At the beginning of this week I had the pleasure of taking part in a very informative series of teacher trainings during the ELT PEARSON Conference “Minds Wide Open”, which made me ponder on some of the points discussed, and re-position them in the context of the way we communicate today, using spoken language and the written word. I would like to share some of these ideas with you here, on the English Learners’ Blog. My thanks go to Mr JJ Wilson, and Mr Daniel Brayshaw for allowing me to use selected content from their presentations on this blog post.
The Illusion of
“What I thought I heard”,
or the Crux of
Understanding Spoken Language
In the beginning of his presentation, “Great Speakers Need Great Listeners”, JJ Wilson made a very valid observation concerning the difficulty shared by both people and computers when it comes to recognising speech. As proven by recent speech recognition software research, a sentence like
“It’s hard to recognise speech” was read by a computer as “It’s hard to wreck a nice beach”.
Just the other day, while surfing my TV channels I heard a Polish lector translate the phrase “tuckered out” (exhausted, very tired, in the context “Oh, look at her, poor thing! She’s all tuckered out!”) as “delikatnie” (gently, soft).
What separates people into listeners and good, or even great listeners?
We all build temporary hypotheses while listening. JJ Wilson adds that, apart from that, good listeners test these hypothesis and learn not to take all utterances at face value. They know how to persevere in their attempt to understand in spite of the various parts of what they hear while listening that they do not understand. Good listeners are not as easily discouraged by the parts they do not understand, as the “all-or-nothing learners” are who lack nuances like: “I did not understand this part, but I did understand…”.
It is also essential to understand the speaker, not only the words & sentences in use, because, as real-life contexts often show, that is not always enough.
In understanding the speaker, the good listener makes use of both his linguistic and his worldly knowledge, such as the conventions of turn-taking, or interpreting speech as relevant to a status or position of power, and so on. A good listener focuses on the important facts and ignores anything else.
Are you a good listener in all the languages you speak? Research shows that good listeners in their first language do not automatically transfer their knowledge and strategies into another language they acquire. Which is why teachers have to teach listening strategies to students, especially to those who recognise the importance of acquiring and applying them when communicating in a foreign language. 🙂
Before proceeding to the list of listening strategies proposed by JJ Wilson, let me redirect your attention to a project called “Say Something Nice”, initiated by ImprovEverywhere, as part of the Guggenheim Museum exhibition stillspotting nyc. Speaking for the sake of saying something nice sounds like a pleasant premise for listening, doesn’t it? Watch the video and decide for yourself what you would say if you had to… say something nice.
Have you heard of Blaving? It is the new vocal social network. On the Discover Blaving page of the site you can find out how to record your first blav, how to upload an existing audio file from your computer, how to send invitations to your friends from Facebook, to your twitter followers, or link your account with Facebook or Twitter.
The English coursebooks in use today have already incorporated email writing and text messaging. I wonder how many more new media and social networks will be featured in next year’s editions of the same coursebooks we use today. Whatever the changes, the world will always need good listeners.
Take a look at the JJ Wilson’s list of listening strategies below and see how many of them you are using while listening. Is there anything you might want to add?
The List of 12 Common Listening Strategies of the Good Listeners
1. Own the conversation.
2. Provide constant feedback.
3. Are worldly listeners.
4. Use visual clues.
5. Are experts at self-monitoring.
6. Tolerate ambiguity and persevere.
7. Question the completeness of their understanding.
8. Identify specific problem areas.
9. Listen between words.
10. Think ahead.
11. Focus on what is valuable.
12. Listen to different things in different ways and ignore anything else.
At the end of the 50-minute training session I was testing my own abilities of using these strategies while listening and realised that the presentation title corollary is equally valid: great listeners need great speakers, which JJ Wilson most definitely was. Attending sessions like his is one of the reasons why I love ELT Conferences.
The Realities of Writing
The last session of the day, “Getting Writing Right” by Daniel Brayshaw, focused on the re-integration of writing into the space of the English lesson from its common-place exile in the “homework assignment” area.
Another focus of Daniel Brayshaw’s presentation was the reality of the writing process. Students should be directed towards writing to real audiences and writing with a real purpose. Example of potential recipients of the students’ letters could be Universities, NGOs, singers, actors, sport players, or even Government institutions. Sending messages that are relevant reflections of the students’ aspirations, communicative goals or creativity are essential activities for the improvement of their writing strategies and skills, as well as for the style and register approached.
The same quote JJ Wilson used in his sessions could be applied to Daniel Brayshaw’s presentation: people do not only construct their speech in order to get something, but they also write in order to obtain something. One of the initial questions asked during this presentation was: What do we write?
The top answers, as you can imagine, were emails, text messages and Facebook statuses, closely followed by notes, post-its, blog posts, essays, articles and exams.
What about hand-written letters? the question rose around me.
We did not get into the topic of letter writing, much less into letter hand-writing, as this topic fell outside the focus of Daniel Brayshaw’s session. On the same day of the Conference, however, I happened to come across an article in The New Yorker magazine about the rise and fall of the US Postal service as it was captured in 14 New Yorker magazine covers from 1927 until now. The article was posted by Mina Kaneko and Françoise Mouly. Its content is summarised below, in this last part of my post, under each cover of the magazine, which leads me to other reasons why I love ELT Conferences: namely for what happens after these conferences, for the associations triggered by the sessions and, last but not least, for the connection with other ELT professionals sharing their passion about learning, teaching and some of their multifarious aspects.
The Rise and Fall of the U.S. Postal Service in Fourteen New Yorker Covers
Valentine’s Day cover,
in one of his many guises:
This early Steig cover shows the reach
of the postal system to the remote countryside.
Rural delivery became a permanent service in the early twentieth century, and personal mail receptacles were required for delivery by the twenties.
sent overseas in the Second World War,
the postal service was their only link to family, loved ones—and money orders.
clause of the
the postal service’s
works through a snowbank of
children’s letters, with the aid
of a state-of-the-art Dictaphone.
In 1955, even city folks’ schedules still revolved around the mailman’s last pickup.
scramble to get
their returns postmarked
by April 15th,
in the days when
the mail service
was the only
means of filing.
A lone mailman stands in the darkness of a foyer
on his route.
Steinberg’s love of mail itself:
postage stamps, handwritten scrawls
on scenes from abroad—
tangible marks of a
person writing from a
different place, thinking
a couple of years
during the Depression,
the volume of mail
handled by the Post
the twentieth century.
Colourful greeting cards
one of the postal
times of year.
By the mid-nineties,
the downpour of mail-order catalogues was a rite of fall.
In 2001, the volume of first-class mail reached its apex, at ten times its 1925 level, and 2006 was the peak year for all classes of mail combined.
“Every time I come out of Penn Station,” David Macaulay said, “I look at that post office with the wonderful phrase ‘Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds’ ”—the unofficial slogan of the U.S. Postal Service, derived from a line in Herodotus’ Histories about the ancient Persians’ courier service. “And I just saw these empty spaces at the end of the building and I thought, ‘Well at least they have space to make corrections,’ ” he said. “And that’s the kind of thing that amuses me after a seven-hour train ride from Vermont. Then again, at that point, almost anything does.”
* * *
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