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Real Sound

July 28, 2012

The issue of authenticity often comes up when discussing audio sources for listening lessons — teachers generally feel (rightly) that  the audio and video they use in the classroom should be “natural” and “authentic,” meaning that it should reflect language that learners will encounter in authentic situations outside the classroom.  However, it’s important to reflect on the terms “real” and “authentic,” and what they actually mean in today’s media landscape.

Take the case of ambient sound at sports events: the thump of a gymnast landing on the beam or the thunder of horses hooves at the racetrack. What could be more real than that?  Hearing those sounds helps us see and understand the dynamics of the sporting event.

But not so fast.  In a documentary “The Sound of Sport,” Peregrine Andrews shows how the sounds in sporting events are enhanced or even created, from putting microphones on gymnast balance beams, archery targets, or the athletes themselves, to adding stock sound clips from a completely different source, all in the name of creating more “authenticity” for the viewer watching on TV at home.  The problem is that — either based on our experience with real life or the acoustic training we get from watching movies where sound effects are routinely added — if we see an arrow hit a target, we also expect to hear it.  As On the Media host Brook Gladstone remarks, “We prefer to hear what we expect to hear.”

In reality, what we see at home can be quite different from what we would see if we were at the event. In a blog post, Andrews writes

If we’re actually at an event, what we hear will probably be very different from what the audience at home hears. At the event we might hear little more than the crowds around us, whereas the TV audience will be delivered a manufactured soundtrack created from many elements, just as it is in a drama or a film.

On the Media: What You Hear When You Watch The Olympics
Blog post: Peregrine Andrews on the Sound of Sport: What is real?

Implications for L2 Listening

Just because something is “authentic” doesn’t mean that it is unaltered and completely reflecting reality.  The truth is that a majority of the audio we hear now is at least somewhat scripted, rehearsed, edited or produced.  Why? Because otherwise we would find it difficult to listen to and/or boring.  So just be aware that when you hear something “real,” it may not be as real as you think.

One Comment
  1. Jeanette Clement permalink

    Quite right, Helen. I’d never given this any thought. I have to say the the background noise in, say, a clip from a shopping experience can even be distracting despite the fact that it’s probably added to make the listening seem more authentic.

    I’ve always found those laughter tracks in sit-coms to be amusing. I try to listen carefully to pick out a voice I can identify – you know, the overly loud guffaw or the very giggly girl.

    In the area of L2 listening: I recently pulled out a “lecture” we’d created in-house. It was totally scripted. I was unable to locate the slides we’d created to accompany the lecture, so we had just the audio. It was amazingly difficult for my students to comprehend the audio even though it was pitched to a lower proficiency level. Why? There were no visuals to help students comprehend this very poorly recorded audio. There was background noise, but certainly not the type we’d want!

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