Saturday, March 19, 2016

The imperiled pleasures of parsing Austen, II

In a recent article in the Atlantic, Michael Godsey talks about how he has gotten his students interested in reading via podcasts with written transcripts. The combination of oral narration plus written transcription, he says, is particularly powerful in capturing the otherwise straying attention of his students.

I agree that there is something particularly engaging about transmitting linguistic messages simultaneously via both auditory and visual channels.

On the one hand, because it's less convenient to replay sound than to reread text, I find that I've (we've?) developed better attention-sustaining habits for oral/auditory messages. My mind wanders far less with books read out loud than with books on paper.

On the other hand, because audio can also be too quiet, rapid, mumbled, or confounded by background noise or unfamiliar dialects, I now routinely turn on the captions when watching movies. Wow--how much I was missing! The mind tends to fill in and sort out, often inaccurately, the gaps and garbles in what it takes in, and so you don't realize, until you turn on those captions, just how much would otherwise escape you. I've had similar revelations when taking libretto to operas and music scores to concerts.

But when it comes to works that were originally created to be read rather than listened to, my feelings are more ambivalent. For all that is gained with audio narrations, it strikes me that something is lost. As I wrote as a comment on Godsey's article:

One thing worth keeping in mind are the differing linguistic demands of reading a text that isn't read out loud vs. reading/listening to a text this is read out loud. In the latter case, much of the work of parsing a sentences is done for the listener--via intonation and pauses. Students therefore don't get practice performing the kind of linguistic analysis often required to make sense of complex sentences (sentences that are at least as complex as the one you're reading right now) that appear only in writing. Even if everything is ultimately available in an oral medium, I wonder if certain important analytical skills are being lost.
For example, consider how much easier it would be to parse the Jane Austen sentence I blogged about earlier if it were read out loud with appropriate pauses and intonation:
To know that she had the power of revealing what would so exceedingly astonish Jane, and must, at the same time, so highly gratify whatever of her own vanity she had not yet been able to reason away, was such a temptation to openness as nothing could have conquered but the state of indecision in which she remained as to the extent of what she should communicate; and her fear, if she once entered on the subject, of being hurried into repeating something of Bingley which might only grieve her sister farther.
Already, fewer and fewer kids are reading works with sentences like these with the care they deserve, let alone doing the hard work of parsing them grammatically. If we increasingly rely on a cadre of good readers to do the parsing for us, are we failing to develop a skill we still care about?

1 comment:

C T said...

We also have the subtitles on all the time when we watch Amazon Prime now. It started with Sherlock (who can understand everything that accented motormouth says, really?) but then we realized that we liked knowing everything going on. Having captions is a bit like having the screenplay in front of you. So we just keep them on.