspectives of learning and language comprehension. The investigation departs from previous research that has examined almost exclusively the development of higher-level processes of listening comprehension (O'Malley, et al., 1995; Goh, 2000). This approach, however, fails to recognize evidence of the difficulties novice listeners face at the perceptual and parsing levels of processing (O'Malley, et al., 1995; Goh, 2000; Field, 2003), and the effect that these low-level difficulties have in the overall listening task. The present study explores a learning approach to understand why some linguistic elements are more difficult to learn than others. Expanding on Ullman’s Declarative/Procedural model (2001, 2004), it explores the role of the declarative and procedural learning systems in the development of the phonemic awareness of L2 sounds (i.e., the perceptual phase) and the rules of L2 lexical segmentation (i.e., parsing phase). The role of practice in the development of L2 listening skills in the classroom is also examined. The assumption in this study is that adult learners have a schema of their L1 phonological system (prior knowledge); therefore, learning the L2 phonological system (new knowledge) implies identification of L1 knowledge, awareness of L2 input, and a restructuring of the L1 knowledge structure (McLaughlin, 1990) in a phonological accommodation process (Gonzalez-Bueno, 1997) that integrates the L2 system. The results show that regular linguistic elements of the language (e.g., Spanish intervocalic /d/ phoneme) are acquired by the procedural learning system, while idiosyncratic linguistic elements (e.g., /x/ phoneme and L2 segmentation rules) are dependent on declarative mechanisms such as awareness, practice, and memorization for acquisition. The findings also indicate that, with an instructional approach that includes explicit instruction of L2 sounds and lexical segmentation, learners’ low levels of processing can become more efficient, allowing them to concentrate on higher levels of processing and facilitating their overall listening comprehension.