The application of electroencephalographic technology in teaching listening comprehension

Yoshihiro Hirata and Yoko Hirata
Hokkai-Gakuen University
Sapporo, Japan

Teaching 'listening' has long been regarded as one of the most problematic areas in second and foreign language education. Recently various applications of online listening activities and digital audio programs in computer-assisted language learning (CALL) systems and Web-based independent learning programs have dramatically expanded the options for developing students' listening skills (Rost 2002). These technology-based learning systems seem to provide a language learning environment based on student choice and to help in dealing with the diversity of language learners and different proficiency levels. However, there are few reports on the topic which would assist students in making the most of these environments to improve their listening skills (Higgins 1995; Pennington, 1996). Listening is a highly demanding, unobservable process, and not much emphasis has yet been placed on how to assess the process, except think-aloud protocols (Vandergrift 1998) or reflective written journals (Dam 2000). In addition, teaching approaches based on the structure of the psycholinguistic mechanisms underlying this process have not yet been fully examined.

The purpose of this study is to demonstrate how electroencephalography (EEG) can be used as an effective tool to provide valuable insights into the development of listening strategies implemented in CALL environments. The relationship between the complexity of language tasks and the amplitude of the alpha band of brain waves is discussed, followed by an explanation of how EEG technology has recently been incorporated into the study of cognitive approaches to language learning. In the study, EEG technology was incorporated into 'shadowing' (the simultaneous action of repeating exactly what the students hear immediately upon hearing it) tasks in order to investigate various factors that affect Japanese students' listening processes. Shadowing has become widely used in CALL programs at Japanese educational institutions to improve students' listening abilities (Tamai 2005), but it should be noted it makes students feel stressed and fatigued, especially in the early stages of training -- which, of course, has a negative effect on learning. The main focus of this paper is on how EEG technology has been applied to understanding students' cognitive constraints and the mental pressure imposed during the listening process.

The findings suggest that the EEG information provides a more objective evaluation of how individual students respond and interact with auditory information. Another important implication is that the EEG allows instructors to better understand how specific listening tasks reduce students' anxiety during independent listening situations. Although the application of EEG technology to language teaching is a relatively new development, the results of this study suggest that this technique is beneficial to the development of communication skills in any language for students of all levels.