What You Said and What I Heard: Improving Oral Comprehension

astronaut-877306_640Do you remember that game on the radio, where they would play a snippet of a hard-to-understand pop song and listeners would call in to guess the lyrics? The first time I heard Elton John’s “Rocket Man” as a teen was on just such a radio segment, where callers guessed at the line “Rocket Man, burning out his fuse up there alone.” In that age before looking up lyrics on the Internet at any moment in time, it was a popular game.

Ironically, the game was not geared toward foreigners, but native speakers. Clearly, even native English speakers struggle sometimes with parsing the language of other native English speakers (as we talked about in this post). And the brain is so powerful when it comes to making up its own messages, that even incorrect perceptions are sometimes more compelling or memorable than reality. I’ll never forget my childhood best friend making up her own lyrics to “Seventy-Six Trombones” after we saw The Music Man on a school trip, and strangely, I remember her lyrics better than the original ones to this day.

When we’re learning a new language, our brains work extra hard to fill in the gaps, using whatever information we have on hand. When I was living in the Republic of Georgia, I kept encountering what seemed like the Italian word for girl–ragazza–in conversation. In fact, “ra gatsa” means something or other in Georgian. It took a special kind of consciousness–metalinguistic awareness, to be exact–to notice this resemblance and find out the Georgian meaning, but I’m sure there were many other instances in my learning where I interpreted the message incorrectly.

One task that helps fine-tune metalinguistic awareness and language learners’ ears is transcription. In this post, we talked about using transcription in the classroom as a dictation exercise, but students can do transcription as homework, or on their own (even over summer break!), as described in this post from the Learning English part of the Voice of America website. All that is needed is a video with transcription (such as TED talks or educational YouTube videos) or songs with lyrics. So long as learners can write down what they hear then compare it to the original, they have everything they need.

What you hear and what was said do not always jive, and transcription is a way to correct that. How often do your students do transcription exercises?


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