Saturday, July 28, 2018

Mesmerizing teaching (and pronunciation teachers)
The topics of  attention salience and unconscious learning have come up any number of times over the course of the history of the blog, beginning with one of my favorites on that subject back in 2011 on Milton Erickson. In part because of the power of media today and the "discoveries" by neuroscience that we do, indeed, learn on many levels, some out of our immediate awareness, there is renewed interest in the topics--even from Starbucks!

A fascinating new book (to me at least) by Ogden, Credulity: A Cultural History of US Mesmerism, summarized by Neuroscience News, explores the history of  "Mesmerism" and a bit about its contemporary manifestations.(QED. . . . if you were not aware that it is still with us!) Ogden is most interested in understanding the abiding attraction of purposeful manipulation or management of unconscious communication, attention and learning. One fascinating observation, from the Neuroscience News summary is:

" . . . that one person’s power of suggestion over another enables the possibility of creating a kind of collaborative or improvisational performance, even unintentionally without people setting it up on purpose."

Get that?  ". . . collaborative or improvisational performance . . . created "unintentionally" Are you aware that you promote that or do any of that in your classroom? If you are, great; if not, great, but is that not also an interesting characterization of the basis of interaction in the language teaching classroom, especially where the focus is modeling, corrective feedback and metacognitive work in pragmatics and usage? In other words, suggestion is at the very heart of instructor-student engagement in some dimensions of the pedagogical process. Unconscious learning and relational affinities were for some time contained in Chomsky's infamous "black box," but are now the subject of extensive research in neuroscience and elsewhere.

And there are, of course, any number of factors that may affect what goes on "below decks" as it were. Turns out there is  (not surprisingly) even a well-established gender dimension or bias to unconscious learning as well.Ya think? A 2015 study by Ziori and Dienes, summarized by Frontiers in, highlights a critical feature of that cognitive process keyed or confounded by the variable of "attentional salience."

In that study, "Facial beauty affects implicit and explicit learning of men and women differently", the conscious and unconscious learning of men was significantly downgraded when the task involved analyzing language associated with the picture of a beautiful woman. Women, on the other hand, actually did BETTER in that phase of the study. The beautiful face did  not distract them in the least, it seemed, in fact to further concentrate their cognitive processing of the linguistic puzzle.

Now exactly why that is the case the researchers only speculate. For example, it may be that men are programmed to tend to see a beautiful woman more initially as "physically of interest", whereas women may see or sense first a competitor, which actually sharpens their processing of the problem at hand.  It was very evident, however, that what is termed "incentive salience" had a strong impact or at least siphoned off cognitive processing resources  . . . for the boys.

There are many dimensions of what we do in instruction that are loaded with "incentive salience", fun or stimulating stuff that we suppose will in essence attract attention or stimulate learners to at least wake up so we can do something productive. Pronunciation instruction is filled with such gimmicks and populated by a disproportionate number of former cheer leaders and "dramatic persona." The combination of unconscious connectivity and "beautiful" techniques may actually work against us.

In haptic work we figured out about a decade ago that not only how you look but what you wear can impact effectiveness of mirroring of instructor gesture in class. The fact that I am old and bald may account for the fact that students find me easier to follow than some of my younger associates? Take heart, my friends, the assumed evolutionary advantage of "beautiful people" may not only be waning, but actually be working against them in the pronunciation classroom at least! 

Monday, July 16, 2018

"A word in the hand is worth two in the ear!" (On the relationship between touch and audition in pronunciation teaching)
Just got back from a couple of weeks in China. Always good to reconnect with some of the roots of things haptic, especially Chinese traditional medicine and acupressure and acupuncture systems. About 30 years ago I was introduced to the concept of "qi" and the notion of the "energy healing" arts. Not surprisingly, the hands play a prominent part in that a number of key acupressure points are located there, especially the center of the hands, the palms. In fact, one of the most important acupressure points, Lao Gong Pericardium-8, one associated with "the place of labor" is there at the center of the palm. (To find it, make a gentle pointing fist and note where your ring finger touches the palm.)

In haptic pronunciation teaching,  most of the sounds are anchored using touch and movement, where movement, sound and touch intersect on stressed elements of words, phrases or sentences, where the fingers of one hand touch the center of the palm of the other, using any of several types of touch, e.g., tapping, scraping, slight pressure pushing up to intense, extended pressure.

In pronunciation teaching, and especially when focusing on vowel and consonant articulation, awareness and direction of touch, as with various articulators in the mouth or throat area, may or may not figure in prominently in pedagogy. Generally, the latter, unfortunately . . .

A fascinating new study by Yau of Baylor College of Medicine , reported by, has, in some sense "uncovered" more of the basic interdependence of  hearing and touch. In part that is because both senses are managed or mediated in something of the same area of the brain. The most striking finding, however, is that the same degree of "supramodality" probably applies across all the senses as we think of them today.

In other words, evidence of a touch-hearing supramodality confirms again that the same interrelationship probably does exist among all senses, including (as in haptic work) kinesthetic-visual-audio-tactile. One of the early discoveries about the function of touch in perception (and any number of studies since) has been that it serves to "unite" the senses, functioning in a more exploratory capacity, and often temporarily at that. (Fredembach, et al, 2009;  Legarde, J. and Kelso, J., 2006). Turns out, touch does more than that!

When instructors, especially those with adult students, refer to "multi-sensory" teaching they are typically referring to visual-auditory (and maybe) some kinesthetic engagement only, not use of systematic touch. With the Yau research we understand more as to how the senses naturally connect, even without our interference or design. Also, however, we see (and feel) here the capability of touch, for example, to affect learning of sound--and vice versa.

Those with any degree of synesthesia, where senses are actually experienced thorough some other modality, have been into this from birth. We are beginning to catch up and see the potential application of that perspective. The possibilities for any number of disciplines, from rehabilitation--to pronunciation instruction are fascinating.

To not go "supramodal" now would, of course, be . . . senseless.  More on the specific application of Yau's research to enhancing pronunciation instruction in general, and haptic work specifically, will follow in subsequent posts.

Keep in touch!