Friday, December 19, 2014

A Few Thoughts about Language and the Serial Podcast

For a few years now, I have counted podcasts among my key resources of information related to technology integration. If you are not sure what they are, podcasts are basically radio shows distributed online; the term podcast dates back to the iPod being a revolutionary method of accessing audio as iTunes opened the door to many people sharing ideas through independent podcast creation. Time was, podcasts needed to be accessed by downloading on a computer and then syncing your device, but this can be done easily (and for free) now with the Podcasts app. 

This fall brought the release of the most popular podcast ever. Serial, from the producers of the also-great This American Life, followed one story over the course of a season of 12 episodes released weekly. Journalist Sarah Koenig attempted to unravel the 15-year-old murder of Hae Min Lee, a teenage girl- her ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed was convicted of the crime, but as we learned, the details are far from straightforward. The podcast became somewhat of a sensation, with media outlets and people all over social media weighing in as each episode brought new twists in the case. So what does Serial have to do with language?

Serial reminded me first of all of the value of listening. Our world has become inundated with tech-mediated visual experiences, and it's rare that we slow down to experience the purity of listening to language. Though this practice is something I have tried to revisit as much as possible, I was so thrilled to have company in the audio realm as many friends became immersed in and were eager to discuss a story that is riveting, emotional and quite tragic, possibly on several levels. Koenig herself became somewhat of a celebrity for her intimate narration of her investigation, which at times felt like being a listener inside her head. Most of all for me the listening experience awakens meditative and metacognitive processes- you don't think about your thoughts when watching TV quite the way you do when listening. I often noted the way I was visualizing the narrated events as they unfolded and thanked Lindamood-Bell for giving me a structure within Visualizing and Verbalizing® to make this imagery even more "sharp," at times painfully so.

Serial also is ultimately about narrative language, hence the title. What you think at the end of the series depends on whose version of the story you believe. Throughout the series, Koenig continually reframes episodes of this story in ways that make you reconsider the characters, key settings, initiating events and responses. Key to the story in particular is perspective taking: could Adnan have been that angry after the break-up to commit this crime? What do the people who surrounded Adnan at that time think about his state of mind and possible responses? Timelines also play an essential role, as each episode forces us to consider disparate sequences of events leading up to and surrounding Hae's murder. For me, Serial underscored the importance of narrative language as part of the experience of being human--which is one of the reasons I am so clinically engaged in building discourse skills. It was interesting that as the series drew to a close, there was much concern that Koenig wouldn't present us with a satisfying conclusion, as if this were a carefully plotted piece of episodic television. I found the "ending" satisfying, though also unsurprisingly a reinforcement of the truth that life is messy and often evasive of clear narrative conclusions.

If you haven't listened to Serial, I strongly recommend it. Start at episode 1, avoid "spoilers," and think about language.


  1. "Our world has become inundated with tech-mediated visual experiences, and it's rare that we slow down to experience the purity of listening to language." I was just thinking the same thing (although maybe not worded to eloquently) last night as I was listening to this podcast. TY for sharing.

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