Repeat After Me: A Defense of Listen-and-Repeat Tasks

One of our company values at Emmersion is to be a Truth Seeker. To be a Truth Seeker is to continuously look for new perspectives and gain new information about ourselves. We are comfortable with questions—even questions that seem tinged with criticism. We are passionate in mastering our craft, so we welcome a chance to reflect on, and then respond to, a critique. 

Ideally, this results in either a greater understanding for why we do a certain thing or an openness to try a better way. We recognize that you cannot truly innovate without being patient with someone who does not initially “get it” and is being honest about what actually works. 

Recently, I was having a conversation with a potential client about our TrueNorth Speaking Test. They completed a demonstration and seemed particularly interested in the first part of the test that uses a task type called elicited imitation (EI) that many people have not seen in a language test. They identified it not by its name, but rather with a description of its function.

With an EI task, you first listen to a sentence in a specific language, and then you repeat aloud the sentence that you heard as completely and accurately as your ability in the language allows. Simply summarized in their words, “it’s a listen-and-repeat task.”

Elicited Imitation

I inferred from their questions a measure of doubt that this task of listening and repeating would do what the test claims—accurately predict an individual’s ability to speak a language. This hesitation is not new to us. I personally asked a similar question in 2006 when I assisted in early research on EI long before I knew the role it would play in my career.

Part of our journey of truth-seeking has been extensive research that affirms that elicited imitation does work. It can, indeed, be used to predict a person’s speaking ability level.

Again, we recognize that these questions are the natural consequence of the fact that our methodology is innovative. We consider it a privilege to share and explain these innovations. 

We also recognize that part of the hesitation towards listen-and-repeat tasks stem from cultural elements in language learning and teaching that rightly promote communicative instruction and practice. In the early 2000s, I was teaching English in Korea, and everyone wanted “free talking.” Not free in the sense that they were not willing to pay for it, but free in that it was unscripted and natural.

As a language learner, I have experienced the thrill of free talking. It is satisfying and motivating, and that alone is worthy of our consideration. However, as a language teacher and tester, I have experienced the limited consequences of free talking—speakers who are abominably fluent. Fluent in that their language output is high; but, abominable in that their language quality is very low.

When the learner language is unmoored from actual constraints of the language in terms of core features of grammar, pronunciation, and vocabulary, no one wins. Listen-and-repeat tasks help a language learner ground their practice in language that is accurate, varied, and hopefully well-sourced. Listen-and-repeat tasks should not replace all other types of communicative language practice, but they offer a clear and compelling complement in language teaching and testing with distinct benefits. Below, I highlight six for your consideration.

Listen-and-Repeat has Inherent Value in Language-Learning

1. Listen-and-repeat tasks align with natural patterns of language acquisition

Picture a child learning their first words in their own language. A proud parent leans over them, pointing to themselves, while repeating the goal word, “Daddy.” At the child’s success, the parent would not guffaw this achievement or say, “you’re just copying what I say.”

Not just with the first word, but at every stage of language mastery, so much of language-learning is, to some extent, listening and repeating.

When do we step away from simply repeating to creating the language? When we have the linguistic machinery that more spontaneous speech at that level requires. How do we refine this machine? Through appropriate input and structured practice. Listen-and-repeat tasks provide both in ways that are natural and familiar to the language-learning areas of our cognitive infrastructure.

2. Listen-and-repeat tasks target precision by restricting avoidance

As a language teacher and tester, one frustration I have faced when trying to assess performance is avoidance. Avoidance is a language-use strategy that successful language learners employ. When communication matters, it is a good thing to stick with what you know. However, particularly as learners become more advanced, they have more ability to squirrel around gaps in their language knowledge and skill set.

Knowing where these gaps are is critical to knowing where a learner falls on the ability spectrum and what they need next. Listen-and-repeat tasks require contact with language elements that would otherwise be avoided.

This is helpful at all levels. Grabbing the gist is not enough; listen-and-repeat tasks help learners identify and then fill in the gaps to become precise users of the language.

3. Listen and repeat tasks highlight the role of memory in language proficiency

Isn’t a person’s ability to listen and repeat just a matter of memory? Memory is an essential feature of language performance. As such, should we expect that any task that measures language ability to be a memory test? Absolutely. Does getting increased insight into a person’s ability to apply memory in the context of language performance helpful to predict proficiency? Indeed.

Now, hold onto your hat. I think that this might be effectively explained with a personal dance metaphor—trust me.

My daughter clogs. Clogging is a style of dance similar to tap dancing, but the plates on the bottom of the shoes are loose to give them a double-tap. Double the noise is double the fun, right? (Unrelated life pro-tip: don’t quarantine with someone who has a clogging passion.) 

Applied to this topic of listen and repeat, if my little clogger were to stand in front of me, perform one of her routine sequences, and ask me to repeat it, in my inevitable and inglorious failure, I would likely say, It’s true my memory is failing me, but understanding why it is failing me is important.

Crediting memory alone with success or failure would be an unhelpful simplification.

First, in watching her performance, I do not have any knowledge that would help “chunk” what, for me, are random movements into larger composite units like a rock step or shuffle step. Additionally, I lack any familiarity of how these steps are often combined. However, my wife, who has clogging experience, would be much more successful at watching what was done and breaking it into meaningful pieces—in language terms, “chunks.”

Then, there is the hand-off from watching to actually doing. If I thought memory was tough standing still, shifting my focus now to moving my body will truly sink my battleship. I haven’t trained the kinesthetics that would enable me to recall and execute the pattern of movements and leave me any bandwidth to remember what I was supposed to do next.

Again, my wife would do far better. Not just because her memory is superior, but because she also has the nexus of skill that this application of memory requires.

4. Listen-and-repeat tasks target automaticity between input and output

Now, imagine you have just won an Academy Award. Taking your time to gather your thoughts would be seen as natural and appropriate. However, most communication demands there to be little to no lag in the handoff between listening and speaking.

When was the last time you timed 30 seconds between asking someone a question and expecting their response? Can you imagine if, in response to your question, a customer service agent gave themselves 30 seconds to formulate a response? 

Yet, 30 seconds of preparation time (or more) is typical across most spoken language assessments. I will admit, it is typical because it is reasonable; it gives the person time to generate ideas in a space that they may not have previously considered.

However, this, too, is inauthentic in most situations of real communication. I would hope that a customer service agent is not making up an answer on the spot. My hope is that they are running from a script of expertise that informs quick responses that are clear and accurate even if they are not their own words—inherent goals of listen-and-repeat tasks.

Listen-and-repeat tasks force this shortened cycle time in a natural and authentic way if you are wanting to see a person’s ability to communicate in instances where there is a much shorter gap between turn-taking. 

5. Listen-and-repeat tasks provide inherent and clear feedback mechanisms

Referring back to the free-talking practice that I encountered in Korea, one of the real limitations that even the satisfied customers would admit to is that feedback is antithetical to the concept. When to correct, how to correct, and even what to correct are fuzzy, at best.

How can I give feedback when the communicative goal was not pre-defined? Practice sessions end with a “that was really good. I enjoyed our chat.” Which is true. “You did very well” can also be true, but it also glosses over what was choppy, sloppy, or even flat-out wrong.

In contrast, providing very specific feedback following listen-and-repeat tasks is one of the task type’s marked advantages, because what the response should have been has been clearly defined. This opens a lot of opportunities for different types and modes of feedback. In ways that are both satisfying and helpful, listen-and-repeat tasks can direct a learner’s attention to discrete and actionable areas for improvement.

6. Listen-and-repeat tasks reinforce imitation

Washback is one of the terms in test jargon that I have a love/hate relationship with. I hate it because it sounds like backwash, which is gross. I love it because it is important.

Washback reminds a test-maker that test-takers are going to be affected by their experiences taking a test after the test ends. Test-takers assume that what we have tested is what is valued.  So, after a test, they are likely to pattern their practice efforts by modeling the performance demands of the test.

In this instance, the washback of the listen-and-repeat section of the TrueNorth Speaking Test is language-learners that would be more likely to engage in listen-and-repeat practice with the previously-stated benefits.

I hope I have now conveyed that, as someone who is passionate about language-learner’s success, I am more than comfortable with this potential washback.

Gaining Ground with Language-Learning 

It is not my intention to claim that listen-and-repeat is the only (or even the best) way to learn a language. I am only saying there are definite inherent benefits to the method. When language-learners can incorporate various methodologies into learning a language (or anything, for that matter) they improve faster than without.

The TrueNorth English Speaking Assessment was developed to modernize the English language assessment test with patented artificial intelligence and machine learning. This technology allows for immediate results and scoring as opposed to all other language assessments that take 24 to 48 hours to grade. TrueNorth provides a convenient and immediate English testing solution that has been validated and calibrated to global testing standards and is also available in several other languages.
Some of the largest international companies rely on TrueNorth testing every day. With this technology, BPOs and international companies utilize real-time data and reporting to assist in attracting and hiring the best talent. Additionally, more than 650 universities, colleges, and training institutions around the globe use the TrueNorth platform for course placement and progress tracking. TrueNorth is delivered online with only the need for headphones and microphones.

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