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Madhyam: Issues in Culture, Communication, and Development
, Vol. 18, No. 2 (Oct. 2003): 13-19.

“Child’s Play, Language Teaching and Learning, and Videoconferencing”

by Eric Miller

The below is the text of the children’s song-dance, “When I Was a Baby.”  African-American children were videotaped performing this song-dance in a playground in California in 1968 (Hawes and Eberlein).  The children stand in a circle facing each other, and sing:

When I was a baby, a baby, a baby,
When I was a baby, this is what I did:
I went [gesture as if to suck one’s thumb
(all movements are done first to one side, then to the other)],
Um, that-a-way; Um, this-a-way; Um, that-a-way,
And that’s what I did.

When I was a girl, a girl, a girl,
When I was a girl, this is what I did:
I went [make a jump, as if jumping rope]
Jump, that-a-way; Jump, this-a-way; Jump, that-a-way,
And that’s what I did.

When I was a teenager, a teenager, a teenager,
When I was a teenager, this is what I did:
I went [look to one side]
Uh, that-a-way; Uh, this-a-way; Uh, that-a-way,
And that’s what I did.

When I was a mother, a mother, a mother,
When I was a mother, this is what I did:
I went [gesture as if to rock a baby in one’s arms]
Oh, that-a-way; Oh, this-a-way; Oh, that-a-way,
And that’s what I did.

When I was a teacher, a teacher, a teacher,
When I was a teacher, this is what I did:
I went [gesture as if to scold a student]
Stop!, that-a-way; Stop!, this-a-way; Stop!, that-a-way,
And that’s what I did.

When I was a grandmother, a grandmother, a grandmother,
When I was a grandmother, this is what I did:
I went [move as to sit]
Ah, that-a-way; Ah, this-a-way; Ah, that-a-way,
And that’s what I did.

When I was dead, dead, dead,
When I was dead, this is what I did:
I went [move as to fall backwards]
Lay, that-a-way; Lay, this-a-way; Lay, that-a-way,
And that’s what I did.

When I was in heaven, in heaven, in heaven,
When I was in heaven, this is what I did:
I went [throw one’s hands upward ecstatically, as if in an church service],
Shout!, that-a-way; Shout!, this-a-way; Shout!, that-a-way,
And that’s what I did.

This paper seeks to encourage community members to appreciate and collect local children’s verbal play in general, and their song-dances in particular, and to include this material in cultural resource centres, which may feature the teaching of local languages and verbal arts to outsiders, via videoconference as well as through other means.  I hope to show that experimenting with such projects can be a community strategy for survival and growth.

One may ask, “How can child’s play and videoconferencing be mentioned in the same breath?”  Child’s play and videoconferencing might, on certain levels, seem to be opposites.  Child’s play is often informal and nonsensical; videoconferencing is highly-technologically-advanced and often expensive.  To some degree, it may be gently, humorously, and lovingly subversive -- or perhaps transformative -- of videoconferencing to bring child’s play into this realm.  The process of education can serve to bring these seemingly disparate activities together.

In today’s age, when transportation and telecommunication can be near-instantaneous, language is one of the final barriers between peoples.  Colloquial spoken language (with all of its ingenious hyphenations, contractions, and means of expression via indication and implication), along with traditional methods of teaching that language to the young, are among a community’s most precious, and often under-appreciated, resources.  This is especially so in multi-cultural, urban, and border environments, where some people may feel apologetic about their spoken language because it may not be “pure” or literary in style.

Child’s Play

Children’s verbal play may be studied within the fields, Anthropology of Play (Schwartzman), Ethnography of Speaking, and Ethno-Socio-Linguistics (Kirschenblatt-Gimblett).  Ethno-Socio-Kinetics -- the study of body language and ways of moving in different societies -- is also involved.  Two types of play are games (which are rule-centred), and art (which is aesthetics-centred): children’s song-dances are a mixture of game and art.

Alice Gomme, a founding member of England’s Folk-Lore Society (in 1878), was the first scholar to identify children's song-dances (also called, singing games) as a separate genre of folklore (Gomme).  She organized a group of children from the English countryside to come to London to demonstrate song-dances at the first International Folk-Lore Congress, in October 1891 (Boyes).

Song-dances help children to develop mind-body coordination (Jones and Hawes).  They also provide opportunities to experience in play many of the social roles and life-cycle events that constitute life in the community: play can be a model of the past, and a model for the future.  Children’s song-dances often contain historical and cultural references, many of them very ancient and obscure.  They may also contain a healthy dose of nonsense, some of it memorized.  In children’s song-dances, there is often a statement and response, or a question and response. These interactional routines present possible options for thought, expression, behavior, work-roles, and relationships in the community (Opie).  Also, the opportunity to improvise new words to express the feelings and thoughts of the moment is built into the activity.

Play is a mode of being, a frame of mind, an attitude, a style, a way of approaching and using language.  It seems that, almost everywhere, children have practised verbal play since the beginning of human language.  One function of such play has been to learn and practice spoken language.  For example, tongue twisters often illustrate salient differences between sounds.  Song-dances present language together with rhyme, melody, rhythm, repetition of variant phrases, and gestures, all of which can assist with the memorization and internalization of language elements.

However, play has many functions -- not all of them constructive, from some authority figures’ points of view.  Play can provide opportunities to ignore or transgress the normal rules of behavior.  Some children sometimes play by spinning around and making themselves dizzy.  In play, one can disorient, or other-orient, oneself.  In verbal play the rules of phonetics (sounds), semantics (words), and syntax (sentence formation) are sometimes reversed, ignored, modified (to form a play language), or overgeneralized or otherwise applied purposefully incorrectly.  Thus, play can serve to subvert the public culture system and/or one’s perception of it.

Language Teaching and Learning

By definition, play is engaged in for no other purpose than to have fun.  However, there may be unintended results of the activity.  Often one does not realize that one is learning in the play process.  A key aspect of children’s song-dances, as of much verbal play, is repetition with variation (Jakobson).  Repeating a simple phrase or sentence, and changing only aspects of it, can give a sense of confidence, security, and control to the language-learning speaker.

The teaching of spoken language often first occurs in the context of the mother-infant relationship, which is among the most intimate of human relationships.  The communication and teaching techniques used here, actually a type of child-rearing practice, must be modified for public use with students who are not only unrelated to the teachers, but also are possibly adults, and of different cultures.  Similarly, for language-learning purposes, games can be modified to be used as drills.

In one type of accumulation game, one player says word A, the next says words A and B, the next says words A, B, and C, etc.  Such a game could begin with the speaking of a noun (tree).  An article could be added (a tree).  Then an adjective (a tall tree).  Then a subject and a verb (he climbed up a tall tree).  Then an adverb (he slowly climbed up a tall tree), etc.  In substitution games, elements that may be changed include the subject pronoun (he, she, they, you, etc.), and the tense of the verb.  In transformation games, a statement may be turned into a question, a negative request may be turned into a positive one, etc.

If there are two participants, turn-taking can go back-and-forth.  If there are three or more participants, it can go around-in-a-circle, creating a ring game.  When players are physically present to each other, they sometimes clap hands with other players when taking turns; additional signals of participation might be devised for a videoconference ring game -- for examples, a stroke of electronic paint, or a visual special effect.

Language teaching and practice sessions can be presented as public demonstrations and performances.  This can be done in a variety of formats, including statement and imitation, and statement and response (whether memorized or improvised).  Performance is a very strong and valuable stimulant for learning.  When one knows one is going to be involved in a public presentation, one often practices and memorizes with special effort, and the results can last long after the public performance itself.

Scholars and teachers have developed many theories and methods for teaching spoken languages (Larsen-Freeman).  Nonetheless, teaching languages to adults has remained notoriously difficult and is often unsuccessful.  As there is no single agreed-upon, easily-graspable method for language teaching, often the instructor has to experiment and improvise to discover successful methods.  I am proposing, and helping to develop, a play-based method of teaching language that would utilize all of the types of verbal play known to children and their care-givers, both in general and in the specific language being learned.

It will be up to the paying student to decide what version of a language he/she wants to learn and practice, and one way this choice can be expressed is by selecting an in-the-flesh or videoconference language practice-partner who is in, or who comes from, a particular location and thus speaks in a particular dialect, or with a particular accent.


Videoconferencing can be defined as communication in which all parties can send-and-receive audio-and-video to-and-from each other.  All other types of electronic communication (including typing, electronic drawing, the viewing and manipulating of websites, the playing of prerecorded video, etc.) can occur within, or concurrently with, a videoconference.  Videoconferencing is a form of interactive television.

Videoconferencing can occur via any number of technologies, including regular telephone lines, ISDN lines (a specialized type of telephone line), the Internet, and Internet2.  (Internet2 is a new generation of the Internet, enabling transmission of high-quality video; website 1.)  Regardless of the technology used for a videoconference, it is also possible to simultaneously relay the combined audio-and-video of the videoconference onto the Internet as a live webcast, so that others can observe the videoconference conversation and participate via e-mail.

The need of the day: teletoriums!  I hope I may be forgiven for using this new little piece of jargon, which is a variation on the word, auditorium.  Tele means “from a distance” (in Greek language).  A teletorium is a space, comfortably seating at least 20 to 30 people, that is equipped with 1) videoconferencing capability, and 2) a large screen (typically projected onto by a video projector) so that local participants can see the images of themselves and the distant parties.  A teletorium can be partly or fully outdoors.

A leading group in community videoconferencing is the Warlpiri, a tribal people of Australia.  Members of the Warlpiri have been videoconferencing since 1992: their Tanami Network is the world’s original tribal-people-based videoconferencing network (website 2).  Members of the Tanami Network have videoconferenced with Native-American people in Canada and in the western USA, and with Saami people in northern Scandinavia (Norway and Sweden).  They are planning an annual global tribal-people-based videoconference-webcast festival of music, dance, and storytelling.  Also in Australia, the Women’s Justice Network, composed of tribal women fighting domestic violence within their own communities, uses videoconferencing extensively (website 3).  These are just two examples of the growing number of community uses of videoconferencing around the world.

In the USA, teletoriums that may be used for cultural, educational, and civic events may often be found at universities.  In India, such facilities may also be developing in relation to commercial Internet facilities, in both urban and rural areas (websites 4 and 5).  At highspeed browsing centres in large Indian cities today, one can practice two-way videoconferencing over the standard Internet, using software such as Microsoft’s Netmeeting and Yahoo Messenger.  In such cities, high-quality videoconferencing facilities -- often utilizing specialized telephone lines and/or satellite transceivers -- are in use in numerous large businesses, and in cultural centres of foreign countries.  However, these facilities are not readily available for community use, or for use by the general public.

Audio may form the basis of a the relationship in a videoconference, with the visual image and the text playing supporting roles. (In low-cost videoconferencing systems, only one or two frames may be shown per second, as opposed to broadcast-quality video, which shows approximately 30 frames per second, giving the illusion of fluid movement).  For the visual image in a videoconference, one need not direct the camera at one’s self throughout the event.  Photographs, drawings, and written and printed words can also be shown.  A stable still image may at times be more satisfying and useful than a sporadically and jerkily moving one.

Under optimum technological conditions, videoconference partners can talk with each other in a conversational tone and can feel like they are almost in the same room, separated only by a metre or two of space and a pane of glass.  However, to the degree that conditions are not optimized, the following principles of Signal Detection Theory should be kept in mind.  Five principles that increase the reliability of signal detection in noisy environments are:

A) Redundancy of part of a signal, or of the entire signal, enhances detectability.
B) Conspicuousness by exaggeration of acoustic features enhances the signal-to-noise ratio by increasing the contrast between the signal and the irrelevant background information.
C) A small repertoire of signals reduces the listener's uncertainty and enhances performance in signal detection tasks.  With fewer and more distinctive categories in which potential signals can be classified, the opportunity for identification errors is minimized.
D) Alerting components at the beginning of a signal increase detectability and recognition by letting the listener know when to expect the message component of the signal.
E) Alerting components at the end of a signal alert the listener to ignore subsequent immediate material, and can serve as a request for the listener to indicate that she has received and comprehended the signal just sent (Fernald).

It is sometimes helpful to utilize many of these principles at the beginning of a videoconference, and then forgo some of them if communication seems to be going well.  Actually, it is a good idea to take the time at the beginning of a videoconference to take stock of the system, so that all can understand its limitations and not hold the other participants responsible for disjunctures in communication that are inherent to the system.  For example, a participant who is not aware of the true, technological causes of delays in the system sometimes mistakenly supposes that her/his videoconference partner has a neurological disability (Storck and Sproull).

In a videoconference there is often a delay between the time one sends a signal and the time it is received.  One way to determine the magnitude of the delay is for participants to sing a few lines of a song together.  Party A should sing independently, and Party B should attempt to sing along synchronously.  They will most likely find that the singing is synchronous on Party B's side of the videoconference, but that on Party A's side, Party B is singing a second or so behind Party A.

Can participants speak simultaneously?  That is, can participants' audio systems simultaneously transmit and receive?  If a test determines that simultaneous reception and transmission is not possible, participants might decide to agree upon a signal to indicate requests for the floor.  It may be a useful convention to leave a half-second-or-so of silence between turns of speaking.

Other technical factors to take into account include:

Screen configuration:  Where is self, where are others?  If more than two parties are participating in a videoconference, do they all see the same combination of images in the same way?  Is each party continuously shown to the others on a compartmentalized screen, or is one party at a time chosen to fill the entire screen?

Do audio and video arrive at the same time?  Often audio arrives a split-second before video: if this occurs to a noticeable degree, the effect can be similar to a poorly-dubbed cinema.

Where are the cameras?  Use of eye contact is a very important factor in communication in which participants are physically present to each other, but it can be difficult to achieve simulation of eye contact in a videoconference.  This is due to the fact that if the camera is above the screen, a person looking directly at that screen seems to be looking downward, from the perspective of the camera above the screen (and this is the image of oneself that is sent to one's videoconference partners).  In a sense, an ideal placement for the camera is in front, in, or behind the image of the eyes of the person one is conversing with in the videoconference.  One way to achieve a version of this is to project the distant party’s image onto a glass-like screen, and place the local camera behind that screen.  By being aware of the problems and practicing the art of the possible, and participants can develop solutions together.

The working out of these aesthetic factors should not be left to specialized technicians and directors.  Rather, all involved should join in taking personal responsibility for good and full communication, and all should feel free to, in agreed-upon ways, point out difficulties in the communication process and make suggestions for resolutions.  There are times when the proceedings should be interrupted to make technical adjustments, rather than be permitted to continue in a less-than-optimum fashion.


In addition to resistance against commodity globalisation, I am suggesting that members of minority and marginalised groups might also think in terms of pro-actively globalising aspects of their own cultures.  Creating a local heritage, culture, folklore, language, and history education and resource centre is an excellent method of putting a community on the map: this may help the community’s claims for rights and services.  By presenting the material, and making (aspects of) one’s community accessible, one demands and commands a place on the world stage.  To attempt to develop ways of providing language and verbal arts instruction via videoconferencing to people all over the world -- to students, scholars, businesspeople, potential tourists, art collectors, children of people who have emigrated, and others -- is to take a leadership role in the relatively new field that combines culture, education, and electronic technology.  Such efforts could lead to more people visiting the teaching community’s locale, and to those visitors being more culturally-educated.  In the process of designing curriculae, community members may “get back in touch” with aspects of their own culture which they might have forgotten, or of which they might never have even been aware.

This activity could provide work for videoconference language instructors and practice-partners.  University-trained scholars (including native scholars) might be useful in developing such processes, but practice-partners could be less formally educated.  24-hour access to videoconferencing facilities would be necessary, so that clients around the world, in all of the various time-zones, could be catered to at times convenient for them.  Videoconferencing can also be used for teacher-training programmes.  The videoconferencing can go hand-in-hand with website, e-mail, postal mail, and, of course, in-the-flesh communication.

There is a market for eco-tourism, as well as for language study, if these things are presented in manageable and enjoyable ways.  Language can be said to be a microcosm of, and hold a key to, the general culture of a people.  The natural and physical environment colors language in many ways.  I would posit that learning at least some of the local language should be an inherent part of eco-tourism, to the extent that communities are visited.  In such situations, often what happens is that two levels of culture develop: one for insiders, one for presentation to outsiders.

Childen’s verbal play activities should be embraced, encouraged, celebrated, and at times taught to people beyond the originating group.  Let us fill the Internet with the teaching and learning of (spoken and written) languages, and verbal arts!  Let us tear down the language-barriers between peoples, and help make multi-cultural education and communication more of a reality!  This can increase understanding and appreciation between members of various groups, and can also promote the well-being of the language group that is doing the teaching.

It has been said that technology should not be a high priority for people who cannot read and write, and who barely have enough to eat.  A point that such arguments miss, however, is that if technology is exciting and accessible to people, its presence and use may inspire them to learn to read and write, and to find new ways of making a living.


Information about Internet2.

Information about the Tanami Network, and a Realplayer recording of a recent videoconference with members.

Information about the Women’s Justice Network, and a Realplayer recording of a recent videoconference with members.


Information about n-Logue, a company which offers wireless Internet services, including videoconferencing, in rural India.

Works Cited

Boyes, Georgina.  2001.  “‘A Proper Limitation’: Stereotypes of Alice Gomme.”  Unpublished manuscript, accessible at .

Fernald, Anne.  1994.  “Human Maternal Vocalizations to Infants as Biologically Relevant Signals: An Evolutionary Perspective.”  In Language Acquisition, Paul Bloom, ed., Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, pp. 51-94.

Gomme, Alice.  1894-8.  “Memoir on the Study of Children’s Games.”  In the author’s The Traditional Games of England, Scotland, and Ireland, with Tunes, Singing-rhymes, and Methods of Playing According to the Variants Extant and Recorded in Different Parts of the Kingdom (2 volumes), London: David Nutt, volume II, pp. 458-531.  (Re-printed in 1964 by Dover Publications, New York.)

Hawes, Bessie, and Robert Eberlein, directors.  1968.  “Pizza Pizza Daddy-0.”  Videotape, 18 minutes.  Dept. of Anthropology, San Fernando Valley State College, Northridge, California.

Jakobson, Roman.  1960.  “Linguistics and Poetics.”  In Style in Language, Thomas Sebeok, ed., Cambridge, Mass.: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, pp. 350-77.

Jones, Bessie, and Bess Lomax Hawes.  1987 (1972).  Step It Down: Games, Plays, Songs, and Stories from the Afro-American Heritage.  Athens: U. of Georgia Press.

Kirschenblatt-Gimblett , Barbara, ed.  1976.  Speech Play: Research and Resources for Studying Linguistic Creativity.  Philadelphia: U. of Pennsylvania Press.

Larsen-Freeman, Diane.  2000.  Techniques and Principles in Language Teaching.  (2nd Ed.)  Oxford: Oxford U. Press.

Opie, Iona and Peter.  1985.  The Singing Game.  Oxford: Oxford U. Press.

Schwartzman, Helen.  1978.  Transformations: the Anthropology of Children's Play.  New York: Plenum Press.

Storck, John and Lee Sproull.  1995.  “What Do People Learn in Videoconferences?”  Human Communication Research 22, 2 (Dec.): 197-220.

Eric Miller is a Ph.D. candidate in Folklore at the University of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia, USA).  His e-mail address and website are  and .  Please contact him for information regarding upcoming play-and-language-related videoconferences.