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Listening

On the inconvenience of listening

Lost in the foliage. The Railway Children Walk, West Yorkshire, November 2021

It’s hard to listen. You risk hearing something that you don’t want to hear. Your view of things might get a little crumpled. Someone might say something that doesn’t align with what you wanted or expected them to say or think. People, it seems, have different opinions. Not everyone sees the world quite like me. Maybe nobody. It’s terribly frustrating.

Listening inevitably reminds us of the gap between us. Listen closely, and you’ll hear how clunky our words actually are. We try to express ourselves but our ten of thousands of words create an insufficient digital approximation of our analogue experience. Body language steps in to compensate. Facial expressions give texture to our meanings. But our noisy biases result in erroneous conclusions.

“Slower,” I say. “Please speak slower.”

As a non-native speaker, you work with a smaller vocabulary and all the noise of your own language and culture. Listening in a foreign language takes a lot of effort. Sometimes you might sit and nod, putting all your effort into understanding, following the speaker’s fragmented, straying lines of thought, trying to congeal some sort of understanding from the words you catch. At the end of the conversation, you realise you haven’t said anything at all. There was no time to compose a thought.

“Give me a moment.”

Normally, in our own language, we can compose our thoughts as the other person speaks. It takes a conscious effort to calm our tongue – the words want to escape. We butt in with our opinions. We thrust ourselves into the conversation, spurred on by the essential nature of our thoughts, our words, our opinions, us. In a foreign language, deciphering the sounds into words and words into phrases and phrases into meanings is an all-encompassing task. The cogs whirr. The opinion doesn’t have time to form.

“Sorry, could you repeat that?”

People might mistakenly believe that it’s good listening not to jump in and interrupt the conversation. My Spanish listening is like this: mostly silent. I don’t think anyone would describe my Spanish listening as good. Or, at least, if they did, we can safely assume that they mean ‘for a non-native speaker with only a few years practise’ or they’re trying to be kind. We should be sceptical of such compliments. How many people want to feel they’re speaking to a bad listener?

Occasionally though I do interrupt and ask for clarification of the meaning of a word. A single word. The more confident I feel, the better I listen and the more I interrupt. Lost in a conversation about Queen Victoria and the Chinese Emperor, I picked up on the word knee, I got stuck on the word knee. Why was the word knee in the conversation, why was it so emphasised? Why knee?

Rodilla como knee?” I ask, pointing aggressively at my own right knee. Of course, knee. To go down on one’s knees, the emperor subservient to the empress. It makes sense when you know.

The speaker might feel frustrated at my ignorance, but this interruption is actually better listening than my silence. If I don’t interrupt, I won’t understand. To listen, to understand anything I hear, I need to pause and ask for clarification. Otherwise, I’m just sitting and nodding.

Sí, sí, sí…”

The best conversationalists, for me, in Spanish, are the ones who think about what they are saying and consider how I listen. One of my dear friends actually stops and asks me to wait while he chooses the best to explain his thoughts. He’s one of the few people I feel comfortable having a conversation with, in Spanish, on the phone. He’s not just speaking: he’s gaging whether or not I am understanding and then he’s adapting his language to compensate for my poor vocabulary and need for simple sentences. He allows me to parrot back his meaning in my own words so that we both can be sure that I really do understand what I’m being told. Often though, if I’m being totally honest, I’m tired and lazy and I don’t listen well.

 I say, “.”

I’ve written here a lot about listening in a foreign language but listening in a foreign language is not so dissimilar to listening when you’re distracted, when you’re preoccupied with your own concerns or where the content of the conversation is beyond your ability to comprehend.

We’re all lazy. If the content is technically too difficult, say requiring prior knowledge, we zone out. And if we’re preoccupied with our own thoughts, or distracted by something, for example messages popping up on a screen, the conversation often falls into silences. Divided attention leads us to nod, , but unlike the struggling non-native speaker, we often mistakenly believe we were following and did understand. Maybe you got enough to keep the conversation flowing, but how deep did those words go? Did they just scatter into the wind? Have we missed the clues? Were the words what was being said, or was there a secondary message we were supposed to hear? Are we just guessing?

When the non-native speaker is asked, they can usually admit that they only understood maybe 80% of what was said.

And sometimes we listen blindfolded because we’re on the defence before we’ve had the chance to begin. We assume we know what other people want, what they think and what they believe. We listen to the words, but we don’t wonder what’s not being said. We don’t take time to understand the motivation behind the words. Why does the conversation matter to the other person? Are they trying to sell you something, convince you of an idea, convince themselves? Do they believe what they’re saying, or are they wishing they believed it? Can we tell when someone is lying to themselves?

How are these words serving?

I think often we rush through conversations. It’s hard to listen. We all so busy: thoughts crashing through our minds, places we ought to be, things we should have read, emails that need attending to. The bathroom needs cleaning. We don’t really want to deal with the inconvenience of our routine being crumpled by something we weren’t ready to hear.

Yet I don’t know there’s much anything more valuable than an honest, open, slow and interested conversation with someone who’s attentively listening. A good conversation creates a space in which we grow, it connects us to the world, and to other people’s words. What’s more human than attending to each other’s choice of words?

Afónica: How I taught English conversation without speaking

Communication without speaking - pilgrimage route
John Francis not only stopped speaking but he also stopped riding in motorised vehicles. So I thought I’d choose one of my own photos from the Via Francigena pilgrimage route through Italy.
May 2018

The environmentalist, Dr John Francis, didn’t speak for 17 years. It wasn’t that he couldn’t, it was that he’d got sick of arguing with everyone. To tackle this, he decided to not speak for one day. That one day proved a bit of a shock. What took him by surprise was how much he learnt about listening. And so, the next day, he didn’t speak either.

This continued for 17 years.

I thought about John Francis the other morning when I woke up unable to speak. A silence they call ‘afónica’ in Spanish. A curse that teachers, who depend on their voices, are susceptible to. It was not that I felt unwell. As far as I could tell, the rest of me was fine.

Yet when I opened my mouth there was no sound

Since my job is to teach conversation this presented a unique challenge. And, like for John Francis, not speaking proved educational.

I discovered that:

  1. I hadn’t been aware of how frequently I’m speaking
  2. The students help each other more when I’m not getting in their way
  3. It’s not hard to give corrections on paper, but effective praise is always difficult

Luckily, my first class was of twelve-year-olds

It’s a good class and the students and I have a nice rapport. They don’t have an expansive vocabulary and grammatically they’re just learning the past tense, yet, due to their less aggressive hormones, they have more freedom of expression than some of the older students.

They’re all different from one another

And I’ve become rather attached to them all. One child responds to every question by exclaiming ‘oh my god’ (in Spanish), before collecting himself and answering the question. They make me laugh.

The morning’s task was a role-play about an ice-cream shop

They take it seriously as it’s preparation for their exam. The work in pairs. One child has some question prompts whilst the other holds an information leaflet. This is partly a reading comprehension exercise, but I focus on their ability to construct questions. Most errors are derived from incorrect word order or missing auxiliary verbs (do/does, am/are/is, can).

Unable to speak, I listened and jotted down corrections in my notebook

The pages filled with scrawl as the children spoke. Unless they stopped and looked at me, unable to continue without a prompt, I didn’t interrupt. I waited until they’d completed the task before sharing my notes.

Normally once they have finished, I go over the questions out loud. The children tend to lean forward in their seats to see the paper and to watch my lips. I trace over the relevant points on the paper with my fingertip. This systematic reading, after correcting for their mistakes, allows the children to hear everything joined together. It’s the point where it’s easiest to identify between those who are genuinely engaged and those who are bored. I read through the role-play at natural pace letting them feel the language in action.

But this was impossible without a voice. Instead, I used the prompts I’d scribbled down to help the children themselves find the correct phrases. Correcting pronunciation took some creativity, but somehow we managed.

Surprisingly, they needed fewer prompts than I’d supposed

Which made me question how much of my speaking is for them and how much it is for me. The truth is, I enjoy speaking. I like telling stories. But what about them? Their eyes light up when I’m telling a story, but their eyes also light up when they’re the ones with the tale to tell.

When they laugh, giggle and share their own eccentric ideas I know they’re enjoying themselves. Part of this confidence comes from my own story-telling – I make the unconventional permissible. But perhaps I’ve not been taking this far enough?

Now, I find myself wondering how can I shift back and forth between them and me in a more balanced fashion?

My second discovery was that I get in the way of them helping each other

Knowing I wasn’t going to leap in, there were a few students who started taking more responsibility for their partner’s learning.

This is something I believe to be valuable but I have been struggling to encourage.

I’ve tried mixing up the pairs of students

I was hoping to find pairs who are willing to challenge each other and push each other a little further. This is more difficult than it sounds. Sometimes the intention is there, the students want to help one another, but they do so in Spanish which isn’t helpful. Other times their kind advice becomes telling. Occasionally it takes a stronger tone and comes across as posturing.But then, there are some stunning partnerships where the peer support is wonderful to see.

And although I’ve thought about all this before, I’ve been rather blind

Because having not spoken for a day, it’s obvious that one of the biggest reasons why one child doesn’t speak up and help their partner, is me.

I’m getting in the way of the children helping one another

As without a voice, I was unable to make instantaneous corrections, they leapt in to explain things to one another. And in English. My inability made them act as if they were me. They momentarily took on my role.

It seems I need to think this over. The children are able to help one another out but often don’t. What is it they lack? Is it a sense of responsibility to their partner? Is it something to do with permission? I know I’m getting in the way here, so what is it that I need to do differently?

On reflection though, I’m proud of them and how they handled themselves.

Which brings me onto my third point, praise.

Regardless of what you do, criticism is easier than constructive praise

Constructive praise is difficult. As the conversations progressed, I took notes of the incorrect grammar, the misused vocabulary or the pronunciation errors. These mistakes stand out to me as if they were painted in vivid colours.

Praise-worthy constructions don’t flash so boldly in my awareness

Since when we’re thinking about praise, we’re thinking about incremental improvement. Especially when it comes to language acquisition. The changes from one week to the next are tiny. And yet, it’s this progress that needs to be praised. It’s the journey of continuous learning, which is so hard to stick at, that deserves commendation.

Ideally, I like to give specific praise

It is more memorable for the student. Sometimes using a phrase on the paper allowed me to do this, but I found that without a voice it was tricky.

General praise can be given through body language

Although… I already tend to smile a lot.

Excessively it has been said. And I guess in the back of my mind I have the image of a ‘cool’ person who doesn’t grin like a mad cat at everyone shouldn’t be. I’m not that person. When I’m happy it’s impossible for me to hide my smile.

Once upon a time, I worked as an au-pair

My own advice to new au-pairs, who would despair at the children they had to somehow care for, was don’t force the children to like you. We all want to be liked, but it’s important that we also respect not everyone is going to like us. When we try to be likeable, we are doing so because we’re driven by fear. We present something fake and are therefore being dishonest.

Trying to get everyone to like you is the surest way to screw-up

Already, working with teenagers I worry that they think I try too hard to make them like me because of my wild grin. Losing my voice made me more conscious of my facial expressions. I didn’t have much else to communicate praise with.

What reassured me though were the questions I’d asked earlier in the week

A teacher hadn’t turned up, so I’d taken the opportunity to ask the students for feedback. They wrote down some thoughts and suggestions.

We don’t like speaking in English but, when we have to speak with [Catherine] we feel so comfortable because she is always smiling.

[Catherine] smiles a lot and I feel safe when I talk with [her] in class.

Maybe all my worry had been for nothing

And when my voice disappeared knowing that my smile had been regarded positively gave me a bit more confidence. Which meant, that on occasion, I went further and beamed with a thumbs up at times to make my point clear.

They are all remarkable individuals.

I remember when I was reading The Ragged Edge of Silence

That’s the book John Francis wrote on his experience of being silent. He describes teaching a discussion class without speaking. It seems so contrary to my own university experience where all my teachers at university did was speak. It lodged in my mind as remarkable. In his TED talk he says:

“Now this was a discussion class and we were having a discussion. I just backed out of that, you know, and I just kind of kept the fists from flying. But what I learned was that sometimes I would make a sign and they said things that I absolutely did not mean, but I should have. And so what came to me is, if you were a teacher and you were teaching, if you weren’t learning you probably weren’t teaching very well.”

Dr John Francis

If you aren’t learning you probably aren’t teaching very well… Leaving space and silence for the students to develop their own voices shouldn’t be remarkable, it should be part of what it means to teach.

Moving onwards, what I can focus on here is:

  1. Varying how much I am contributing to the conversation
  2. Staying quiet and letting the students correct each other
  3. Investigating what is important about praise

And I can smile plenty.

Not being able to speak didn’t prove to be much of a problem

My job is one where speaking is taken for granted. But being ‘afónica’ for the day was a good lesson in the importance of speaking less.

Here’s the TED talk, if you want to watch it…