dimensions of listening

a Political Group
European Parliament

Tension was evident in the persistent background murmur while Members vigorously debated the merits of a collective stance versus individual prerogative. I was surprised that the intensity of debate over political group strategy did not draw everyone’s undivided attention: at no time during the meeting did it seem that everyone was listening. At first, I thought the side conversations were preliminary to the meeting. When I realized that the meeting was fully underway, I still thought the noise would ease as more Members arrived, greeted each other, and settled in. By the time I was seated, it was a quarter-hour past the meeting’s start time. Members continued to drift in over the next half-hour. Thirty-five minutes after the meeting’s scheduled start (twenty minutes after my arrival), the Chair sounded the gavel decisively – with only brief effect on the chatter.
Was the insistence at pursuing other conversations instead of focusing on the debate a form of competition with the ‘noise’ of the issue? I muse over the possibilities . . . could the refusal to give undivided attention have been a protest against the fact of disagreement, or . . . maybe it was a signal to specific disputants? Perhaps the collective distraction was made more possible because of the heightened requirements for listening to interpretation or hearing the range of languages in use on the floor? With only one exception, it seemed that each Member spoke their national language:

    36 minutes of Spanish = 34%
    31 minutes of German = 29%
    19 minutes of English = 18%<
    7 minutes of Dutch = 7%
    4 minutes of French = 4%
    3 minutes of Italian = 3%
    and possibly*
    3 minutes of Greek = 3%
    2 minutes of Romanian = 2%**
Percentages based on 105 minutes, the
total observation time until the
conclusion of the meeting.

My first visual scan about five minutes after I settled in discerned roughly one third of the MEPs present wearing their headphones. There is no way to know the MEPs language profiles, so it isn’t possible to assume that the two-thirds without headphones were either fluent in all the languages used, or disinterested, or satisfied to understand some colleagues and not others. Some time later, as more Members arrived and the debate heated up, approximately half of the MEPs present were using headphones.
How – and to what – they listen is complex:

  • For the language – i.e., do I comprehend this language or do I need SI?
  • For content of the speaker’s message
  • For evidence of loss or misrepresentation of the speaker’s message

Do they also listen for other activity on the floor that is not piped through the technology? This illusion of monolingualism fascinates me – if one wears the headphones fully (both ears), then someone could be essentially unaware of the fact of so much continuous background noise: a literal tuning in to the formal task of the group at that time and a tuning out of distraction. If one wears the headphones half-on, half-off (as many do), then one has to concentrate much harder to attend to the speaker currently holding the floor. Rather than relying on the technology to filter out the noise, one has to do it oneself. In this instance, is the listener also comparing the source and target languages? Here is yet another demand on concentration.
No wonder Members say it takes one to two years for first-time colleagues to become accustomed to the system: the sensory inputs are overwhelming! Time, practice, and experience are necessary to develop the cognitive skills of deciphering the demands and charting a course through the channels competing for attention. Hence some Members describe the accommodations they must make in their own speaking style in order to be understood, and acknowledge that not everyone is able to adapt.
At the end of this day, the system of simultaneous interpretation worked marvelously. A serious battle was engaged vigorously and aggressively by several Members in two opposed camps. A longtime Member told me later, “it was the worst I’ve ever seen.” Nearly every single speaker’s turn was done in a different language and no one seemed to miss a beat. Dutch (NL, for Nederlands) was the first language I recorded and the turns went like this:

NL, DE (German, for Deutsch), NL, DE, FR (French), EN (English), FR, DE, EN, DE, EN, DE, EN, DE, ES (Spanish, for Espanol), DE, FR, EN, IT (Italian), DE, IT, FR, DE, ES, FR, DE, RO (Romanian), ES, DE, ES, FR, EN, ES, EN, DE, ES, NL, EN, FR, DE, FR, EN, FR, EN, FR, EN, FR, ES, FR, ES, FR, EN, FR, DE, FR, DE, FR, EL (Greek, a translation of their script), EN, FR, DE, ES, DE, ES, FR, EN, FR, NL, EN, FR.

There were two Chairs (or a Chair and Vice-Chair) whose voices are interspersed between turns of Members from the floor. One consistently spoke German and the other French. Most of their contributions were logistical, simply rote thank you‘s at the conclusion of a speaker’s turn and introduction of the next speaker. These quick and habitual exchanges must be absorbed by interpreters and hardly noticed by Members – they occur much too quickly for interpreters to follow the dictates of protocol concerning working only from “B” languages into one’s “A” language. They may, however, give interpreters just enough time to be signaled as to the next speaker, identify their language, and turn the microphone over to the colleague in the booth who can best work from that language. Or – alternatively – find a suitable retour language. Some of the silences I occasionally encounter while channel surfing are probably the result of switching among teammembers in the booth (who’s now “on”), or seeking the colleague from another booth whose interpretation of the speaker can be used as “source.”
Explaining the process of simultaneous interpretation is itself a challenge, can you imagine being in it?!

The following notes regard the breakdown of languages heard on the floor:
*I identify languages being spoken through the technology, by channel-switching. If a booth is providing an interpretation then I know that is not the language being spoken on the floor. If I hear the speaker’s voice coming across the channel, then I’ve found the right language (unless that booth is not working, which has led to confusion a few times, perhaps even errors.
If a booth is not working then their assigned channel pipes the speaker’s voice from the floor. Normally, I visually assess which booths are staffed (interpreters are visible through the glass). Then, I can tune to Channel 7 (for instance) and, if I hear the voice of the Member speaking from the floor then I can assume that the language is Greek. However, sometimes a booth is staffed and the Member is not present – not yet arrived, or stepped out, or done their bit and gone off to another engagement. The interpreters shift to standby, remaining present and alert for the presence of Member(s) who use that language.
** During this meeting, twenty booths were staffed (German, English, French, Italian, Dutch, Greek, Spanish, Portuguese, Finnish, Swedish, Czech, Estonian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Hungarian, Polish, Slovakian, Slovenian, Bulgarian, and Romanian. Danish and Maltese interpretation was not provided. All booths were active in the beginning of the meeting, but a check partway through discovered that the Lithuanian booth had stopped interpretation. This was confirmed again at a later time. At one point, it also seemed the Romanian booth may have stopped as well, but this was short-term if at all. (There may have been a retour with a longer than usual delay, or some particularly challenging feature that caused the interpreter to pause for several seconds right at the time when I’m zooming through the channels.) At any rate, during this session there was silence for long enough to generate confusion when I heard the speaker’s voice through the Romanian channel (#22) and was unable to eliminate the possibility of another language (it may have been Spanish) because the speaker’s turn was short.

***This leaves me with a puzzle as to why some channels simply go silent instead of the automatic backup to the voice of the speaker on the floor?

One thought on “dimensions of listening”

  1. In debriefing the observation notes above with a member of the political group’s Secretariat, my outsiderness was flagged. ­čÖé
    Specifically, my summary does not reflect the fact that Members always use political group meetings to catch up individually with each other, both interpersonally and in regard to sensitive or current topics. Although I did not use the word, the staff person referred to “chatting” – I had to ask if it seemed I had characterized this behavior negatively? No, “well-observed” and “very critical” but not negative: interesting from the point-of-view of what an outsider perceives.
    I believe what caught my attention in particular was the volume of the side conversations relative to the official debate, and the juxtaposition of the amount of side conversation to the intensity of the debate. Are these two dynamics particularly unusual? I don’t know, but they caught my attention in ways that has not occurred (yet) in the other political groups that I have observed.

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