Can You Repeat That Please?
I remember once I played a game with a group of highly educated, professional ESL students I was teaching. I’ve heard this game called “Chinese whispers,” or the “telephone game,” or other things. I even remember playing it once or twice as a kid. And even with a group of kids that are fluent in the language in which this game is being played, it is still funny to see.
Basically you get the group into a circle, and choose a simple enough phrase, and whisper it into the ear of the person on one end. The rules are that they can’t speak the phrase out loud, and they have to repeat it to the person next to them as soon as they hear it. You usually start out with a phrase like “banana ice cream,” and end up with something like “purple gorilla.”
It’s really fun to play with ESL students (English as a second language) because the end result often times doesn’t even qualify as an English word or phrase. But as a teaching tool, it helps to give students an opportunity to really practice their listening skills. The goal, the ultimate goal is to develop listening skills so that even passive listening will yield some understanding. I’ve you’ve ever studied a foreign language, and have listened to a dialogue or conversation that was even slightly above your comprehension level, you know how quickly you can get tired.
On this particular group, I started out with the phrase “blue truck.” Everybody got a kick out of the final answer, and it proved an interesting point.
Moving something from conscious competence to unconscious competence can take time, and come in stages, so doing this particular exercise is one drill, out of many, that can help to speed this process up.
I remember once I was at Griffith Park in Los Angeles, a friend of mine and I had just seen what we thought was going to be a Pink Floyd laser show, where they play a bunch of cool music, while you sit back and look at light show performed up above on a special dome. Only we misread the newspaper, and it was a classical music show instead. It was still worth the money, as a combination of good music through a really fantastic sound system, coupled with some skilled laser “shapes” that move around in sync with the music is pretty mesmerizing.
But afterward we noticed outside, on the grass they had some sort of meeting of a local astronomers club. There were several telescopes set up, all pointed at different celestial bodies. I’m pretty sure that was the only time I’d actually seen the rings of Saturn firsthand. After I looked, I had a question, something to do with the rings, and when they are visible. They owner of the telescope gave us a well informed and easy enough to understand answer (although I can’t remember exactly what it was.)
Later on that evening, as we were still wandering around, I heard somebody else ask the same question that I had asked a few minutes ago. With the answer still fresh in my short-term memory, I spit it out as if it were common knowledge. After we were out of earshot, my friend gave me a hard time for pretending to know something that I just learned only moments before. Bu then he made an interesting point.
“Isn’t that all knowledge is anyway, passing on information from one person to the next, in some long chain of people?”
You can spend a lot of time digging into that idea. When we are born, none of us know anything, other than our pre wired instincts, one of which is to learn as much as we can. Obviously, that comes second to survival, getting food and staying safe, but most of us are fortunate enough to grow up where our life doesn’t hang by a thread, so we have the luxury of motoring around and figuring out as much stuff as we can. (Which is really cute to our parents, until we learn to walk, but then it’s a completely different story).
But most of the stuff that we know today as adults came from others. Mathematics, science, history, rules of grammar, most of us didn’t invent these independently in our garage laboratory as children. We were taught these by other people. Who in turn were taught by others. I guess it’s lucky for most of us that ever generation, there are a few brilliant people like Einstein and Edison and Curie that spend their lives trying to figure out new stuff, instead of figuring out how to apply the old stuff.
I had a friend pose an interesting thought experiment to me once. He was giving a toastmasters speech on the illusion of civilization that we live in. None of the stuff we have is inherently known, as discussed before. Each generation passes on information it learned, and that information is filtered through the education system loosely made up of teachers and books and libraries.
But what would happen if all that were destroyed? What would happen to the human race if the only way we could transmit information was by word of mouth? No writing, no video, no audio. Only word of mouth. We still had all the same technology, but everything had to be built according to information passed on only face-to-face.
His theory was that we are really only a generation or two, at most, away from a complete and utter breakdown of society. With no books to refer to, most of the information we take for granted would quickly be lost. I think his underlying point was that people were completely evil, and we would quickly revert to the futuristic world of “Escape from New York” or any other futuristic movie where society breaks down and only the most barbaric can survive. I’m not so sure, but I am sure that we do depend on information passed down from generation to generation. So much so that some believe this has as much effect on human development as the day-to-day survival pressures that shaped human evolution thousands of years ago.
And the interesting concept that my ESL group illustrated was how much quicker digital information is passed than analogue information. Once one of them latched onto a phrase that she not only understood, but could easily repeat well enough to be understood, that phrase quickly passed unchanged to the last person. It was interesting to watch the spread of information. Before that moment of recognition it was slow, and unsure. But as soon as she latched onto that one phrase (which of course had nothing to do with the original phrase) it flowed like water.
To discover a hidden universe of possibility, see what’s on the other side of what is underneath these here words in front of you: