Talking Without Understanding

I was at Steve and Kim’s last Saturday, and when their kids’ bedtime came, Uncle Stolzie got the chance to read to Jasper, 4, from his new book, while the parents put Calder (20 months) to bed.

So we snuggled up on the couch and I started reading the book.  I’m a pretty good reader:  I can do different voices and accents, and I’m verbally quick.  I would read a paragraph or two, and Jasper would ask questions about the pictures. He liked the reading.  After about twenty minutes, Jasper was sleepyheaded and off to bed.

And then I realised that I had no idea what I’d just read.  I was so focused on the reading, voices, dialogue, going slow, etc, that the story itself eluded me.  I know there was a squirrel and a toad, and that was about it.

So it made me think about language performance.  If we make kids read aloud, how much do they actually understand?  Can you speak a foreign language– in my case, a totally new book– and know what you are saying?  Can you read and speak well, and sound good, and not know what you’re doing?  Does output help us learn things?   When we “get through” a performance, have we experienced something like what a reader or viewer has?

This made me think of music. I’ve been playing Irish music (and old-time) for ten years now.  So how do you learn?  Well, primarily you listen.  Irish music is played in sets.   A tune will have an A part (played twice) and a B part (ditto).  The whole thing is played three times, then you jump directly into the next tune, then another, etc.  The music repeats a fair bit, so you have many chances to pick it up.

When I go to sessions or festivals, I see people hear a tune (from teacher or session group), use Tunepal or Shazam to identify it, then look up the sheet music, and then start playing along.  I wonder why.  Until you know the tune– i.e. you can hum or whistle it– there is very little point in playing.  And the only way you can really learn a tune is by listening.  Yes, you have to practice, because making music with mouth and fingers, unlike speech, is not something the brain is prewired to do.

Learning tunes by playing is like learning a language by talking: sure, you’ll pick something up.  But it will be slow, and you’ll be so busy working on sounds and notes that you won’t really process what you’re hearing.



  1. That is brilliant! It makes perfect sense! Was I right to hear that math, music and foreign language are all processed in the same part of the brain as well. Perhaps what you say overlaps more than we thought.

    1. Thanks, profe. Bill VanPatten said something like “most of what is in a musician’s head wasn’t put there deliberately, or through practice” and I agree with him.

  2. a great part of maths proficiency depends on doing huge volumes of exercises of each type of problem, and not merely on having a theoretical understanding of the concept.

    I learnt music the dissected way for 12 years and it was terrible. only after leaving the formal system could I fly and begin to enjoy and develop some sort of expression.

    in physical culture, Ido Portal is perhaps a good example of putting things together holistically and functionally, where actual, realistic use is the best teacher and healer for the body.

    an executive student of mine is crafting his new approach for tackling new problems or challenges for his organisation – this would be to gather the group together and hear each one’s opinion. then choose the one who displays the best feeling for the situation and delegate the choice of the course of action to him and him alone, without any more input from the others i.e. one person synthesizes all of his vast and subtle past and present experience within his own mind and then takes responsibility and steers the actions for that situation (ofcourse the executive’s new approach echoes that classic infamy that belongs to committees, and their incredible ineffectiveness).

    but as your last post affirms, language is perhaps the most paradoxical of all of these.

    I have a long-standing conversational class with a university prof here in Brazil, unfortunately (from an acquisition point of view) with much contribution from him. His wife is always within earshot but in another part of the house. I sometimes wonder whether her aquisition has been slightly better hehe.

    the bedtime story illustration is so simple and so dramatically powerful – as these things often are. thank ya,

  3. I remember taking a reading class in my bilingual/bicultural teacher formation coursework 25? years ago – and having that same epiphany when the prof said that reading and reading-aloud were 2 very discreet tasks and that one could not extrapolate comprehension from read-aloud fluency. We cannot evaluate comprehension based on read aloud ‘fluency.’
    We’ve prolly all had that other experience too – we sit down to read something silently and ‘get through’ it and can’t remember what we just read – we weren’t attending to it’s content, only decoding the words (not encoding their meaning.)
    There is a place in the WL classroom for practicing decoding in the comfort of the group chorus. Hopefully all the intentional focus on meaning (PQA, What does x mean? stop and act it out, etc.) shores up that potential for reading-without-meaning.

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