Audio-transcription at the Welfare Society for the Blind, Calcutta

One of the great things about my job is that every now and then I get to go to the Welfare Society for the Blind (WSB) in Taratala. Every time I go I have a great time because the students are just so much fun to work with. They brighten my day and remind me that I don’t have as many problems as I often tell myself that I do. They can be lively, loud, humorous, playful, sarcastic pranksters, picking my pockets when I’m not paying attention, while at the same time they are welcoming, humble, genuine, generous individuals, always listening – something I really appreciate and respect. When I was originally asked to work on the audio-transcription project, I was very excited, as I had never worked with blind and visually impaired students before. It was a new frontier in the adventures of teaching, so I jumped at the opportunity. It wasn’t until I walked into training there on the first day that I realized, “Oh no! I have no idea what I’m doing.” Thus began the long process of researching teaching methodologies and activities that would work well in this context with this particular student population, with these specific needs, given the requirements and objectives listed in the audio-transcription project description.

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That was back in December. I went back a couple of weeks ago after a long time to assist in an assessment for the project, this time with Anudip Foundation students, not those of iMerit. The task was to listen to an audio clip of ten seconds and write it out. Sounds simple enough, but the clips were of sloppy American speakers not enunciating clearly, slurring their words, using slang, and generally speaking unclearly and too quickly. The task was very difficult for the students, as they are not completely used to the American accent, especially the southern one. They finished the assessment quickly enough, then we had lunch and chatted and joked around for a bit. I played them a recording of my butchering “House of the Rising Sun”, and they were kind enough to listen to it and say they liked it, though I don’t think they understood the lyrics completely. But they said they liked how the words were drawn out and slow rather than too fast – speech that is too fast is something they listen to all day, so they were grateful for the change of pace. A white book was produced, and it was full of little bumps.

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“What’s this?” I asked.

“Sir, this is brail book,” one student replied.

“Oh-ho, very nice.”

“Sir, let me show you. It says…” and then the student began wiggling his right index finger along the bumps, much more quickly than I would have thought possible, and he began reading to me. It was a collection of short stories. He invited me to feel what he was reading; I felt the bumps and they felt funny under my unaccustomed finger.

The students always get a kick out of my poor attempts to try to speak Bengali, too. They often prod me with words and phrases, just so they can either laugh at my accent or simply the words themselves – sometimes I can’t tell which.

“Sir, say oshi kito,” one student ordered me.

Oshi kito,” I said.

“Hahahaha!” they all laughed – the plump ones, their bellies jiggling. “Sir?!” I’m glad they got a kick out of my butchering their language, as I’ve had my fair share of laughs as they sometimes fumble through very difficult English listening exercises.

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But it never ceases to amaze me when I watch these students in action. Their moves and actions are swift when they punch the keys on the keyboard, nearly all of which they have completely memorized by touch. When they are completing an audio transcription task, for example, they will listen to a selected audio clip – either a BBC news report, a speech by President Obama, or perhaps a listening exercise by the British Council – and type out what they hear. This task, therefore, requires several skills: listening, comprehending, typing/keyboarding, and the ability to navigate special software called JAWS (Job Access With Speech), installed on the computers. They will open an audio file, listen to it, then simultaneously have a Microsoft Word Document open where they will type out what they hear, constantly switching between the two programs, headphones covering their ears all the while.

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Often students will blurt out something a little louder than needed (they are constantly wearing headphones and this JAWS software is constantly talking to them), say “Sir?!”, then repeat what they’ve heard – it often being something incomprehensible to me, but then I’ll have a listen to the audio itself and repeat to them slowly what I hear, assisting in their comprehending. Usually the speech is just too fast, they when it’s repeated more slowly, they understand it, but f there is some difficult or new vocabulary, then some explanation may be in order. Spelling is another important factor of the task, too, so when saying a word, I’ll often immediately spell it out so they can get a better idea of what it looks like. My spelling is definitely improving in light of this task, though that may not be apparent in this blog.

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Conversation practice is one of my favorite times, personally, as we get to sit around and chat. Usually it consists of me asking them questions, but they also have the opportunity to ask me questions, which they certainly do, about the states, my family, how I like Calcutta, food, holidays, etc. Some of them have never spoken to a native English speaker before, so some are shy at first. Additionally, most are used to an Indian English accent, which is completely understandable as their whole life has been spent here, so it’s me who has to change my speech, it’s me who has to be more conscience of my language, and it’s me who has to raise my awareness around what it is (exactly) that I’m saying.

Photography by Prashant Panjiar
Photography by Prashant Panjiar

It’s been a privilege to work with these students, as I’ve learned more from them that I’m sure they’ve learned from me. They are hard-working, diligent young men and women and I have nothing but respect for them. Their skills are improving, so I’m excited to see what they will accomplish in the future. I’ll miss them dearly when I leave.

John's interest in international education began six years ago when he took his first teaching job in Piedmont, Italy. Since then, teaching internationally has taken him to five different continents, allowing him to pick up small amounts of various languages along the way. Having most recently completed an English Language Fellowship with the US State Department in Abidjan, Cote d'Ivoire, John is excited to begin his journey as an educator and trainer with AIF in Kolkata. In 2013/2014, John taught English composition and critical thinking skills to young women from all over Asia at the Asian University for Women (AUW) in Chittagong, Bangladesh. This increased his interest in working in South Asia and learning Bengali. When not found teaching in the classroom, John can be found reading, playing cello, swimming, writing, eating potentially dangerous street food, and hiking.

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2 thoughts on “Audio-transcription at the Welfare Society for the Blind, Calcutta

  1. This was a great post. You are learning and contributing on multiple levels, John, and sharing generously about those processes. Keep trying to deepen your understanding of these “pranksters” and of Bengali. You’ll get to the other side of the language if you keep at it — even if you are not naturally gifted at languages, like me. Maybe we can chat in Bangla when you return to the USA. Keep up the good work — you are making the Fellowship proud and building important bridges along the way.

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