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GENESSA -- QUANTUM LANGUAGE LEAPS
From 1985 to 1995, Lady G taught English (and subjects of other sorts in English) in Nagoya, Kasugai and sometimes other parts of Japan (not to mention a summer teaching English to one outgoing Turkish lad, two shy Japanese lasses and a gang of intelligent, rowdy Italian kids at on the campus of Brunel University in Egham, Surrey, England). Most of her instruction was delivered at university level, and she was invited to participate in conferences in which she held seminars for other instructors, as well as to contribute to the publications of the various educational entities at which she taught. One such publication at one such entity was her article, "Quantum Language Leaps," published by Aichi Women's Junior College (associated with, and located on the campus of Nagoya University of Foreign Studies) in their bulletin and also as a tear-sheet of sorts. The article was written not only to encourage other teaches to use video other than as a babysitting tool, using the popular American television series "Quantum Leap" to illustrate some methods of doing so, but to compare the situation of the frightened Japanese student of English to that of QL's hero, Dr. Sam Beckett.
Here, in its entirety, unchanged since its initial publication in 1994 (unless I find a typo or obvious error!) is that article:
Quantum Language Leaps2>
Gail M. Feldman
The First Day
In a blaze of blue-white light, Dr. Sam Beckett, quantum physicist, time traveler and average if overeducated Joe, finds himself upside down, in his underwear, in a strange room, and doesn't know who, when or where he is. As disoriented as he is, though, he has the wherewithal to react playfully when a small boy appears and shoots him with a toy ray gun; he "dies." Moments later, he is shocked to learn that he has become a young mentally retarded man named Jimmy.
You walk into your classroom some time in April and there you find twenty or sixty faces all wearing the same desperate expression, all sending the same hopeless message: I can't speak English. They'll introduce themselves that way and they'll write it on their final tests too, if you're not careful: I can't speak English well; I'm sorry. Japanese people are no good at English. We are all retarded at English.
They've all had at least six years of "This is a pen" and "she her her" (or is it "she she her"? and who cares?); they've passed rigorous but meaningless exams, rooted in century-old misconceptions about oscure grammatical points, not to mention about language-learning in general. They may even have met a native speaker or two. They're weary and discouraged, but more or less prepared; they've bought the textbook, and some of them even carry notebooks and pencil cases (which they will never open). They have enough background and some of them are pretty bright. They are no more retarded than they think they are. The problem is, they think they are.
Dr. Sam Beckett finds himself, without warning, in a kitchen where two children are screaming at each other, arguing over the ownership of a tee-shirt, and a third child is demanding that Sam fix her chewed-up doll. The radio is blasting out "Call Me" and a large dog is adding to the confusion by barking and performing random acts of destruction. "I'm a mommy!" realizes the overwhelmed Sam.
Yes, finding herself in an English-speaking (no Japanese allowed!) classroom can be overwhelming to the language student, no matter how much grammar she has studied. Mostly, English has been explained to her, in Japanese, and Japanese explanations and translations have been demanded of her. Having to operate solely within its parameters is something else again. That "I can't speak English" tape they keep playing in the foreground isn't helping. Your primary goal is to overcome that, their primary barrier. You can't erase it. The best you can do it outpound it, overpower it, play your own loud tune and get them all dancing to it.
Sam leaps into a rocket about to lift off. He's helmeted and strapped in, he faces an unfamiliar control panel and the noise and motion of the rocket terrify him. "I can't do this!" he scraeams. Sound like your students, faced with a simple classroom exercise? There's more. The kind scientist aborts the mission, which turns out only to be a test, strips Sam of his spacesuit and comforts him as she begins, in a businesslike manner, to examine him. Just as he is beginning to calm down he discovers that his speech is completely incomprehensible to her, because he is a chimpanzee! Although he starts to understand what is going on around him, he is frustratingly unable to communicate.
The disorientation of Dr. Beckett as he finds himself in each new situation is comparable, even analagous, to the plight of the suddenly serious student of English as a foreign language in an all-English-speaking classroom, especially if taught by a native speaker. She is confronted with too many variables, too many elements, too much noise (albeit mostly of her own creation). But who is this Sam Beckett, anyway, and after we have appreciated the analogy, what more use could we possibly make of him?
Driven to Distraction
Video is an engaging and distracting tool. Some of you are frowning at the word "distracting" but distraction is a key point here. It's half the battle to get them to stop listening to that "can't can't can't" tape. Of course, just the fact of the video itself isn't enough, and indeed video may at first reinforce their fears and feelings of helplessness. Listening comprehension: oh, no! Sometimes I ask my students what percentage of the dialogue in an English-language videotape they think they wll be able to udnerstand; very few estimate their own ability at over 50 percent; most estimate 30 percent. Little do they realize that 30 percent is great! A little reassurance here gets off to a slow start (they won't believe you at first) ut goes a long way (they will, they will! -- and it is a good idea to poll them again after the video; the numbers always go up).
But I have written before about the uses of video in the language classroom, translation subtitles versus none, documentaries versus entertainment, and some techniques for making the best use of whichever kind of video you choose. Here my aim is, rather, to recommend, even promote, a very specific story, Dr. Sam Beckett's story, one to which students of English as a foreign language relate particularly well, because in the ways described above it tells their story and mirrors their own insecurities. Besides, it is wildly entertaining. Quantum Leap is the story in question; it's an American TV series that ran for four and a half years, producing, finally, 97 45-minute episodes, about which more later.
Students need not consciously appreciate the analogy between Dr. Beckett's plight and their own situation to gain from Quantum Leap. What makes it an ideal teaching tool is the simplicity of its thematic presentation. During its run it was at least initially considered a family show (it got rather steamier toward the end) and sometimes it was less than subtle, but subtlety is not necessarily an advantage in a language-teaching tool. Various episodes present such issues as racial prejudice, discrimination against the mentally handicapped, sexual harassment, date rape, women's rights, teenage peer pressure (to lose one's virginity), drug addiction, the right to die with dignity, gay rights, the Cold War, overcoming phobias, animal rights, the problems of returning war veterans, the fears parents once felt that rock 'n roll would harm their children, the death penalty and illiteracy -- to name but a few. Each episode provides an instant topic or topics for discussion that can last for weeks.
There is also, because of the time-travel element, a history lesson, large or small, in every episode. Sometimes it is merely a matter of identifying the appearance and mores of a particular time (the cars, the fashions, outdated items in use or opinions in effect, today's or even tomorrow's commodities not yet invented) and sometimes we are given more specific information (the name of the "co-ed" whose efforts integrated the University of Alabama; details of the Kennedy assassination).
Furthermore, being science fiction, Quantum Leap presents the students with an immediate and compelling problem which they can only solve by asking questions: the problem of understanding the premise and technical setting of the show.
Dr. Sam Beckett has built a time machine and prematurely tested it by stepping into its "quantum leap accelerator." It has worked, but only partially; he has indeed traveled in time, but into another person's physical aura; he must relive a piece of someone else's life. Furthermore, he cannot leap back home; once he has changed a critical event in the other person's life, or in the life of someone close to that person, he leaps into yet another life. Still further, he has partial amnesia, which becomes less severe as the series progresses. He feels that another power (sometimes referred to as "God, Fate, Time or Whatever") is controlling his leaps and requiring of him his good deeds.
Sam appears to everyone around him as the person into whose aura he has leaped. When he looks at himself he sees himself, but when he looks in the mirror he sees what everyone around him sees: the host's aura.
Sam is not in this alone; as part of Project Quantum Leap, an imaging chamber has been built, where Sam's friend and colleague, Al Calavicci, a retired Navy admiral, projects himself back to where/whenever Sam has landed, in the form of a hologram. He can find Sam because he is "tuned in" to his friend's brain waves. (Ordinarily, only Sam can see and hear Al, althouh we learn in certain episodes that children under the age of five, all animals, the "mentally absent" and dying persons can see him too; "Why not blondes?" complains Al, whose lascivious nature is a running joke throughout the series.) Al and Sam cannot interact physically at all; Al cannot touch anything in the past, but can only observe. Al is good for at least five excited questions, no matter how insecure your students are: they want to know why he can walk through walls; what the strange beeping thing in his hand is (it's the handlink, or remote control, to an indispensible but egotistical hybrid computer named Ziggy); whether he sees the real Sam or the host's aura (he sees the aura but always knows it's Sam); why only Sam can perceive him; and why exceptions occur in which other folks than Sam can see him. Sam's situation also elicits demands for technical explanations, and you (and the students themselves) may be surprised to see how ready they are to understand those explanations. (They are also ready to challenge them; one of my students recently complained that although in one episode an automobile could pass right through Al's body without harming him, in another Al seemed to be riding in the passenger seat of a car. The answer, in case you are ever so challenged, is that Al can assume any posture within the imaging chamber to make himself appear to Sam in a comfortably realistic manner.)
The fantastic nature of Quantum Leap, wich has made it a cult hit worldwide (only Trekkies have shown more enthusiasm, and they've had a decades-long head start) makes it a hit with students as well.
There are perhaps a dozen episodes commercially available on videotape (on NTSC, which is used by both the U.S. and Japan, from Blockbuster Video, a video chain store throughout the U.S., and on PAL, used in Britain, Australia, New Zealand and at Japanese universieis that are so equipped).* In addition, American cable television networks USA and SciFi Channel (both under the same ownership) each broadcast slightly edited episodes twice daily in the U.s.**: most of us have kind friends who can be persuaded to send tapes to Japan, where briefly, earlier in 1994, cable television aired Quantum Leap on weekends.
Whatever the format, every show is closed-captioned for the hearing-impaired, which means that with a caption-opener it can be viewed with English-language subtitles. This makes fast dialogue much easier for students to catch, and allows them to note vocabulary and other questions to ask later, when the tape is stopped. (I always ask the students to take notes while viewing, and I stop the tape frequently for questions and comments. In lower-level classes I may allow a short question-formulation period, and/or allow teamwork in the formulation.)
Episodes I particularly recommend, and the reasons I recommend them, are as follows:
What Price Gloria?
Sam leaps to 1961, into the aura of Samantha, a young woman who has just been promoted out of the secretarial pool into an executive secretarial position. Her married boss, Buddy Wright, has been having an affair with her roommate, Gloria, promising falsely to divorce his wife for her. Meanwhile, he comes on to Sam/Samantha. Sam must protect himself from his boss' unwanted advances and prevent Gloria from killing herself when she finds out she's been lied to. Once Gloria is out of danger, Sam exacts revenge on Mr. Wright by pretending to seduce him, then punching him out.
I personally find the ending dramatically and even ethically unsatisfying, but this does not spoil the impact of the show upon the students, who will discuss everything from what it feels like for a man to be (literally) in a woman's (high-heeled) shoes; the nature of (and remedy for) sexual harassment; the ethicality of adultery and marital "arrangements"; and Al's confusion over his sudden lustful feelings for his (until now wholly male) best friend.
The Color of Truth
Sam becomes Jessie Tyler, an elderly black man in 1965 Alabama, who (before Sam realizes the situation) sits down at a whites-only lunch counter and provokes the rage of some of the town's more active bigots. Ziggy the computer calculates that Sam is there to save his employer, Miss Melanie, the white widow of the state's late governor, from being killed by a train, but Sam feels he should contribute to the civil rights movement. Before he can do either, his (Jessie's) granddaughter, Nell, is cruelly run off the road. Sam and Miss Melanie take Nell to a hospital, where she is refused admission based on the segregation laws. Miss Melanie still has some pull in the town and gets Nell admitted, but Sam is arrested. As Miss Melanie drives toward the train tracks and her fate, Al shouts for her to stop and finally, believing she is listening to her husband's ghost, she hears him and obeys. Finding that her actions can make a difference, Miss Melanie invites Sam/Jessie to sit with her at the lunch counter.
Japanese students are eager to confront the issue of racism; I have been asked, in other contexts, whether all white American hate blacks, and perhaps that accounts for the student' heightened awareness of Miss Melanie's "kindness" to which they unfailingly refer. This is a good opportunity to distinguish, for them, between the words "dinstinction" and "discrimination," which they often confuse.
This is the episode which opens as I described in my introduction. Sam finds himself living a few days in the life of a young mentally challenged man named Jimmy, who has just spent an unspecified portion of his life in a mental institution, to which he will be returned if Sam can't get him mainstreamed (not an easy task in the early 1960s). Jimmy's brother Frank has taken him in and arranged for him a job interview on the docks, but the other dock workers are as unaccepting as Frank's wife, Connie, who is a little afraid of Jimmy. Their young son Cory is the only one who really accepts Uncle Jimmy; even Frank, who loves him, is dismissive. Sam feels the pressure of everyone's belief that he is mentally inferior, and beguns to live, as playwright Wendy Wasserstein so aptly put it, down to expectation. Al reveals that this leap is particularly important to him because his own younger sister was mentally retarded and died at the age of 16, ostensibly of pneumonia, in an institution. Sam promises to give his all on Jimmy's behalf, for Al's sake, but a dyslexic dock worker who feels threatened by Jimmy arranges a disaster that almost gets Jimmy recommitted. Only when Sam comes through in a dramatic dockside rescue do the others accept him as a full human being; his successful mainstreaming is assured and Sam leaps out.
Some of the most brilliant essays I have ever received form my students have been in response to this episode of Quantum Leap; it provokes quite lively conversation, as well. Pair work in which one student plays the role of a retarded person can be valuable, not only, as I have said, because the students identify with the way everyone makes Sam -- a decidedly not retarded person -- feel, but because many of them have never considered the existence of the mental and/or emotional life of a mentally handicapped person, and the story, quite frankly, shocks them. They nearly always ask why Sam has become so clumsy; it needs to be gently pointed out that anyone who is told s/he is a "dummy" for a long time will begin to believe it. Attention may be called to the aforementioned "can't can't can't" tape.
The Wrong Stuff
Sam has become Bobo the chimponaut, but he cannot pass the tests that qualify him for the space program. He learns that neurologist Dr. Winger has been using chimps to test helmets and that he/Bobo (and female companion Cory -- a name the producers of Quantum Leap obviously favored) will die of massive head trauma. He tries to communicate this (in pantomine) to Dr. Ashton, who loves the chimps, but she is unable to prevent his being drugged and taken off to be tested/killed. Al rescues him much as he had rescued Miss Melanie in "The Color of Truth" -- by shouting at Sam until he awakens and releases himself. Sam and Cory escape by negotiating, as only a chimp could, a pipe over a reservoir, but when Dr. Winger, trying to follow them, falls in and almost drowns, Sam returns to rescue him. Dr. Winger realizes that he has been sacrificing chimp lives to benefit humans (Dr. Ashton hjas eloquently argued against animal experimentation not only for humane reasons but for practical ones) and promises to stop.
This episode is a particular favorite among the students, not least, I'm afraid, because actor Scott Bakula portrays Sam/Bobo dressed only in a diaper. Both sides of the animal experimentation issue are presented in some detail, and even with open captions the teacher should not skimp on time spent explaining those conversations. (A 45-minute episode may take several class periods to complete in this manner; don't be afraid to take the time!)
Also described above, this episode introduces the idea that small children, because of their innocence, can see Al and recognize Sam for who he is. Sam, as the mother of three children, must prevent his 15-year-old son, Kevin, from running away and being kidnapped by a pair of, as Al puts it, "sickos." Kevin's flight is precipitated by a challenge, by his so-called friends, to prove his manhood with a female schoolmate, who has been convinced by those "friends" to betray Kevin by revealing that he is, in fact, still a virgin. Al gets to the root of Kevin's dilemma and Sam's amnesia clears long enough for him to remember his tae kwon do, with which he dispatches the bad guys.
Beyond the obvious issues of peer pressure and the right or wrong time to lose one's virginity, this episodes presents Sam as a woman involved in an issue in which, unlike in "What Price Gloria," the fact of his being one is not relevant. Students accept early on Sam's striding about in a skirt and earrings, bathing the baby amd burning the roast. No one questions his sexuality; indeed, many of my male students have expressed admiration for the combination of his "man's strength" and his "tender woman's heart." An advanced class may tackle this aspcet of the show -- the concept of a male or female image -- as readily as the other issues.
You're On Your Own
Of the 97 episodes, perhaps three dozen are supremely suitable for use in the language classroom, and you may find uses for the others as well, if you can get your hands on them.* Of course, even in a full-year course of weekly 90-minute sessions, and assuming (perhaps unreasonably) that Quantum Leap took up your whole syllabus, you could only show a limited number of episodes anyway, at a proper pace to be of any use at all. The episodes I have described are not the only ones with which I have had success; their selection and handling depend on, among other things, the context of your course, your degree of comfort using video in the classroom, and the level of your students.
But even if you decide to show a single episode of Quantum Leap in your classroom as a special treat to some deserving students, I think you'll find them forgetting that they can't speak English and leaping right in!
*These days one can most likely acquire the entire series on DVD
**This is, sadly, no longer true.
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