Creating Classroom Audio Material from Bulgarian Radio

Bulgarian is a less commonly taught language with fewer than 9 million speakers worldwide, and consequently, though there is an excellent textbook and reference grammar available, listening materials are in short supply. In the semesters I spent as a GSI for Bulgarian, I sought ways to incorporate authentic aural material into the course to give students experience with the spoken language beyond what I was able to provide, and it was out of these attempts that I developed my BLC project of creating audio materials for the classroom from radio broadcasts from the Bulgarian Darik Radio.

In order to develop aural comprehension with transferability to a real world context, students benefit from hearing the speech patterns and varieties of a number of natives speakers. Using authentic texts for listening activities in the classroom exposes students to different varieties and different registers of Bulgarian, and can familiarize students with the sounds and intonation patterns of authentic speech not adapted for the learner. This is particularly important because Bulgarian has a great deal of dialect variation, and even the dialect of the capital differs from the standard language taught in the classroom. Furthermore, most students of Bulgarian study for communicative purposes rather than reading knowledge, and so the importance of aural comprehension cannot be overstated.

Using authentic texts is also a means of reinforcing vocabulary the students have already learned by exposing them to the same words in a meaningful context, and studying authentic texts can be an interesting way to teach some new vocabulary. In the same way, exposure to grammatical features the students have already learned from the book, but now in an authentic context, can help reinforce patterns of grammar.

However, authentic texts are difficult to work with because they present the lexicon in an unmediated format. Nevertheless, Richards states that although much authentic discourse “may be too disfluent or difficult to understand without contextual support, materials should aim for relative authenticity if they are to prepare listeners for real listening”; many commercially produced listening materials for learners “are spoken at an artificially slow pace, in prestige dialects not typical of ordinary speech” (Richards 1983: 234). Full comprehension of an authentic text is an unrealistic goal; attainable goals include the practice comprehending authentic speech patterns and recognition of familiar vocabulary in an unfamiliar context. Using authentic texts may also increase students’ tolerance of ambiguity, allowing the student to approach other native-language texts—news broadcasts, television shows—more successfully.

Finally, authentic texts provide a wealth of cultural information. The student who listens to authentic texts can learn about a topic from a different cultural perspective. The student learns from what is explicitly stated, but also from what is not said—the things native speakers do not need to explain or define. This assumed shared cultural knowledge is an important part of the discourse.

Authentic texts are readily available over the Internet, but these are far too complex for the beginning (and sometimes even the intermediate) student. My project represents an attempt to bridge the divide between the language learner and authentic radio pieces by breaking down some radio programs into digestible components and creating a series of exercises to help the learner understand the ideas and some of the linguistic material found in the programs, with the goal of improving not only listening comprehension in Bulgarian, but also comprehension of the Bulgarian culture. I have spent the semester learning about approaches to listening comprehension in general, and then specifically creating activities to give a scaffolded approach to three different pieces from Bulgarian radio, trying to make the pieces maximally accessible to students who do not yet have the linguistic knowledge to understand them on their own. All three stories focus on different aspects of village life in Bulgaria, a theme frequently referenced in the textbook. I chose this theme both because of availability of material, and because I wanted a set of supplemental activities that could be integrated into the textbook-based curriculum already in use.

For each listening piece, I first tried to decide which lessons it could best accompany, based on both the degree of overlap between the radio piece and the chapters of the textbook, and on themes discussed in the textbook, when applicable. I designed each listening module to accompany more than one lesson, in order to take a spiral approach to learning. I created a variety of exercises for each module, some based on exercises I have used myself in language learning or teaching, and some based on criteria in Ur (1994) and Richards (1983). I tried to keep in mind Ur’s assertion that listening exercises are meant to train, not to test, and therefore the best practice is obtained by having listeners do an activity more or less successfully (Ur 1994:27).

Based on the my readings in the pedagogical theory of teaching listening comprehension in foreign language, I developed five goals for each listening module:
● Create scaffolding for the listener by developing different activities based on recursive listening of each text.
● Begin with a global listening or easy selective listening task, and use pre-listening activities to activate the listener scripts and introduce specialized vocabulary
● Include pictorial elements or annotations whenever possible.
● Use elements of the listening texts to practice or reinforce grammar and/or vocabulary when possible.
● Aim for global comprehension or selective comprehension rather than detailed comprehension—the cultural knowledge gained is as important as the linguistic knowledge.

Also, to make the broadcasts more accessible, I edited them from their original length of 8-10 minutes to shorter segments of 1½ to 3 minutes, using the open-source software Audacity. I also created two versions of each short segment—one at normal tempo, and a second at a tempo slowed down by 10-15%. The students can listen to each piece at the original speed, but then listen to the slightly slower version for clarification of phonetic elements or segments.
I will give some examples of tasks using the segment called “Selo Dedeler” (“Grandfathers Village”). In the segment, two journalists travel to a village, now almost deserted, and talk to two old men they find there about the current condition of the village. The first exercise is an easy selective listening task to introduce the students to the text; it relies very little on linguistic knowledge. The segment begins with a man singing a song, and then the sounds of birds and sheep bells. The journalists, two women, then describe the village. As they talk, they can be heard walking through what sounds like tall grass. Eventually, two men who call to them from a distance. The student’s task is to answer four questions (given, in Bulgarian, in advance):
1. Which words describe the place and the surroundings:
urban rural
indoors outdoors
lively quiet

2. How many people are speaking? What are their roles?
3. What else to you hear?
4. What can you say about the song at the beginning?

These questions are intended to activate the students’ listener scripts, to give them an idea of the context of the story and to prompt them to consider relevant vocabulary words they know. The fourth question, about the song, is intended to elicit a response about the language of the song—students may not recognize it as Turkish, but they will know that it is not Bulgarian. This can prompt discussion leading to the next pre-listening exercise, an adapted reading piece on a major event in Bulgarian history called “The Great Excursion,” in which 360,000 Bulgarian citizens of Turkish ethnicity fled to Turkey during the summer of 1989. This event is mentioned by name once in the radio piece, but never explained in any way, because it is shared cultural knowledge for Bulgarian listeners.

Another exercises, shown in part below, uses photos to illustrate some new vocabulary items, with accompanying questions to actively engage the students with the vocabulary. (English translations are provided in blue.)

Creating Classroom Audio Material from Bulgarian Radio

This exercise both introduces necessary vocabulary and activates listener scripts before a second listening. The use of use pictorial elements gives the students contextual clues, and increases both comprehension and retention of new vocabulary. This exercise also gives the students the task of listening again for further selective listening (e.g., when certain adjectives are used and what they describe)—this sort of recursive listening allows students to listen to a piece several different times, with a different task on each listening to decrease the sense of repetition.

Other exercises associated with this lesson include cloze exercises, in which students fill in blanks for words omitted from the text as they listen along, and comprehension exercises based both on listening and on reading a transcribed an annotated version of the text. This final element, the transcribed version of the text with unfamiliar vocabulary supplied (or similar reading-based activities), allows the students to attain the greatest degree of cultural knowledge from the text, though perhaps comprehending only segments of the spoken text. This also provides an excellent opportunity for in-class discussion of cultural issues, either in Bulgarian or in English.

Emphasizing the cultural aspect of knowledge gained through the use of authentic texts is a way to connect the learner with the discourse of the community he or she hopes to access through language. Even if students do not go on to become fluent speakers of Bulgarian, they can at least gain a measure of transcultural competence. For less commonly taught languages, especially, using authentic texts, with appropriate scaffolding activities created by the instructor, can be one more resource for both teaching language and integrating culture and communication in the foreign language classroom.

Darik Radio online:
Richards, Jack C. “Listening Comprehension: Approach, Design, Procedure.” TESOL Quarterly, Vol. 17, No. 2, June 1983. 219-240.
Ur, Penny. 1994. Teaching Listening Comprehension. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.