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Exploring the Talk of TED Talks

If you missed my presentation “Exploring the Talk of TED Talks” last year at the MATSOL 2013 Conference, please check out this great summary by Jennifer Lebedev on her English with Jennifer blog.

Exciting New Project!

Real Bad Lectures: Adventures in Academic Listening

LectureThis innovative course gives students authentic experience with the range of listening challenges faced in real classrooms, while building the language skills and listening strategies needed in an academic setting

 If students understand these lectures, they will be prepared for anything

Watch a Real Bad Lecture here!

Unit 1: Wake me when it’s over
Rhetorical feature: Tedium – Lecturer presents a boring perspective and speaks in a monotone.
Language focus: Lack of intonation, unstressed and less stressed syllables
Listening strategy: Awakeness techniques

Unit 2: Technical difficulties
Rhetorical feature: Interruption – Lecturer tries and fails to use cutting-edge technology to enhance student learning.
Language focus: Apologies and requests for assistance
Listening strategy: Ignoring audio-visuals

Unit 3: That reminds me …
Rhetorical feature: Rambling – Lecturer digresses from the topic to tell irrelevant stories and personal anecdotes.
Language focus: Personal narrative
Listening strategy: Polite interruptions

Unit 4: Wait a sec!
Rhetorical feature: Disorganization – Lecturer constantly mis-states facts, confuses issues, and has to correct self.
Language focus: Correction and repair techniques
Listening strategy: Checking for clarification

Unit 5: If you don’t believe me …
Rhetorical feature: Information Overload – Lecturer gives too many statistics, facts, and citations to prove every statement, as if students wouldn’t believe her.
Language focus: Hedging
Listening strategy: Really fast note taking

Unit 6: We’re in the fourth down
Rhetorical feature: Jargon – Lecturer constantly uses colloquial expressions and metaphors from American football.
Language focus: Idioms
Listening strategy: Using a dictionary while listening

Unit 7: Time to retire
Rhetorical feature: Autopilot – Lecturer doesn’t notice when the pages of the lecture are in the wrong order.
Language focus: Transition words to signal the relationship between ideas
Listening strategy: Making inferences

Unit 8: A penguin walks into a bar
Rhetorical feature: Comedy – Lecturer relies on puns and inappropriate jokes to keep the students’ attention.
Language focus: Synonyms and wordplay
Listening strategy: Doodling

If you’ve made it this far…

Happy April Fools’ Day everyone!

Photo credit: Math lecture at TKK.JPG by Tungsten is free of known copyright restrictions.

Public Domain Mark


Tune up your ears!

GreatLanguagGame-logoI love listening to people speak other languages and trying to identify the language. The problem is that I never know if I am right or not. That’s why I love this game called The Great Language Game.

Created by Lars Yencken, the game provides a series of short audio snippets from SBS Australia in one of 70 different languages, and choices to identify each language. It starts with two choices, then three, then four, and so on. You keep guessing until you make three mistakes. The game then provides the snippets you misidentified so you can listen and learn what they sound like.

On my first try, I got a score of 650 (making it up to deciding between five different choices), despite being unfamiliar with many of the languages and basically guessing the answer. Some languages I can easily identify (Italian, Mandarin, Arabic, etc), or eliminate as distractors (I know what Portuguese and Tagalog sound like, but not Amharic.)  I could often guess when an unfamiliar choice had sounds in common with a language I know is from the same region or linguistic family (Ukrainian sounds a bit like Russian).  Additionally, my study of phonology helped me identify some sounds. Sometimes I just had a gut feeling about which language it was, even though I am not familiar with it (Samoan??), but I can’t explain why I chose the correct answer.

Implications for L2 Listening

Aside from saving me from embarrassing my family by running after strangers in the street to ask what language they speak, this game is a great tool for teachers to develop language awareness. I find that my insight into the listening and pronunciation development of my students is much better when I know at least a little bit about their language. It is easier to identify sounds or words that they might have trouble hearing, or pinpoint the cause of pronunciation issues. It also helps me to appreciate the diversity of human language, and remember that “difficulty” of a sound is all in the ear of the beholder.

A Reminder about Academic Listening

970687_10201130969974429_1638641005_nDuring a recent vacation in Spain, I attended a Flamenco show, where I sat next to a young American woman. We started chatting and she mentioned that she had just completed a semester abroad at a Spanish university. I asked her how it went, and she paused a moment, put her head in the hands, and then looked up and said, “It was really, really hard. I’m amazed I passed all my courses.” She was an advanced speaker of Spanish when she arrived at the university, but the linguistic challenge of academic work in another language was greater than she had predicted.

She went on to describe her classes.  She told me how she tried to listen and take notes in class, but usually only filled her notebook pages with random words. I asked if the lectures were based on a textbook that she could read in preparation, and she said no, the professors talked about different topics, and some of them didn’t use a text.  I asked if she was able to make friends with any Spanish students to help her study and review the content.  She said no, because while most students studied courses for one particular major and moved from class to class in a group, she took classes from different majors, and therefore it was hard to make friends with the other students. I asked her which class was easiest linguistically.  She replied that the content in her sociology class was easiest to understand. However, she became frustrated because, although there were 10 other Americans in the class, the professor only wanted to talk about how the concepts related to Spanish society, not to the U.S. or other countries. Of course, the American students had little to contribute to this discussion.

Implications for L2 Listening

This five-minute conversation illustrated to me a couple of principles to keep in mind to support academic listening comprehension:

  • Give students multiple ways to access the content, either before and/or after a listening. There are many ways to prepare and support a student’s understanding of the spoken lecture: background readings, lecture outlines, lecture notes, study groups, etc.
  • Provide opportunities for students to engage in the topic by making connections with their own experience, which in turn enhances comprehension.

Listening and Paying Attention

For another general-audience discussion of listening, see The Science and Art of Listening by Seth Horowitz in the New York Times.  He discusses the difference between hearing and listening, which hinges on what we are paying attention to.  In other words, we hear many things at once in our environment, but usually are trying to pay attention to only some of them, such as a song or a conversation. Paying attention is often an intentional act, although it can also be reflexive, as seen in the startle reflex when we hear a loud noise. He suggests that we are losing our listening ability in a world with so much distraction, and suggests practicing by consciously paying attention to the sounds and speech we hear around us.

Implications for L2 Listening

Paying attention to speech can be extremely challenging for the L2 listener, especially if the listener is at a lower proficiency level, is tired or bored, is in a noisy environment, or is distracted or fatigued in some other way. As suggested in my last post about Julian Treasure’s TED Talk, thinking about listening in the L1 can help a learner be more conscious of the listening process in the L2.


Horowitz, S. (2012, 11 09). The art and science of listening. The New York Times. Retrieved from

Listening Better

In his TED Talk “5 ways to listen better,” Julian Treasure discusses listening, or the ways we “make meaning from sound,” and provides exercises to help improve listening — not just to speech but to all sound around us.

As to the importance oflistening, he claims that we spend 60 percent of our communication time listening, but only retain 25 percent of the information, and describes reason why, in his estimation, we are all getting worse at listening.  One reason is the invention of writing and recording technology, which has diminished the importance of careful listening. In addition, “with this cacophony going on visually and auditorily, it’s just hard to listen; it’s tiring to listen. Many people take refuge in headphones, but they turn big, public spaces like this, shared soundscapes, into millions of tiny, little personal sound bubbles. In this scenario, nobody’s listening to anybody.”

Treasure is the chair of the Sound Agency, a firm that could only exist in today’s technological world.  It “advises worldwide businesses — offices, retailers, hotels — on how to use sound.”

Implications for L2 Listening

One aspect of listening described by Treasure — pattern recognition (identifying familiar sound clusters or words) — is particularly hard for L2 learners who have less experience with a language and are less familiar with the words and patterns, thus making it more difficult for them to process the sounds they hear in a stream of speech.  Filtering out background noise is also more difficult, especially in a “cocktail room” type setting where there is a lot of speech going on at the same time. I remember at the early stages of learning Spanish, when I found it very difficult to follow a conversation if there was a television or even loud music in the background (or impossible if the TV or music was in English).

I agree with Treasure that listening should be taught in school, especially to L2 learners. Many of his suggestions for listening better could be used in the L2 listening classroom.  We are usually unaware of our listening as a skill in our native languages, and any exercises to make students more aware of listening will help improve their skill in a new language.


TED Talks: Julian Treasure: 5 ways to listen better


Treasure, J. (July, 2011) Julian Treasure: 5 ways to listen better [Video File] Retrieved from

Language and Musical Ability

Students in my linguistics class often bring up questions about the connection between musical ability and language ability.  Do some people naturally have more of an “ear” for language, the way people have an ear for music?  The connection seems logical, especially when you think about the musical nature of the rhythm and intonation patterns in English.

We can look at the question from several different points of view. I’ll handle this one first:

Does language influence musical ability?

Diana Deutsch, UCSD Department of Psychology, has done research comparing the prevalence of absolute pitch in Chinese versus English Speakers.  Absolute pitch (also know as perfect pitch) is “the ability to name or produce a musical note of particular pitch without benefit of a reference note.”  Chinese is a tonal language, meaning that a phonetic word (such as “ma”) has a different meaning when pronounced with a different tone (high, low, rising or falling).  English is a nontonal language, meaning that the tone with which you pronounce an individual word does not change it’s meaning.  In other words, if you say “ma” with a high tone or a low tone in English, it means the same thing, but tone gives the word in Chinese a completely different meaning.

The study compared two groups of music students: fluent native speakers of tonal and nontonal languages.  The results showed that speakers of the tonal language had a higher incidence of absolute pitch than speakers of a nontonal language, suggesting that “infants can acquire absolute pitch as a feature of speech, which can then carry over to music.”

Implications for L2 Listening

Since this study focused on listening to and identifying musical notes, it does not have direct implications for listening to speech, although presumably a sensitivity to tone and pitch could be beneficial in second language learning.  However, it is an interesting piece of the puzzle connecting language and music.  I’ll look more at other aspects of this connection in my upcoming posts.


Deutsch, D., T. Henthorn, et al. (2004). Perfect Pitch in Tone Language Speakers Carries Over to Music: Potential for Acquiring the Coveted Musical Ability May be Universal at Birth. 148th ASA Meeting. San Diego, CA. 2012.


A good audio slideshow from Scientific American illustrating Dr. Deutsch’s work
Diana Deutsch’s home page with links to her papers