Listening isn’t the opposite of speaking

A lot of people think that listening is the opposite of speaking. A lot of people also believe that when they listen, their understanding is the same as what the speaker intends. Sadly, both of these assumptions are not true. Phonologists and linguists, Boersma and Hamann (2009) in their model of listening demonstrate that the listening process is not the same as speaking, just run backwards. Instead, listening is an independent process of interpreting sounds and matching them to words. Wydell (2006), and other researchers say that vocabulary is stored as phonological objects in our heads. That means it’s easy to make listening mistakes, like “assist a passenger” and “a sister passenger” (Field, 2003), which changes the whole meaning of the conversation. Even if you hear the words correctly, you still have the problem of understanding what the speaker intends. A person might say “I like it”, but depending on the intonation, the meaning can change (Halliday and Greaves, 2008). Finally, while listening, we interpret other people’s meaning mainly based on what we think they mean. Often, the intended message is accurately received, but not always, and this is where miscommunication often begins. So, this is why we should always double check our understanding, and always ask if we think something isn’t quite right. A good practice in business is right after a phone call is to write an email saying thanks for your time, and with a summary of the phone call. This gives the other person a chance to respond and correct any potential misunderstandings.

Speaking and perception

Speaking and perceptions, from anon.


Boersma, P., and Hamann, S. (2009). Introduction: models of phonology in perception. Berlin, Germany: Mouton de Gryuter. In P. Boersma, and S, Hamann (eds). Phonology in Perception, p. 1-24. Berlin, Germany: Mouton de Gryuter

Field, J. (2003) Promoting perception: lexical segmentation in L2 listening. ELT Journal, 57(4), p. 325-334

Halliday, M., and Greaves, W. (2008) Intonation in the Grammar of English. London, UK: Equinox.

Wydell, T. (2006) Lexical access. In P. Li (General Editor), and M. Nakayama, R. Mazuka, Y. Shirai (eds). The Handbook of East Asian Psycholinguistics, Volume II, Japanese, p241-248. New York, USA: Cambridge University Press.

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