House Wheat This Hound!: The Problem of Listening

If you’re baffled by the title, don’t fret: “House Wheat This Hound!” means nothing in its printed form. When said out loud, however, a listener can find meaning: How sweet the sound!

Here’s what’s interesting: the listener must be a different person, someone who is not looking at the text. Perhaps that’s why we find “mad gabs” like this one so compelling: Even when we know what we’re supposed to hear, our eyes continue to interfere with our ears, and we are fascinated.

Mad gabs conveniently illustrate how what we see can overshadow—and in some instances, actually determine—what we hear. (Here are some mad gabs with audio and some printable mad gabs.)

For teachers of English, recognizing our bias toward the visual is a first step toward understanding why the teaching of spoken English tends to play second fiddle to language in print.

Take the topic of grammar, for example: Though grammar is an underlying feature of all language skills, we tend to teach it primarily as an aspect of writing, largely ignoring it as an aspect of speech. It’s as if the relative permanence of the written word captures our minds while holding our ears hostage.

Why do we do this? Dr. Robin Barr, linguist in residence at American University in Washington DC, explains:

When we hear a sound, our brain first determines if it’s language or not.  If it’s language, it gets sent over to Broca’s area for processing. Next, Broca’s area, combined with mirror neurons for the vocal tract, determine what the speaker probably did to make that sound. Your brain uses information from the language you already know, plus any other information that helps it make the decision.  Sometimes, the visual information leads you astray.

Here’s a mind-blowing example with consonants: the McGurk Effect. The mouth positions you see help your brain decide what sound you hear.

If the McGurk Effect seems a bit far out, consider this video of “Obama’s Elf,” in which the clever author uses subtitles and animation to completely change how you hear this song, perhaps for all time.

You can observe the same effect in so-called “backmasking,” where people claim to hear secret, usually subversive, messages in music or speech played backwards.  But in fact these messages are complete gibberish unless you’re reading the subtitles at the same time, in which case you suddenly think you’re hearing the same message, all because your eyes are bullying your ears into hearing what you’re looking at.

The Stroop Effect is another way of understanding the Obama’s Elf effect: The words you see overshadow the colors you see, as shown in this sample online test.

Now knowing that our eyes can influence what we hear, what are the implications for us as language teachers?

We need to recognize that we are psycholinguistically biased toward text, and in our “teaching” mode perhaps even more so. Consider how automatic it is to say a key word and write it on the board at the same time. So—put the chalk down and apply these these three principles:

1. Present language in its spoken form first so that learners are free to grapple with it acoustically and without the interference of letters and words. Don’t forget to give learners sufficient “wait time” (silence) after modeling a phrase or asking a question.

2. Don’t read along when your learners read aloud. If you read along with what they’re saying, you’ll ascribe greater comprehensibility to their spoken English than they may be achieving. Instead, look away and actually listen. In this way, you’ll be able to assess the reader’s pronunciation more objectively.

3. Provide learners with ample opportunity to explore the intersection of  written and spoken English. Grammar dictation (aka dictogloss, aka collaborative reconstruction) is an especially powerful classroom activity that will provide you with a window on your learners’ own text-influenced perceptions.

Is dictogloss new to you? Larry Ferlazzo has dedicated one of his legendary “Best” lists to the topic of teaching with dictogloss, so give it a try.

Do you know of activity that helps teachers and learners explore language and the eye-to-ear connection? If so, please share in the comments below. Meanwhile, enjoy the McGurk Effect and Obama’s Elf; thanks to your brain, they never get old!


About Karen Taylor de Caballero

Karen Taylor de Caballero
Karen Taylor de Caballero is an educational consultant and trainer. She holds a Master’s Degree in TESOL from the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey and BA in English Literature from Georgetown University. She has taught extensively in the Washington DC area, as well as in Namibia and Mexico, where she served as a Fulbright TEFL specialist. Karen is co-author of the Color Vowel Chart and co-founder of English Language Training Solutions, dedicated to empowering teachers, learners, and our society at large with sound awareness for mutual comprehensibility. She lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico with her husband and 6-year-old twins. Visit Karen's personal blog at
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8 Responses to House Wheat This Hound!: The Problem of Listening

  1. Leslie Volle says:

    Hi again Karen!
    We met at the TESOL 2015 convention in Toronto and we spoke about my job of teaching ESL to Special Ed. teenagers. Teaching pronunciation is the best- it is so immediate and applicable and fun for the students and teacher (me).
    I’m so pleased to see this article and am looking forward to using the clips with my students, with your permission. I would also like to add your link to my website (which is still pretty bare bones).
    Hope you are well,
    Leslie Volle

  2. Thanks,
    For your courteous reply to my irritable outburst.
    If the thing’d been called just ‘fascinating’ I’m sure
    I shdntve reacted so ill-temper’dly.
    Thanks also for your kind words about my website.
    Best wishes

    • Aw, thanks, Jack. I truly appreciate your follow-up response. I’m aware that we Americans are drawn to hyperbole and that my use of ‘mind blowing’ may seem to fall in that category. The silver lining has been meeting you and discovering your website, which makes it all worth it! Cheers.

  3. Laura McIndoo says:

    If that video isn’t mind blowing, then I wouldn’t have watched that silly thing over and over again. I completely understand and know what is happening, and yet I kept watching it because the experience was truly blowing my mind. Thanks for posting it, Karen. I love learning about things like this!

  4. “Here’s a mind-blowing example with consonants: the McGurk Effect. The mouth positions you see help your brain decide what sound you hear”.
    I dont see why this shd be so ‘mind-blowing. We for much the most part dont speak one phoneme at a time. We dont normally articulate a /b/ or /v/ with great force. We dont stare at speakers’ mouths. There are articulatory and semantically different contexts for most utterances. We ordinarily take no notice of whether a speaker’s /s/ is alveolar or labiodental. We’re unlikely in the normal stream of speech to notice whether we’re hearing bilabial or a labiodental plosive which latter is what we have here unnaturally isolated and not the ‘normal’ fricative that is /v/.

    • it’s not easy to be cheerful when one knows so much, is it Jack? Beware the ‘curse of the expert’, I’d say; the McGurk effect is indeed surprising (if not actually ‘mind blowing’) to many precisely because most people are not phonologists. I’ve witnessed the mind blowing moment with hundreds of people over the past few years in my workshops on Phonological Awareness, what your brain doesn’t want you to know.) It is not surprising at all to me that you ‘don’t see’; the newness is hidden from your brain!

      I admire your work, by the way, and am currently making my way through your article, How English is Really Pronounced. Your writing style is something to behold! Indeed, a single sentence of yours expresses what I might explore for a general readership in an entire blog entry! In fact, I’ll do just that… stay tuned! And thanks for taking the time to read and comment, Jack.

    • Robert Sheppard Robert Sheppard says:

      I certainly found this remarkable!

      Jack, I can’t completely follow your train of thought, but I would think that the fact that “We don’t stare at speakers’ mouths” only makes the effect all the more mind-blowing. Of course, this video is meant to draw your attention to the illusion, but this can happen even in natural, contextualized speech, when we don’t realize that visual information is playing a role in our listening.

      • Well put, Robert. I think we humans tend to think of our senses as these independent faculties that report objectively to our brains– I see this! I smell that!– when perhaps what they’re really doing is competing for first place in the name of efficiency; the first to report to the brain wins. The eyes seem to win a lot of the time, but I imagine there are folks whose sense of smell, for example, dominates the other senses, also resulting in sensory illusions. Thanks for your reply.

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