Lately I’ve been thinking about redundancy, again. Maybe it’s the fact that only after reading a bunch of tweets about an IATEFL presentation, moving on to 2 or 3 blogs about that same presentation, and finishing up with the actual video do I feel like I have some sense of what was actually happening. Redundancy, even that vaguely annoying verbal kind where we think, “I know, I know,” is not a glitch in communication, but one of the ways meaning emerges from a communicative experience.
There’s a lot of tricks to bringing redundancy into the classroom. One of the most used is stories that come with a story-board. But in conversation, the most natural forms of redundancy are gestures, facial expression and simply saying the same thing over and over again. When I talk with my grandmother on the phone, I have no idea how often she is waiving her hands about but I would peg her verbal redundancy level at about 80%. I sometimes get the feeling that she thinks I’m pretty thick. I recently read an article about the optimum background noise level for lip reading. Turns out people are pretty excellent lip readers. And when the noise level is pumped up just right, people’s lip reading skills peak. Too noisy and you just give up. Too quiet and you focus on the actual words.
So a few months ago, I decided to check with my students and see if they used lip reading at all when it came to understanding English. It wasn’t the most scientific of methods. I just talked and dropped my voice so that students couldn’t catch what I was saying unless they were looking at my lips moving. Unfortunately, the more serious students were taking notes, so there was no way for them to notice anything but the fact that my voice had suddenly cut out. The other problem, as identified by Ayano Sueyoshi and Debra Hardison, is cultural. It’s kind of rude to look people full on in the face when talking in Japan. That coupled with the fact that many Japanese learners of English are shy or nervous when engaging in English conversation makes the whole lip reading thing relatively rare.
So I wanted to help my students get some idea of how useful lip reading could actually be. Luckily, I was team teaching, so Scott, my partner in crime, wrote down one thing he did during the weekend on a sheet of paper. Then I told the class to make a lot of noise while Scott was answering my question. I asked Scott, “What did you do this weekend?” The students started hollering. Scott talked in a pretty low voice. I turned to the class and said, “Scott cooked spaghetti.” Then Scott showed the note to the class. Turned out Scott had cooked spaghetti. Cue students’ gasps of surprise. Or at least some mild, “wow”s here and there.
From there we watched a few Charlie Chaplin clips. The end of the “The Lion’s Cage” was pretty fruitful. I happened to have a large copy of Adrian Underhill’s phonetic alphabet from Sound Foundations. We used it to identify the shape of the mouth and position of the tongue for “c”, “d”, “m”, “n”, and “w”. Then students did their own lip-reading sleuthing game. Every student wrote down three things they had done over the weekend. I blasted some music. And relying on lip-reading skills, they tried to guess what their partner had answered. Some of the students were spot-on. Especially when they were talking to a friend and had some kind of context about how their partner usually spent a weekend. And some students were just so far off that they would explode in laughter. Whenever someone started cracking up, I would rush over, hand them a marker and get them to jot down what they thought their pratner had said and the actual sentence up on the board. Unfortunately, these were the only two I wrote down in my class notes:
“I went to Osaka” became “I slept with Ohashi.”
“Nothing special” turned into “Nothing is pizza”
I carried the lip-reading over into my warm-up activities for the rest of the week. I whispered excerpts like the following from Stories for Young Readers:
This is Keiko. She lives in Osaka. She is twenty-two years old. She speaks Japanese. She studies English…
I tried to make lip-reading a small part of lessons for the rest of the semester, especially during fluency practice. I wish I had some kind of amazing data to throw out here. But lip-reading was just one small part of what was happening in my classes at the end of the school year. All I have is my own anecdotal evidence. What I can say without a doubt is that students stopped taking notes during the warm-up exercises. Which is great. No matter how many times I had asked them not to take notes during warm-up exercises in the past, they had just ignored me. And I do think there was less looking down in general during conversation practices. Next year I am going to introduce lip-reading skills linked to phonology right from the beginning of the course. And I will collect some hard data to see if there is any there there to back up my hunch. Because after all, without some more hard information, it might just be a lot of “nothing is pizza” for all I know.
Sueyoshi, A. & Hardison, D. (2005). “The Role of Gestures and Facial Cues in Second Language Listening Comprehension”. Language Laerning (55) 4, pp. 661-699
Ma WJ, Zhou X, Ross LA, Foxe JJ, Parra LC (2009) “Lip-Reading Aids Word Recognition Most in Moderate Noise: A Bayesian Explanation Using High-Dimensional Feature Space”. PLoS ONE 4(3)
Kinney, R. & Kinney, D. (2003). Stories for Young Readers. Kinney Brothers Publishing: Saitama, Japan
Underhill, A. (1994). Sound Foundations. Macmillan Publishers: Oxford
And a big thank you to the IATEFL bloggers for lowering my almost incapacitating sense of jealousy at not being in Glasgow. Must reads include, but are not limited to:
If you have any other good ones, please let me know.