Where teachers meet and learn

Collins English for Life: Listening

Ian Badger

HarperCollins Publishers, London (2014)

ISBN: 978-0-00-754268-0

128 pages, paperback

B2 Level to Upper Intermediate

What exactly is perfect spoken English? Is it English spoken only by a native speaker? Is it English spoken by someone with perfect grammar? What if a native speaker uses non-standard grammar or speaks in incomplete sentences? What if a non-native speaker does the same? If we can understand the main message, do we still consider this imperfect English?

All these are intriguing questions that arise when teaching English and they are all addressed in Ian Badger’s excellent Collins English for Life: Listening. Students are exposed to a world of English that sounds very different from the standard, concise, perfectly-executed, studio-isolated, and never-digressing material found in most English audio exercises. They hear speech in everyday situations, complete with authentic background noise, slang, idioms, incomplete sentences, interruptions and sometimes ... terrible phone connections (oh, the horror!). In addition, the speakers range from native to non-native, giving the listener insight into common mistakes or shortcuts made by the speakers.

As a fan and user of the English for Life series, I expected nothing but greatness from this book and I was not disappointed. This book is a solid offering for the upper-intermediate learner and a perfect complement to the Speaking books. The Listening series focuses on exposing the listener to authentic English: all audio is “unscripted and may contain natural errors” such as varying rates of speech speed, as well as grammar or pronunciation which is sub-standard. Topics range from social media to holiday destinations to making arrangements, and they can be adapted to both one-on-one sessions as well as group lessons. While this book is not necessarily tailor-made for Business English, most of the topics would be suitable for small talk.

The book’s 20 units are presented in five sections: Lifestyle; Practical Advice and Information; Attitudes and Behaviour; Passions; and Memorable Experiences. The 56 recordings are spoken by English speakers worldwide, including speakers of Scottish, Indian, Chinese, and Australian origins (whose accents can be notoriously difficult for ESL learners). I find this approach to be beneficial as it creates many opportunities to compare cultural differences as well as regional pronunciation and grammar usage. The listener thus becomes accustomed to many spoken varieties of English and not just those of the US or the UK. With the English language undergoing change every day, partly as a result of e-commerce, this is essential.

Each unit could generate fruitful discussions about cultural differences and possible misunderstandings, which I feel is an important aspect of actively listening to someone and truly understanding their opinions or feelings. Students also learn what information requires more focus and which words or phrases can simply be ‘let go’ when listening. Overall, I found the most positive aspect of this book to be the way it encourages conversation between learners, especially when they are attempting to rephrase something they've heard into their own words.  As a lone drawback to the book, I did find some of the presented grammar and vocabulary sections to be rather easy for the B2+ level, but they still provide revision and one realises that the focus is truly “tendencies in everyday, spoken English”, not grammar or vocabulary overload.

Below are notes from a lesson I used with Business English students.

Section 2: Practical Advice and InformationUnit 6: Technical help (Scottish, English)

  •  Class: size (4); level (mixed B1-C1); nationality (German)
  • Observations: first call between Scottish customer and English customer-service agent was enough for a 60 to 90 minute session. The quality of the call was not very good and one student said it sounded like “a 911 emergency call from American TV”. The two speakers interrupted each other very often. Lower level learners often had to follow the transcript for details but the gist was never entirely lost and they still found it extremely useful.
  • Extended discussion: how the customer-care agent managed to stay patient and guided the conversation, often explaining technical things in impressively basic ways.
  • Surprises: even advanced learners had a very tough time with the gap-fill exercise in which students are asked to complete the phrases used by the customer-service agent. It was standard ‘customer- care speak’ and I was glad they were being exposed to such phrases. As a learner of German, I have avoided these kinds of conversations for fear of not understanding and I assume that many of my students had little exposure to such phrases due to the same type of fear.
  • What I liked the most:  the presence of static and distortion was actually something I enjoyed. Many phone conversations can sound exactly like this. I also had all learners take turns explaining the extensive vocabulary (internet and broadband) in their own terms. They enjoyed trying to stretch their own non-technical vocabulary to explain technical terms.

Overall, I highly recommend this book for use with any B1-B2 learner, especially those looking to improve their listening skills or wishing to sound more like a native speaker. The beauty of this book is that it will not only improve the learners’ listening skills but it will also broaden their understanding of world cultures, prompt them to speak quite often, and perhaps give them a greater sense of accomplishment with regard to their own pronunciation or comprehension of vocabulary.

Damion A. Sanchez