As a language teacher, I know about communicating. I also know how often people think they have communicated, but they really haven’t.
I love to play the game of Telephone with my students. We start a whispered sentence in German, and by the time it gets all the way around the circle, it is usually completely garbled and hilarious. Or we play a similar game, except with sketches that get passed around. It shows them how fragile communication really is.
“Purple monkey dishwasher” is my husband’s name for the phenomenon in which you explain something to your students, they nod and look like they understood, but then when it is time to take the test or write the essay, the words that they regurgitate back about the topic looks very little like what you said. Is it because they are stupid? No. Is it because I’m a terrible teacher? No.
Its just that communication didn’t really happen.
I have an inner ear disorder and have suffered with hearing loss for decades. I finally gathered the courage (and the funds) to go to Sam’s Club to be tested and possibly get a hearing aid.
Y’all, it was terrifying. The testing lady was awesome. There was the normal set of soft beeps and hand raising. cool, cool.
Then there was a Word Part.
The Awesome Testing Lady said; “the recording will say 25 words with a pause after each, and just repeat each word as you hear it. Let’s start with your bad ear.”
“fish. pile. turn. duck. twin. sit. donkey. nine…” “Hey, self” I thought triumphantly to myself, “this is EASY! Maybe my hearing isn’t as bad as I thought it was!”
Then, Awesome Testing Lady smiled lovingly at me, and said “Now let’s try the same words with your good ear.”
“fill. mile. dirt. muck. swim. hit. donkey. mine…:
My brain got hold of some of the sounds, AND JUST RANDOMLY AND CONFIDENTLY MADE SOME CRAP UP!!!
At least I got the donkey right.
I began to think about the deeper implications of this.
Our main unconscious desire is to maintain calm and some sort of handling of the current situation. Stasis.
SO MY DEAR, TRUSTED, BELOVED BRAIN, WHEN FACED WITH INCOMPLETE INFORMATION, WILL MAKE RANDOMLY MAKE CRAP UP WITHOUT LETTING ME KNOW IT WAS A COMPLETE GUESS!!!
I remarked on this to the Awesome Testing Lady, who had seen the phenomenon many times before, and remarked that it is sort of like the missing sounds are potholes in a road. With mild hearing loss, your brain uses context to sort of pave over the potholes so the road of understanding is drivable. As hearing further degrades, or if there is no context, the brain has a much harder time filling the potholes, and understanding becomes much bumpier.
And then, y’all, it happened again.
The other day I went to have my eyes checked. (Yes, I am old and falling apart, hush , my son already told me)
The paper eyechart was super-easy; nice big clear letters, no strain, and my brain was comfy and secure and happy.
Then the Eye Testing Lady busted out the electronics.
I had my face in this torture-device thing, and I was trying to read impossibly tiny digital letters.
I knew they were letters from the same alphabet that I had known since I learned the damn song when I was three.
Eyecharts are always letters.
But. My brain insisted that it was seeing all kinds of other things; numbers, Greek letters, Roman Numerals and even freaking Norse Runes.
My eyes couldn’t give my brain enough information to see the microscopic letters.
So my brain was giving its best shot at making some sort of meaning from what little it could see.
So what do I take away from this? That I can’t trust my senses at all? That I’m living in a constant state of unreality?
No. I can’t live like that.
But what I did learn was some humility. Maybe what I think I know for sure is really just a case of incomplete information, and my brain is paving over a lot of potholes to keep me from losing the road.
How many of my students are dealing with these sorts of sensory information gaps? How many of my students are also dealing with context gaps, so their brain doesn’t even have many guesses to make? How many adults are dealing with similar pothole-filled roads in their minds?
Bottom line is, I can’t assume that something I said or wrote was understood perfectly by those who heard or read me. Also I can’t assume that my understanding of someone else is really what they meant to say or write.
And since I personally cannot proceed through life with hopelessness, the only course of action in my teaching and in my life must be patience. To speak more slowly, listen more carefully, check for comprehension, rephrase, politely ask them to restate it in their own words, etc.
Communication is connection, and we must make meaning together, because if we don’t, our minds are often just making up their own version of what the other person meant.