Listening to the Universe of Discourse: 04: Black, White and Red


A friend sent me this link to a video. Before you click on that link, read these instructions:






  1. Don’t read the description and don’t look at the video image. As you click the link, close your eyes and don’t open them while you listen
  2. Listen and figure out what you are hearing
  3. When the music begins, open your eyes and discover if you were right in your figuring out

Listening can be much like a riddle. Let’s look at a riddle that many of you may be familiar with. This riddle will only work if it is said to you, which will be clear on hearing the answer:

Riddle: What’s black and white and red all over?

Answer: the newspaper.

Now, how can that be the answer? Well, the tricky part of this simple riddle is the word “red”. The confusing part is that the listener hears two colors first, black and white (and this isn’t a discussion of art, so we’re going to simply consider “black” and “white” to be colors for this), so the third is also considered a color: “red”. Were it written out, the riddle would actually read:

What’s back and white and read all over?

Oh, that makes sense.

The color confusion in this riddle is the Universe of Discourse that makes the riddle work. The listener creates a “context” and assumes the meaning of the word “read” without considering, at the moment of hearing the riddle, that the word might not be the homonym “red”. Ah ha!

Let’s go back to the video you listened to earlier. I knew what was coming up and so listened to the introduction to the song, enjoying the interpretation of the rain storm by the chorus. I played the same video for a friend, but his reaction was slightly different.

I didn’t show my friend the video, I simply played the first part asking him to listen with his eyes closed from across the room. I stopped the video before the music began and asked him what he thought he had heard. His answer was curious, “something frying in hot oil”. What?

Well, he went on to explain that he thought, at first, that it was a rain storm. But that would have been way to obvious an answer, he thought I was trying to fool him with a listening riddle, so he tried to find another explanation for the sounds. The closest he could come was frying potatoes. So, missing the clues, he got lost in the riddle.

These examples only serve to reinforce the importance of giving clues, Universe of Discourse, to your students when working on their listening. You should not be asking them to solve riddles, to guess based on half-information what is being heard, listened to. You should be giving them clues so that they can begin to recognize the strings of sounds. Some of those clues will come from past practice, others will be new information. Don’t try to trick your students into comprehension, help them out with this challenging part of language acquisition.

Though I avoid sending readers to Krashen because of personal bias based upon how his thoughts and studies have been misused towards commercial ends, I would suggest checking out this paper someone suggested in a forum. You don’t need to read it all, Krashen loves to quote himself, but do scroll down to page 101, note 5, where you will find some information that actually backs up what I’ve tried to explain in this post.


Tell us what you think....

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s