Embracing the Sound of Words:
Evoking the Inner Experience

May 10th, 2016 | By | Category: Featuring: In the Classroom, In the Classroom
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Patrick T. Randolph


“As soon as we have the thing before our eyes,
and in our hearts an ear for the word, thinking prospers.”
—Martin Heidegger

I. Introduction

The wisdom of the ears knows the magic of words.

The memory is as vivid as they come: I was 4 years old, rolling in the evening summer grass, giggling beyond belief. My giggles undulated like ocean waves inside my soul—I had just heard, for the first time in my life, the word balmy.

I was listening to my parents comment on the evening’s weather. I had no real idea what the word actually meant, but I absolutely loved the sound of it—the soft magical combination of b-a-l-m-y created a profound sense of timeless joy in my spirit that still exists today at the age of 49!

What is it about the power of a spoken word that causes such an internal feast of emotions, sensations, images, and memories? Given the overwhelming, almost infinite complexity of our working brains, there is no easy answer to my question. Suffice it to say, it really comes down to the myriad of neural connections and the memories within—only that intricate network has the answer.

Whatever the reason is, words do have an uncanny effect on us. It is this very connection with the joy that words create through their spoken sounds that led me to a very lively, fun, and effective activity I’ve been doing with my students—investigating what their favorite-sounding words are and why.

In this piece, I will first explain why I believe such an activity is important; next, I will cover the procedure of the writing activity; and then I will conclude with a section on student feedback regarding the benefits of investigating and embracing the sound of words.

II. Helping Students Find a Home in English

image of welcome to our home

Source: www.pixabay.com

Martin Heidegger’s (1947) well-known and equally provocative “Letter on Humanism” addresses the issue of finding a “home” for the human condition. He claims we are spiritually “homeless” (1947/1977, p. 218) and must search for a home to become complete. I often consider Heidegger’s “Letter on Humanism” when I step into the classroom each semester. Will my own students find a sense of home in this language that they are trying to connect and work with in an attempt to further and better their lives?

Early on in Heidegger’s “Letter on Humanism,” he focuses on the crucial significance of language and its symbolism of providing a home for our well-being: “Language is the house of Being. In its home man dwells. Those who think and those who create with words are the guardians of this home” (1947/1977, p. 193). There is no one specific way to help our students feel at home and “dwell” in the English language; I think any activity that gets them closer to this feeling is a step in the right direction. Focusing on and elaborating on the sound of words, phrases, and idioms has become a powerful entry into the front door of their English language home.

When I ask students to discuss and write about their favorite-sounding English words, they have responded in immediate, enthusiastic, and insightful ways. The activity truly seems to have a positive effect on them. Moreover, my students claim the sound-of-words activity fosters a heightened awareness of their personal and emotional relationship with the language. Students in recent classes even shared that the activity helps them develop a “sincere intimacy with English” and “experience a visceral relationship with words.” (I will discuss more of the benefits of the activity below in Part IV.)

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III. The Procedure

Approaching Language From a Unique Perspective—Setting Up the Writing Activity

Step 1: Mother Tongue Reflection

I start the sound-of-words activity by asking my students to think about their favorite-sounding words, phrases, or idioms in their first language. They may have many, but I want them to choose one and focus on it as deeply as they can. I also stress that we are not concerned about the meaning of the word but only the sound of it. Once they have selected a lexical item, I ask them to think about why they like the sound of it. What is it about the lexical item that is so intriguing? What feelings or emotions does it elicit? Are certain images called to consciousness? What senses are elicited?

Next, the students turn to their partner and share what their favorite-sounding word, phrase, or idiom is and explain why they like it. This usually inspires them to elaborate more on the reasons why they like the sound of a particular lexical item. For example, one student said she likes the sound of nin (you) in Chinese because the consonant-vowel-consonant combination makes her feel a “happy energy dance” in her chest. She also said the sound of the word makes her “see an endless sky.” An Arabic-speaking student said that he loves the sound of banafsigi (purple) because it is “fun to say,” and he said the sound elicits “swirling sounds and colors at dawn.”

Step 2: Reflecting on English Sounds

As a homework assignment, I ask the students to think about their favorite word, phrase, or idiom in English and explain why they like it. Again, I stress that they ought to choose the lexical item solely based on the love of the sound and not the meaning. I ask them to write a short paragraph on the lexical item and why they like its sound. The students will present on this in small groups during the next class.

Before discussing the next step, I’d like to shed a little light on the English word choice and gently rid my readers of any worries they might have regarding the word selection based on sound versus meaning. In one recent class (N=14), all but two students chose words that they first heard back in their home countries. At the time, they did not necessarily understand the meaning; they merely, at first blush, fell in love with the word’s sound—much like I did with the word balmy.

The initial reaction to these words must have been profound, because in many cases the experience happened years ago (some even in childhood), and yet the students were able to explain in detail why they were and why they are still drawn to the sound of the words. For instance, one student recalled hearing the word “relationship.” At the time, he wasn’t told the meaning, but he loved the sound it made on his senses. “When I first heard this word, I thought it felt smooth … and I felt relaxed … I felt like I was standing in a quiet forest… the word felt familiar and amiable… this was when I first touched the word.”

Step 3: Sharing Ideas

The next day in class, I create groups of three and have the students read their paragraphs aloud to each other. I also request that the listeners ask two or three questions about their classmates’ explanations. These can be clarification questions or questions about the students’ personal connection to the lexical item.

The activity of reading paragraphs aloud also helps the students correct their own grammar, and it legitimizes the significance of their own written work (Randolph, 2012). Moreover, it creates a good, positive energy in the classroom; the students really become engaged in explaining all the connections they have with their words. The reading activity also nurtures a realization of how many reasons they have as to why they love the sound of their respective lexical item.

Step 4: Interviewing American Friends

The next step is to assign the students to interview three to five American friends/classmates about their favorite-sounding words in English. I usually allow a couple of days for the students to complete this task. This assignment is ideal for weekend homework. Below is a sample of the questions the students ask in their interviews.

  1. Have you ever thought about the sounds or melodies that words make when spoken?
  2. What is your favorite-sounding word, phrase, or idiom in English?
  3. What is it about the sound of that term you like?
  4. What senses or sensory experiences does it elicit when you hear it?
  5. Does it conjure any memories? If so, would you mind elaborating on that?
  6. How does the term make you feel when you say it?

Step 5: Sharing the Interview Results

After the students have completed their interviews, I ask them to choose the most interesting responses and share them with their group members. (We usually keep the same groups as assigned in Step 3 to save time, but new groups can be formed, depending on the needs or wants of the class or the instructor.)

This part of the sound-of-words activity is really effective because the international students get to exchange data on how their native English–using friends feel about the sounds of words in their own language. The responses are, more often than not, detailed, so my students get a chance to experience and discuss rich information from various perspectives. There is also the added benefit of learning new vocabulary terms during the course of the interview. For instance, one of my students learned the word serendipity from her respondent. The American friend went on to explain that when she hears this word, “she feels satisfied and vivid images of joy and happiness from her life cross her mind. Moreover, she thinks that serendipity smells like flowers and a forest.” For her friend, serendipity is “fresh and pleasing.” So, not only did my student get a good explanation of what the respondent feels about the sound of serendipity, but she also learned the word serendipity and the idiom to cross one’s mind.

Step 6: The Sound-of-Words Essay

Before writing the essay on the sound of words (an activity that can be done either in class or assigned as homework), I have my students pair up or work in their groups of three to do a “review discussion” of their favorite lexical items and the data they collected from their interviews. Discussing the topics of written work before doing the actual writing is probably one of the most important prewriting activities there is. It allows students to consciously mentally organize their ideas, and it also helps them think about the topic from various perspectives.

Once the prewriting discussions are done, the students can begin to work on their sound-of-words essay. Below is a general outline of the essay.

Paragraph 1: The Introduction

This paragraph acts as the standard introduction to the topic. Specifically, the students should include a general introduction of the inquiry into the love of “the sound of words,” the thesis statement (which will essentially be their lexical item of choice), the outline of their essay (which will include a reference to their interviews and their own selected lexical item), and a transition to the body of the essay.

Paragraphs 2-3: Interview Results

These paragraphs introduce the reason for the interview and highlight some of the most intriguing and vivid answers from the respondents. Students can either focus on one respondent and discuss the love for his or her lexical item in paragraph 2 and then go into further detail to discuss specifics in paragraph 3, or they could choose to discuss one respondent’s answers in paragraph 2 and another’s responses in paragraph 3.

Paragraphs 4-6: The Students’ Own Favorite-Sounding Lexical Item

Paragraphs 4-6 are the heart of the essay, as they cover the students’ own favorite-sounding lexical item and why, specifically, they like the term. Here they can discuss:

  1. When they first heard the term;
  2. Why they liked it;
  3. What feelings or emotions it elicits;
  4. What images it conjures up; and
  5. What sensory elements they connect with it.

It is important to encourage them to offer personal examples for each point.

Paragraph 7: The Conclusion

The final paragraph should summarize and tie all the parts together in a clear and concise manner. It is also a chance for the students to leave their readers with a lasting impression of his or her favorite-sounding word.

image of brain filled with words

Source: www.pixabay.com

IV. Student Perspectives on the Benefits of the Activity

To learn more about how my students feel about the project and what they learn from it, I ask the students to write a paragraph or two on their impressions of the activity and reflect on any benefits they think they acquire from learning more about the sound of words. Table 1 is a summary of benefits that were offered from all three recent writing classes (N=41). Many students gave more than one benefit—some listing three to four. An interesting occurrence was that many of the benefits were repeated in all three classes.

Table 1

Student-Reported Benefits of the Sound-of-Words Project

table for of survey results for ptr article

Concluding Remarks

image of sign with home exists only in your mind

Source: www.pixabay.com

Not long ago I asked my father what his favorite-sounding word in English is. He paused momentarily and I heard him smile on the phone: “Just one? I can only give you one? But I’ve at least a hundred,” he said. I should mention that my father was a British literature professor and had fallen in love with the English language since he was old enough to remember, so we can safely say he has found his home in the English language.

But what about my students? Have they found their Heideggerian language-based home? I can not answer such questions with certainty; however, I can say with conviction that the sound-of-words activity does open their ears, eyes, and minds to a whole new way of looking at and experiencing their host language and culture. I believe that this activity is an experience that most certainly leads them in the right direction toward their house of language, that home away from home that inspires them to learn with curiosity, confidence, and conviction and to develop a new connection to the sounds and world of English words.

Correspondence concerning this article can be addressed to patricktrandolph@yahoo.com.

Patrick T. Randolph was awarded the “Best of the TESOL Affiliates” for his presentation on vocabulary pedagogy. He teaches in PIESL at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and specializes in vocabulary acquisition, creative and academic writing, speech, and debate. He has created a number of brain-based learning activities for the language skills that he teaches, and he continues to research current topics in neuroscience, especially studies related to exercise and learning, memory, and mirror neurons. Randolph has also been involved as a volunteer with brain-imaging experiments at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He and Joseph Ruppert are now working on a creative writing book for TESOL Press’s New Ways Series. The tentative title is New Ways in Teaching Creative Writing for the ELL Community. He lives with his wife, Gamze; daughter, Aylene; and cat, Gable, in Lincoln, NE.


Heidegger, M. (1977). Letter on humanism. In D. F. Krell (Ed.), Basic writings (pp. 193-242). New York, NY: HarperCollins. (Originally published 1947)

Randolph, P. T. (2012). Using creative writing as a bridge to enhance academic writing. In MITESOL 2011 Selected Conference Proceedings (pp. 91-108). Retrieved from http://un-lincoln.academia.edu/PatrickTRandolph

*Note. I would like to thank Salman Aljahdali, QiShan Feng, Kun Huang, and Jinyang Li for their contributions to this article.


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