Sunday, May 31, 2015

The SIGHTS and SOUNDS of Language

By Paul Ponce, PLS Teacher

Merriam-Webster defines audiovisual as an adjective that describes anything that is related to, or uses both sight and sound. As you probably already know, the word is usually associated with the field of film and video production. So audiovisual or A/V - for short - is something that people who deal with cameras and microphones have to worry about. Nobody else.

But when you think about it, doesn't language learning also involve sight and sound? Don't we learn to speak by decoding what we see versus what we hear? Doesn't the human body come equipped with its own variety of onboard camera, microphone and speaker system. Think about it.

So here's a little story you might have heard of.

A mom approaches her little boy, looks into his eyes as she points to herself and says, "Mama". This happens a few times. The little boy sees this nice lady in front of him, who he's become quite attached to, by the way, and hears the words that come out of her mouth. His ears sample the sound bite, his eyes focus the lens of the "camera" for a close-up shot of the scene. Stuff starts to happen in the "editing room" upstairs.

For the briefest instant, the "recorded" image and sound play again in the boy's brain, as he takes his first "baby" steps into what is to become: audiovisual learning. In nano seconds, the brain reviews the information and concludes: "Hey, we have a match!", just not in those words. It's more like: This lady in front of me (image) = "Mama" (sound). Once again, to be sure, "Mama" (sound) = This lady in front of me (image). 

Finally, the litlte boy looks at the lady again and hits "play" on the sampled sound captured earlier. Out come the words, "Ma.. ma". Naturally, Mama's onboard camera captures the tender and unforgettable moment for all of eternity.

But the story continues...

That's right. Our little boy grows and the audiovisual learning advances at full speed. He learns to speak correctly and clearly. But things get complicated right around the time the little boy is taught to read and write in school.

You see, those who teach him don't encourage the use of his on-board A/V equipment for the purposes of language learning. Instead, they insist on its replacement with what they consider state-of-the-art technology. Written language.

But let's clarify. The purpose of this observation is not to knock the power of the written word. It is obviously an invaluable tool for language and communication. But here's the thing. It's not the only one.

So with that in mind. It doesn't hurt to put a little more focus on our ability to see and hear when it comes time to learn a language. After all, we continue to be audiovisual learners of many skills in life, whether we admit it or not. That's why it is unfortunate when written language operates more as a roadblock than a bridge in the language learning process.

The key is to create the opportunity for audiovisual learning to happen in a language learning context. In fact, it is a process that can be managed, depending on the level, age and scope of learning. Students must be told in advance that the activity does will not involve reading or writing. So what does it involve?

An "audiovisual" session might involve storytelling activities, guessing games and role-playing situations. It's the type of activity that levels the playing field between those who are better listener/speakers and those who are better writer/readers.  


1. At home: Look at something, observe and think about what you see. Write down what you see. Write down what you hear.

In class: Read your description to classmates. They must guess what you were looking at. Tell them how they did.

2. At home: Watch a television commercial in English (YouTube has many).
Write down what you see. Write down some spoken parts of what is said without revealing the product or service sold in the commercial.

In class: Read your description to classmates. They must guess what the commercial was about. Tell them how they did.