Monday, February 25, 2013

The ASMR Phenomenon and Learning Russian

I enjoy watching videos about Russia and the Russian language on YouTube, and I'm subscribed to a lot of channels run by Russian users.  As a result, I regularly see Russian (or Russia-related) videos come up on my feed, and I click on them from time to time.  Today a video came up on my feed by the YouTube user GentleWhispering with the title =*=Russian Teacher Relaxing RP=*=.

Going from the thumbnail, it looked like a standard video for learning Russian - a young lady (I saw on her channel that her name was Masha) with glasses was standing in front of a blackboard with a matryoshka nesting doll beside her, and it looked as though she was looking through some notebooks on her desk.  Now, since I'm at an advanced level in Russian, I don't really need to watch videos teaching the alphabet, simple phrases, or anything like that, because I learned all that stuff years ago.  But since I'm aspiring to teach Russian at the university level, I still find these kinds of videos valuable.  It is interesting for me to know what aspects of the language are introduced to beginning students first, what pace is appropriate, what activities are most beneficial, etc.

So I started watching the Russian lesson video with this woman.  It was in fact a Russian lesson video, but as I continued to watch, I noticed that something seemed "off" about this video.  As Masha spoke, she said everything very slowly and in a gentle, "relaxed" voice that was almost a whisper.  She frequently smiled, paused, and looked into the camera. 

Masha in the middle of giving an introductory Russian lesson.

Masha, without a doubt, had a pleasant smile and a nice relaxing voice, but I am used to my language lessons being more fast-paced, so I skipped around the 30 minute video so that I could see what was going to be actually taught in the video.  I found that in the timespan of 30 minutes, the only Russian-related things that were taught in this video were the basic sounds of the Russian letters, Россия (Russia), я люблю тебя (I love you), and спасибо (thank you).  It dawned on me that the main intention of this 30-minute video was most likely not to educate viewers on the Russian language.  I started to wonder, what was the point of this video?

The name of Masha's channel is GentleWhispering, and the title of the video had the word "relaxing" in it, so I initially thought that she was running a YouTube channel with Russian lessons that were simply supposed to be relaxed and free of the stress that comes with taking classes at a school.  Then I looked at the rest of her channel and I saw a mix of videos in English and Russian.  I clicked on one called ○○○Белый и пушистый шепот 3D sound○○○ASMR.  The video had a thumbnail of a hand surrounded by soft cotton balls.  I clicked on it, and I started to hear the voice of the same Masha that was standing in front of the blackboard, but this time she was not merely speaking softly, but she was actually whispering

Masha runs her fingers through a pile of cotton balls as she whispers in Russian.

I was wearing headphones, so I noticed that the audio was not always panned to the center, but it would often come from the far left and far right (so that the sound would be felt more intensely in one ear than the other).  This seems to be what the 3D sound was referring to.  But what I didn't understand was what ASMR was.  A lot of the videos on Masha's channel had this tag, and in the "Related Videos" column I saw many other videos by other people that all had the ASMR tag.

So I decided to look it up.  According to Wikipedia, it stands for autonomous sensory meridian response, referring to a buzzing or tingling sensation in the head and scalp, similar to feeling "goose bumps" or "chills" from certain stimuli.  ASMR has apparently been difficult to research, so there is not much evidence that it is a real physiological phenomenon, and there are many who are skeptical about the whole thing (Steven Novella wrote an article about it on SkepticBlog). 

One thing that intrigues me about ASMR are the role-play videos.  I at this point realized that the "RP" at the end of Masha's Russian lesson video stood for "role-play", which meant that she was role-playing as a Russian teacher.  On Masha's channel, she also has a video where she simulates going to the eye doctor in Russian, and an ASMR video in Russian where she talks about ASMR itself.  Quickly looking through related channels, I saw a simulation of having make-up applied, another Russian lesson role-play, a role-play of an interview to become an art teachera role-play of being stopped by a police officer for drunk driving, and an attempt to get the viewer to fall asleep.  All are in Russian with voices that are slow, calm, and relaxing, yet not forced or robotic in any way.

Masha plays the role of an eye doctor and shines a flashlight into the eyes of her viewers.

Seeing these videos made me start thinking - could ASMR-type videos be valuable in the world of language learning?  Regardless of whether there is any physiological phenomenon behind all this, I think that being exposed to slow, clear speech in the target language can only benefit the language learner.  It's one of the main reasons people find the NCLRC Russian webcasts are useful, anyway.  You can familiarize yourself with the sounds and words so that it will be easier to understand when you deal with real-world situations where people don't speak as slowly and clearly.

The "role-play" videos that I mentioned in the previous paragraph made me think of how role-playing is used in language classrooms, and how OPI (oral proficiency interviews) sometimes include role-playing scenarios.  I think that it might be good for language programs to include a few "toned-down" target-language ASMR videos in their repertoire.  I say "toned-down" because I think certain things could be eliminated, like whispering (many people would find it annoying, and it also makes it harder to see what is actually being said).  Relaxed, slow speech would be a better alternative.  Naturally, the goal of these videos would be a bit different - the goal wouldn't be to put the viewers to sleep, but to give them a greater amount of attention and focus. 

From what I can gather, ASMR has only been a "thing" since the beginning of this current decade, and it has gained most of its popularity within the past year (2012).  It seems to be especially popular in Russia and other countries where Russian is spoken.  There is a Huffington Post article about it that was written about a year ago. 


  1. Hi Mark.

    I see that you are in St. Pete, Florida.
    I used to live in Carrollwood and in case you did not already know this, there is a great store called Red Square Deli at 4023 W Waters Ave, Tampa, 33614. In addition to lots of Russian foods, they also have a ton of Russian magazines, newspapers, books and movies.

  2. Thank you for the comment, Jeff. I haven't heard of that store before, but I am always interested in more Russian-oriented places in the area. I'll make sure to stop by the next time I have the opportunity to go to Tampa.

  3. Personally, okay, unsure, but who is to say the phenomenon may or may not be related to chakra religions?

    Science still doesn't know what to say about dogs that smell cancer...