Making Sense of Your Senses
Danny Singh, UK
Danny Singh, born and raised in London, but now based in Rome, gives creative English language lessons and teacher training courses all over Italy and abroad. He often attends Pilgrims TT summer courses as a Guest Speaker. Website: www.laughnlearn.net
Seeing is believing
Blind man’s bluff
A touchy subject
Watching what you hear
Bringing our senses together
That other sense
This article focuses on our senses and how we use them. I’ve suggested a wide range of multi-sensorial activities, which are interesting in their own right, but are also useful for teachers to get an idea of their students and how they function. They can be adapted and changed according to your class or circumstances. These activities could be eye-openers, helping you understand yourselves better, which is not necessarily bad either. I ask lots of questions, though I don’t necessarily have the answers. That’s because there are no right and wrong answers, as each person’s senses work in different ways, but it’s important to be aware of them and use them to improve and develop yourselves and your students.
Let’s start with a classic NLP (Neuro-linguistic programming) exercise! Get into pairs and carefully scrutinise the person next to you for a few seconds. Now close your eyes and try to focus on your partner. What colour are his/her eyes? What kind of shoes is he/she wearing? Smart, classic, casual, running shoes or sandals? What colour are they? How would you describe his/her hair? Curly, wavy or straight? Is it long or short? Is he/she totally bald?
This is a great exercise to see how observant we are. If you have difficulty getting the right answers, then you know it’s something that you need to work on. Some people can see you just once and clearly record the length and colour of your hair. Others can spend every day with you for a period of four years, yet have great difficulty remembering this information. The questions you ask in this exercise can obviously be varied. Teachers can do this with their students and normal people can do it with their friends. If I want to verify that my students are focusing on me, I’ll ask them questions about myself. What colour is my tie? Do I have a beard? Really?
Do any of you have teenage kids who come home late at night? When the key turns in the door, do you need to get up and check that it really is your beloved son/daughter, or can you tell just by the sound? Do you know that it’s your child and not a burglar? Can you tell if your child has come home alone? Most parents say that they don’t need to get up and look. What about when you need to get up in the middle of the night to visit the toilet or kitchen? Despite the fact that it’s pitch black, can you usually find the light switch? Indeed, do you need the light switch at all, or can you find your way around in the dark?
Do you ever sense that you are being followed while walking in the street? What makes you aware of this situation? Do you need to turn around to know? Footsteps are obviously a help. People who follow or stalk you tend to wear loud noisy shoes! Maybe you can see a shadow. In any case, you can sense something strange.
I often find myself rushing for the train in the morning. As I race through the ticket barrier, I hear a train coming into the station. How do I know if it’s my train? I usually watch the people in front of me racing down the stairs. If they are speeding up, then it’s my train. If they are slowing down, then it’s not mine. Some people have little faith in their fellow humans and prefer to race down the steps like headless chickens in any case.
Sometimes when we wake up in the morning, we know it’s either raining, or at least, it’s been raining. How do you first sense the rain? Do you hear the raindrops battering against your window? Can you smell the humidity in the air? Do you only notice when you open the curtains and see it? Some people don’t notice until they actually go outside. Others have that strange sensation as they lie in their bed.
Time for another NLP exercise! This activity is best done in groups of four. One of you sits down and closes your eyes, while the other three take it in turns to sit down next to you and say their names aloud. After this, one of them does it again, but without saying his/her name. You then have to try and identify the person. How do you do this? Their weight as they sit down, the sounds of jangling bangles and bracelets, noisy or quiet footsteps, a perfume, or just plain instinct? There are many other ways. Try it and find out!
I’ve often wondered how blind people manage to find their way around, without the use of that visual sense. One morning, I found myself in the centre of Rome, with plenty of time to kill. I looked around and saw a blind man. I thought to myself, excellent and I proceeded to follow him and observe the way he dealt with all the unfriendly barriers and obstacles which presented themselves. He walked slowly down the Via Nazionale and I noticed that this morning the pavement was full of empty boxes and other bits of rubbish. At a certain point, he came to a traffic light. Aha, I thought, now we’ll see how good he is! The lights turned green and people began crossing, but the blind man remained rooted to the spot. What kind of blind man is this, I thought? I assisted him by telling him that he could cross the street. He asked me if it was Via Milano. I told him that it was and left him to continue.
I was in two minds. Should I help him or would he feel offended? I decided that he was probably capable of finding his own way, but I kept a short distance behind him, just in case. In the time that it took me to look at my mobile as I received a text message and read it, he had disappeared. I couldn’t believe it! This guy was a slow walker. He couldn’t suddenly have run off. I realised that I had lost sight of the blind man. He may not have known the traffic lights had turned green, as there was a lot of drilling going on for the new tramlines, but his senses were definitely working.
I am not going to recommend that we all walk down the street with our eyes closed, however, an activity that we can do with a reliable partner is to go walking somewhere reasonably safe, while keeping our eyes closed. Our trustworthy partner directs us to avoid any dangerous obstacles. The objective of this exercise is not simply to experience the feeling of being blind, but to use our other senses to determine where we are. Can you smell the aroma from the bakery or coffee shop, butcher or petrol station? What sounds can you hear? It’s amazing how much more you can hear when you close your eyes! Even more interesting would be to actually go into a coffee bar and drink a coffee. What differences do you notice compared to doing it with your eyes open? Feeling for the cup, smelling and tasting is one thing, but if you take sugar, that will test your skills.
This next activity is particularly designed to test your sense of smell and taste. However, your sense of touch and even hearing could possibly come in useful. This game can be done with any number of people. You need at least one observer and one or two blindfolded participants. The observer has to prepare a range of cheeses on a plate, from soft and creamy, to seasoned and strong smelling. The blindfolded victims then have to use their skills to identify the cheeses. This is great fun, if like me, you’ve got a passion for cheeses. You can do this activity with other forms of food too, depending on your preferences and those of the participants. I like using wine too, but don’t use your most expensive glasses. Children could do this with different kinds of chocolate, plain, milk, crispy, crunchy, peanut filled. Parents or teachers will of course observe the results.
When you have a new dish put in front of you for the first time, do you need to know exactly what is in it before you try it, or are you willing to taste something at least once?
Eating something that you’ve never tried before is one of the great experiences of life and that’s why travelling in countries which have such a wide range of regional cuisine can be so memorable.
Touch is an extremely sensitive issue and an often underestimated sense, even in Mediterranean countries, where it appears to be accepted. For hygienic reasons, I would suggest that participants wash their hands before this activity. One person closes his/her eyes. Three different people will approach him/her offering their hands. He/She will then hold, stroke, massage, caress the hands, feeling the texture, softness, cracks, lines and temperature and trying to identify the owner of each pair of hands. This activity often produces surprising results and highlights the fact that touch is not normally one of our stronger skills.
Some of you may be reading this article on printed-paper, rather than on your computer screen. Many people like the touch and feel of paper as they read a book, magazine or newspaper. That’s why printed books will never become extinct, despite the advent of
E-books. What things do you like touching? I love stroking my plants and flowers. We enjoy caressing the soft animal fur of our pets. It acts as a kind of relaxation therapy. During the winter, I love touching mandarins, playing with them, smelling them, eventually peeling them and last but not least, tasting them and either enjoying their juicy goodness, or expressing disapproval if they are totally dry. How many of you enjoy dipping your toes into cold water on a hot day or walking barefoot on grass? Touching doesn’t only have to be done with your hands!
Listening is probably the sense we use the most for language learning, yet we do not really use it effectively. Who determines what we hear? Watch the passengers on a bus, when a mobile phone starts ringing! Everyone is peering into their pockets or handbags, checking to see if someone wants to speak to them. It doesn’t matter that the ringing tone on their mobile phone is different. Contrast this with a car alarm that rings in a residential area! Hardly anyone will take the time and effort to pop their head out of the window.
We don’t listen enough to what’s going on around us. Close your eyes and just listen to the sounds all around you. Listen to the sounds inside your building and outside coming from the streets. A good friend of mine who happens to be blind (not the one I lost in the middle of the street), goes to the cinema on a regular basis. She uses her listening skills and sensitivity to music, as she plays the piano, to help her understand the film. She also travels unaccompanied on public transport, knowing exactly where to get on and off. If you sit on a bus or train with your eyes closed, can you determine the station or stop, simply by hearing the noise, vibrations or number of people entering and exiting at any time?
What are the first sounds that you hear in the morning? Neighbours banging, birds singing, coffee brewing, toilet flushing? If you like the sound of running water, listen to the different sounds made by streams, rivers, fountains, lakes and waterfalls. Quite amazing, eh? Do we need to watch a person as he/she makes a speech on TV? We can of course, but the effect is quite different. I remember following the Obama victory speech on the Internet. I watched and listened to his speech at least four times. I then printed a copy of the written text, gave it to some of my students, asked them to read it and consult me about anything they didn’t understand. They came back to me with words that I didn’t even remember hearing, but yes, they were there in the speech. Reading the words in a speech is far different from listening to it. Listening to it gave me inspiration, but reading the text actually helped me understand what he said. Watching a singer sing a song on a TV music channel is far different from hearing it on the radio. People often think that watching a film in your own mother tongue with subtitles is a fairly meaningless exercise. However, it does help you focus on the dialogue. Try it and see!
Why listen to the speaker at all? Turn off the volume on the TV! In some cases, it’s far better. Get your students to try and guess what the speakers are saying. They could even create their own dialogues. This is especially good with short comedies such as Friends, where the actors are very expressive.
Of all the numerous students I’ve taught in the last twenty years, probably the most satisfying were a group of partially deaf teenagers and young adults. They each had some strange contraption inserted into their ears, which enabled them to hear sounds, but not my voice itself. I had to face them when I spoke and try not to be a ventriloquist. Despite all this, the pronunciation they came up with was as close to perfect as any other Italian students I’ve had.
I asked myself why this was. How could young, partially deaf students produce a better pronunciation than their counterparts who apparently had all their faculties in working order? Then the answer became clear. These students watched my face as I mouthed a series of words and imitated me, not just by the shapes of their mouths, but by using the face muscles necessary to help produce that sound.
When I teach my students pronunciation, I tell them not to close their eyes and push their ears towards me. That won’t help. What we think we hear and then repeat are often very different. No wonder they think that hungry/angry, sheep/ship, eyes/ice, bear/beer, walk/work to name but a few, sound exactly the same! I ask my students to watch my face carefully as I speak. Watch the face movements, which vary from language to language and imitate them! Hence, they can now see and consequently hear the distinct differences in the pronunciation of these and other words.
When I began writing this article, I thought it would be fairly straightforward to divide the senses into different sections. However, as you will have noticed, they often overlap. This exercise will demonstrate that conclusively. Take a piece of paper and write down the five senses; see, hear, smell, touch and taste, across the top of the page, then draw vertical lines between each word so that you have them in columns.
I will give you some words and I want you to put each word into one column only, spontaneously, without taking time to think about it. The words are; coffee, sea, chocolate, bread, fire, wind, language lessons, daffodils, television, trees, birds, scooters, rubbish, dogs and music. As you can see, it’s quite difficult and most of the words can be put into any of the five columns if you think about it long enough. Your answers will differ enormously from everyone else’s, but that’s not important.
In which column do you have the most words? Is this normally your strongest sense? Is there a column where you have no words at all? If so, this is worrying! It is presumably your weakest sense and you ought to consider trying to give this sense more exposure. As with other activities mentioned in this article, the words used can be varied and can affect the results too.
In reality, whatever our results, we should be using as many of our senses as possible in any given situation, in order to enjoy it to its maximum. If you read “The Coffee Experience” you will see how coffee can be experienced in a truly multi-sensorial form.
Which of your senses are dominant in determining your attraction to a man or woman? What attracts me to a woman? I like to think that I am attracted principally by her intelligence. All my past, present and future lovers would no doubt agree! However, my senses must surely play an important role. I discovered that two of my favourite ex-girlfriends, despite being of different nationalities used exactly the same perfume! Was this just pure coincidence? Does this mean that if I found myself with a slightly less than intelligent woman, who happened to wear this brand of perfume, I would be an easy catch? Is my nose working overtime, when assessing which girl I am attracted to?
Am I seduced by her beautiful blue or brown eyes, the shape of her nose or her sweet lips, begging to be kissed? Am I seduced by her radiant smile, by her long, dark, wavy hair or long smooth slender legs? Is it her beautifully curved ankles or the way she wiggles her toes? Perhaps it is the tone of her voice, as she calls my name or the sound of her footsteps as she walks past me. Is it the aroma of her unique perfume, or the tingling sensation down my spine, as I stroke her hands? When our lips meet, when our tongues are entwined! Are these the magic moments that make the difference? Or can she seduce me simply by the way she looks at me or entice me by the way she moves, or by the way she twitches her nose? It is no doubt a combination of all these sensations and evaluating which is the most important sense is a far from easy task. It is also likely that "that other sense" is involved in influencing my judgement.
Let’s try this final exercise. In this activity, you would ideally pair up with someone you don’t know, or at least not very well. This is great for a first lesson, where the students don’t know each other. Look at your partner for a few seconds! In this activity, you can keep your eyes open. Now write down the answers to the following questions. What do you think is his/her favourite colour? What do you think is his/her favourite food? What do you think is one of his/her favourite hobbies? Once you’ve both written down your answers, tell each other and see how accurate you are. The answers produced are quite interesting. In some cases, they can be totally wrong, in others they are incredibly close to the truth. Which senses are we using to decipher the answers? It’s partly visual, but mainly a question of how we judge people. Like the person who wakes up in the morning and knows that it’s raining without knowing how he/she knows, like the parent who knows that it’s his/her child who has just come home, it’s a sense that you have. Some people call it a sixth sense, some intuition, others just plain instinct. Whatever you want to call it, this exercise is important because experts say that we subconsciously judge a person and decide whether or not we like him/her within four seconds of meeting him/her. Four seconds! Surely not? It takes much longer than that to do most of the basic things in life.
This article has shown that our five senses are far more complicated than we think. The fun exercises demonstrated here are used and can be used with students of all levels to learn something more about them. You can also learn more about yourselves and others by trying these activities. The large number of questions that this article asks is designed to make us question the way we experience things. Try doing things differently every once in a while. Use a different sense to the one you would normally use in a given situation and feel the difference. It is important to be aware of your stronger senses and to work on improving your weaker ones. If you’re lucky enough to have that sixth sense, intuition or plain instinct, then you are in an even better position to make the most of any situation that comes your way.
Please check the NLP for Teachers course at Pilgrims website.