How Your Brain Understands What Your Ear Hears
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National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders

How Your Brain Understands What Your Ear Hears

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Teacher's Guide

Lesson 1—Engage

Getting the Message

At a Glance


Figure 1.1. Photos of five stop signs in different languages, including one in English
Figure 1.1. Regardless of the language, the meaning remains the same.

Students are introduced to language and communication. They listen to short readings in English and other languages, and investigate why they do or do not understand what they hear. The lesson concludes with students reading two short paragraphs relating to the critical period for language development.

Major Concepts

Hearing involves sound, while communication involves the brain. There is a critical period for language acquisition to occur.


After completing this lesson, students will

Teacher Background

Consult the following sections in Information about Hearing, Communication, and Understanding:

  1. 1 Introduction
  2. 2 Misconceptions Related to Sensory Perception and Hearing
  3. 3 Major Concepts Related to Hearing and Communication
  4. 3.1 Communication is multisensory
  5. 3.2 Language acquisition: imprinting and critical periods
  6. 3.3 Sound has a physical basis
  7. 3.4 Perception of sound has a biological basis

In Advance

Web-Based Activities
Activity Web Version?
1 Yes
2 No
Activity 1 Master 1.1, The Rhythm of Language (Prepare an overhead transparency.)
Activity 2 Master 1.2, Stories of Language Development (Make 1 copy per student.)
Activity 1 computers with Internet connection and sound card
Activity 2 no materials (except photocopies)


Because this lesson involves a teacher-led discussion, the best approach is to use one computer for the entire class. This allows you to play the tracks in their recommended sequence and to control the discussion after each track is played. Before class, adjust the computer’s sound system so that the entire class can hear the tracks as they are played.

The American Sign Language (ASL) video, used in Activity 1, is a large file. If you have a slow Internet connection, you may want to load the file before class begins. To do so, proceed to and click on “Lesson 1—Getting the Message.” When the page comes up, click on “Track 4” to allow the video to load in a separate window. By following this procedure, you can begin Lesson 1 without waiting for the large file to download.

This lesson requires access to the Web site. If you do not have Internet access at your school, you might consider using a computer at home or the library to record the sound tracks on a cassette and playing the tape in class as described below.


Activity 1: What Did You Say?

Teacher note
In this activity, students listen to the first sentence of the Gettysburg Address spoken in different languages. After each track is played, students are asked what they can understand. Many students will not understand any words until a track spoken in English is played. If you have students who understand Chinese, Hebrew, Spanish, or American Sign Language, they will understand those tracks, although they may not identify the track as part of the Gettysburg Address.

  1. Introduce the activity by asking students how they learned language.

A common response is, “I learned from my parents.” Students with younger siblings may have observed how young children acquire verbal skills by listening and imitating what they hear.

  1. Ask students what their first words were.

Answers will vary, although first words will be short words with simple sounds that young children have heard repeatedly, such as “mama” and “dada.”

  1. Ask students why so many of them report having the same first words.

Students may respond that this has something to do with the nature of the sounds that infants hear. Perhaps babies sense patterns of sound. Some patterns may be easier to interpret than others. Begin focusing the discussion on the brain as the body organ that interprets the environment.

  1. Go to the Web site and click on “Lesson 1—Getting the Message.”
  2. Do NOT tell students that they will hear the Gettysburg Address. Also, do NOT tell students the language in which the material is being read. Begin by playing Track 1, then proceed to Track 2 and Track 3. As you play each of the sound clips, ask students to write down what information they get from listening. For instance, is the speaker male or female? Does the speaker sound angry? Happy? Calm? Do the students have any understanding of what is being said?

This activity features links to six tracks. Each track plays the first part of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. In addition to reading the original wording in English (Track 6), the sentence is also read in Chinese (Track 1), Hebrew (Track 2), Spanish (Track 3), American Sign Language (Track 4), and a more modern form of English (Track 5).

Figure 1.2. Photo of Abraham Lincoln
Figure 1.2. The power of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address can be felt in any language.
  1. Play Track 4 (American Sign Language). As you play the video, ask students if they can tell what is being communicated.
  2. Play Track 5 (modern English). Do the students have any greater recognition of what is being read, since this track is now in English?
  3. Play Track 6 (traditional English). Can the students now identify the Gettysburg Address as the material being read?
  4. Ask the class why they could not understand what was being said in Chinese, Hebrew, Spanish, or American Sign Language. What makes languages different?

Students probably will reply that what they heard was in a foreign language; it was not English. Languages differ in many ways. The basic sounds of speech, as well as how they are put together to form words, may be different. Also, the rhythm of sounds and pauses, the way the voice varies in pitch, and the patterns of loudness and softness vary.

  1. Display the transparency made from Master 1.1, The Rhythm of Language, to demonstrate graphically the differences that exist in the rhythms of the four languages. Point out that the dark vertical lines represent speech. The height of the dark line is related to loudness: longer equals louder, shorter equals softer. There are brief periods in which no sound is made (no dark lines) between the periods of sound. The left-to-right distance represents the total time required to read the sentence from the Gettysburg Address.

Figure 1.3
Figure 1.3.
Speech can be represented graphically.

Students should recognize that in each language, some elements of speech are louder than others. Students also will note that there are differences in the rhythms (the alternation of sounds and silence) among languages.

National Science Education Standards icon
Content Standard A:
Recognize and analyze alternative explanations and predictions.
  1. Even though students might not have understood the readings in Chinese, Spanish, or Hebrew, ask if they could tell whether the speaker was male or female, or whether the speaker was angry or calm. Ask if they could tell whether the male signer was angry or calm.

The brain interprets information with which it is presented. Interpretation relies on previous experiences. We learn that male voices are generally lower pitched and female voices, generally higher pitched. We learn what anger, happiness, and other emotional states look and sound like. If students could not identify the Gettysburg Address as the source in the modern reading, it may be because they lack the experience to interpret the material from one context and to place it in another.

  1. Ask students what would happen if they did not hear a language when they were growing up.

Many students will assume that they could learn their first language at a later age, the way they do a foreign language in school. This discussion leads to Activity 2, where the focus continues to be on the central role of the brain in communication.

Activity 2: When the Time Is Right

Figure 1.4. White-crowned sparrow
Figure 1.4. To acquire its song, a male white-crowned sparrow must hear it sung repeatedly during a critical period between one week and two months after hatching.
  1. Give each student a copy of Master 1.2, Stories of Language Development. Instruct them to silently read the first story, “Birdsong.”
  1. After the class finishes reading, ask them what this story tells about the brain and its ability to use information.

The important point is that the young, male white-crowned sparrow has a specific time, or window of opportunity, in which to learn the song. Only during this time can the brain interpret the song, enabling the bird to sing it.

  1. Ask students to think about whether this story might be relevant to human development.

Students may respond that humans need to hear spoken language during a specific time to learn speech. Other students may answer that humans, with our larger brains, are not so dependent on a window of time for learning language.

  1. Instruct the class to read the second story, “Wild Child.” Ask students how they interpret Victor’s lack of verbal language and inability to develop verbal skills.

Students may make a connection between the idea of a critical period for language acquisition from “Birdsong” to the apparent lack of exposure to human language during a critical period in Victor’s situation. If students do not offer this explanation, help them understand that Victor may have had difficulty learning spoken language because he did not hear it during a critical period when he was young.

  1. Ask students if they can think of another explanation for Victor’s lack of verbal skills, besides his missed exposure to language during a critical period.

It is also possible that Victor might have been born with a developmental disorder that left him unable to learn well at any age. Students should realize that there is no simple explanation. Scientists still debate the reasons for Victor’s inability to demonstrate normal language and communication skills.

  1. Ask the class to help you develop “The Path to Understanding.” Write this as a heading on the board. Then write “Sounds” on the left side of the board. Tell students that sounds are a starting point on the path to understanding. Finally, write “Understanding” on the right side of the board, as shown in Figure 1.5.

The class will work together to construct this diagram. Refer to Figure 1.8 to see the complete diagram.

Figure 1.5
Figure 1.5

  1. Ask students to name different kinds of sounds.

Many will be named. Group them into three categories: voiced, musical, and environmental (environmental is everything that is not voiced or musical).

  1. Draw a forward arrow after “Sounds” on the developing “Path to Understanding” and ask students what is the next step in the pathway. Students should recognize that the ear is required to receive the sound (hearing). Write “Ear/Hearing” on the board.

Figure 1.6
Figure 1.6

  1. Draw a forward arrow after “Ear/Hearing” and ask students what lies between “Hearing” and “Understanding.”

Students should recognize that the brain is necessary to interpret sounds so that we understand the meaning behind the sound.

  1. Ask students what would happen if a person had a problem with hearing, ranging from a slight hearing loss to a complete hearing loss. Can a person still communicate?

Students should recognize that there are means of communication that do not require sound. An example is American Sign Language. If students do not suggest this, ask them to consider sign language.

National Science Education Standards icon
Content Standard C:
Behavior is one kind of response an organism can make to an internal or environmental stimulus. A behavioral response requires coordination and communication at many levels, including cells, organ systems, and whole organisms.
  1. Ask students what is required to understand sign language.

Students should mention that the sense of vision and an agreed-upon series of hand signs are needed. If students gloss over the role of the brain, be sure to mention that the brain is required to interpret the visual input from signing so that we understand the meaning behind the sign.

  1. Ask the class where in the diagram the words “Sign Language” should appear. If a person communicates using sign language, how does he or she take in information? Write “Eye/Vision” on the board below “Ear/Hearing.”

Sign language is similar to “Sounds” in the diagram. Therefore, write the words “Sign Language” beneath “Sounds.” A person using sign language uses his or her eyes to take in the information in a manner similar to the ears taking in sounds. Draw an arrow leading from “Sign Language” to the words “Eyes/Vision.”

Figure 1.7
Figure 1.7

  1. The final diagram on the board should look like the following figure:

Figure 1.8
Figure 1.8

Teacher note
You may wish to save this diagram on the board to introduce Lesson 2.

assessment icon
Ask students to compare sounds that animals use for communication with words spoken by humans. Do students recognize that, similar to words, animal sounds are made up of a series of repetitive sounds or a combination of sounds to convey meaning? Do they understand that, as in humans, animals take in sound through their ears and interpret it in their brains?
  1. Ask the class whether a person who has neither sight nor hearing can communicate with others.

Yes, though it may seem impossible, people without both sight and hearing can learn to read, write, and communicate with others. Students may have heard of Helen Keller. Although she could not see or hear, she authored many books and reached a worldwide audience. She helped others understand that the abilities to communicate and function in society reside in our brains and are not tied to any one of our five senses.

  1. Ask the class to remember the “Birdsong” story. How do animals use their ability to communicate? How is animal communication similar to or different from human communication? Ask students if they think that studying animals can help us understand human communication. Why or why not?

Animals need to communicate for a variety of reasons, such as to find a mate, warn other members of their group of danger, or find their parents. Students should realize that animal communication is similar to human communication in that animals also take in sounds through their ears and process the information using their brains. Some students may feel that because no other animals use spoken language, they are of limited usefulness in exploring human communication. You can mention that mammals share many anatomical and physiological features with humans. Mammals also have similar versions of many human genes. These similarities are being used to investigate the relationship between hearing and communication. The comparison of the human and mouse genomes is very helpful in this regard.

Lesson 1 Organizer
Activity 1: What Did You Say?
What the Teacher Does Procedure Reference

Review with class how they learned language as children.

Steps 1–3

Log onto the student Web site and click on “Lesson 1—Getting the Message.”

Web activity iconStep 4

Play Tracks 1–3 in sequence, and ask students what information they can gain from the readings, such as

  • Is the speaker male or female?
  • Does the speaker sound angry, happy, or calm?
  • Can they understand any of what is being said?
Web activity iconStep 5

Play Track 4 (American Sign Language) and ask students if they can tell what is being communicated.

Web activity iconStep 6

Play Tracks 5 and 6 (modern and traditional English) and ask the class if they now can understand what is being said.

Web activity iconSteps 7–9

Examine sound patterns of speech on Master 1.1, The Rhythm of Language.

transparency icon Step 10

Review the types of information that can be obtained without understanding the language.

Step 11

Discuss the consequences of not hearing language when young.

Step 12
Activity 2: When the Time Is Right
What the Teacher Does Procedure Reference
Have students read “Birdsong” from Master 1.2, Stories of Language Development, and relate it to human development. Steps 1–3

Have students read "Wild Child" from Master 1.2, Stories of Language Development.

  • Relate it to the concept of a critical period for language development.
  • Discuss possible explanations for Victor's lack of verbal development.
master iconSteps 4 and 5

Work with students to construct “The Path to Understanding.”

Steps 6–13

Discuss how a person who has neither sight nor hearing can communicate.

Step 14

Have the class consider how animal communication and human communication are alike and different.

Step 15
Web activity icon= Involves using the Internet.
transparency icon= Involves using a transparency.
master icon= Involves copying a master.

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