Home > Learners, My thoughts on ELT > Journal entry – HMUN and some thoughts on pronunciation

Journal entry – HMUN and some thoughts on pronunciation

It is customary for Brazilians to say that the year only truly starts in Brazil after our world famous Carnaval. This is a tongue in cheek remark, obviously, but I may just be getting the feeling that my 2011 is still about to begin. I’ve just returned from the US with a group of students who went there to participate in Harvard Model U.N., or, simply put, HMUN. The trip was amazing, and even though it was a lot of hard work, it was also an opportunity to take a break from the day by day routine. The feeling that I get about 2011 still being about to begin refers to my posts on this blog, though. There were just so many things to take care of before the trip, and then while we were there, it was pretty much impossible to keep up with everything that was going on both on the blogosphere and on Twitterville. I noticed I missed some #ELTChats I’d love to have participated in – if you know me you know I’m talking about the one on pronunciation.

Can I transfer my MA to MIT? :)

 

I have to confess that I have only read a couple of blog posts ever since I came back as I brought with me an undesirable companion – the flu. Still, I’d like to add a word or two on the matter, if you will bear with me for a moment. I had the chance to visit three different cities with 25 high school students, and they can all communicate effectively in English. Most of them have already finished their English language courses as EFL learners, or are about to finish it. Our first stop was Washington D.C., and our very first meal was, guess where, at McDonald’s. That was just the beginning of the junk food route, which included lots of pizza places, Subway, Flammers’, and what have you. Language-wise, what caught the eye was how hard it was to speak to an American instead of a Latino. Anyway, after D.C., we went to New York and sent a little more time there. Students were given some freedom to go around Macy’s and Times Square to do some shopping, and I won’t even mention the Outlets. That was not a problem at all, and they could all, I repeat that, communicate effectively in all these places. They were able to buy things, meet new people and hold conversations without a problem. Their command of the language is pretty good for that. They had very little problems with accents and they all told me they could understand, if not all, pretty close to that. These are students who study in the same high school, but take their English lessons in many different language institutes, which means their teachers, coursebooks, and contact with the language was also diverse. Yet, they could all communicate.

Then came Boston, and with it, the HMUN. Now this is a situation that is a lot more challenging for English language learners as a foreign language mainly. Not only did they have to communicate, but they also had to play the role of delegates in the U.N. They had to remember to use formal language, they had to have good negotiation skills for all the unmoderated caucus that took place, and they also needed to be able to speak in public fairly well. Every time I think of speaking in public, I remember Jerry Seinfeld’s bit about it where he says that speaking in public is the number 1 fear in America. Guess how it must have felt for EFL learners to stand up and deliver a speech that had to be one-minute long in front of more than 200 teenagers from all over the world.

One of the things that struck me was that these students who had just had living proof that they could communicate quite well and even handle problems in English, suddenly were a bit self-conscious about their command of the language – vocabulary and pronunciation, mainly. I wonder what the reasons for that might have been, but it was clear that they were a bit self-conscious about their pronunciation and vocabulary, and also about their accent. Now I don’t think that the accent is a problem – having an accent is actually the norm rather than the exception, isn’t it? However, what shocked at least some of them the most and even prevented them fro asking for the floor and speaking on the mic wasn’t accent, it was pronunciation, and I’d say mainly supra-segmental features, or just connected speech. This was the first shock, for sure. And I can certainly put myself in their shoes because I once felt like that when I was learning English, and sometimes even after I had become a teacher. Looking back, I can clearly see that pronunciation was overlooked when I was studying English. It took me a long while to overcome the commonly held view that you can only become fluent in a language if you live in a country where the language is spoken. Honestly, I don’t think so, and I have many friends and fellow teachers that can easily prove me right. Just like me, they have never lived or studied abroad, and yet one of the first questions they hear is “Where did you live abroad?”

I have serious issues with taking the teaching of pronunciation lightly and thinking that students will simply pick it up. Just the same, I think that some teachers of advanced levels (B2+) sometimes see their students’ fluency in the language as a sign that students should come to class just to practise conversation skills. It is a class, let’s not forget that. Learners at higher levels can contribute a lot more to it with input and the amount of language that emerges, but they are there to learn more. Being able to communicate is enough when you are going shopping, sightseeing, or casually meeting someone. However, we can’t forget that we don’t know what our learners will be using the language they are learning for. I really don’t think it’s nice to see learners finishing their English courses and still feeling unprepared to deal with situations they might be required to face in their future. It’s been such a long time since, skipping Willis for a while, Michael Lewis published “The Lexical Approach” and talked about the plateau that learners reach after reaching an intermediate level. Yet, it seems to me that there are many teachers who still fail to push students beyond the plateau and show them there’s a lot more they need to learn. Perhaps this is why it’s getting harder and harder for us to see coursebooks being written for C1 level students. I can’t say I have seen it with my own eyes, but I have already heard of times in which students were required to pass their FCE exams before moving on to the advanced levels of certain language courses. These days seem to be gone. Nowadays it’s actually becoming rare for us to see students being able to take a prep course for CAE after they finish their English courses. Isn’t it time we raised the standards again?

*** If you’d like to see some of the pictures from this trip of mine, feel free to do so clicking here.

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  1. February 8, 2011 at 9:00 am

    Hi Henrick, it’s sounds like you had a great time there in the US, and you have some students to be proud of.

    I’m not sure I entirely agree with your point about pronunciation. I think it’s absolutely essential for us to be aware of what the needs of the students are, and from the sound of it, your students are perfectly capable of communicating in everyday English with native speakers (congratulations!). It was only when they were in a very unusual, pressurised situation that they started to feel insecure and that manifested itself in doubts about their ability to express themselves.

    It seems to me that their issue was not with pronunciation itself, but the situation and the completely understandable insecurities that were brought to the surface as a result. To me, this is less of a matter of language, and more about public speaking preparation and / or the difficulties of dealing with stage fright, and who has time to teach that?

    • February 8, 2011 at 10:36 am

      Hi James,

      We had a fantastic time in the US, and even though most of them were only my students during this trip, I certainly am proud of them! Thanks! :)

      I see your point, and I partially agree with what you said. You see, some of these students had already participated in more than 10 events similar to this one, albeit smaller. These students knew what was expected of them in such an event, and their frustration was exactly that they knew everything they needed to say, but they didn’t feel secure enough or felt they lacked the language to do so in English. Yes, it is a situation that is far from ordinary, but how do we know what our students are going to face on their daily lives in the future? If we’re teaching adults, we may even venture a guess, but when it comes to teenagers who are still trying to find a profession, things are much harder.

      The point I was trying to make is that I constantly see teachers enjoying teaching advanced classes just because students are capable to hold a conversation. At this level, students fail to see that they do need to learn more and build up on what they already know. If there is nothing else to be taught, and it’s just a matter of chatting in order to keep practising the language, perhaps these students shouldn’t be enrolled in a regular course, but maybe just a conversation class will do. What I find contradictory, and that was my rant, is that these students are assessed by their teachers and are made to believe they’re much better than they may actually be, and, on account of this, they feel they don’t have to try harder. What usually happens, IMHO, is that more often than not students at so-called advanced levels tend to use basic language to communicate, but since they are so fluent with it, teachers fail to see that students are not using language that is appropriate to their level.

      This goes way beyond pronunciation, and I think vocabulary plays a major role in it. My concern is that the idea of language for communication, despite being the ultimate goal, cannot be reduced to basic communication. If I take a course in German, for instance, and I am granted a certificate that states I’m an advanced speaker of the language, I do feel I should be able to communicate in many different spheres, and not only in casual conversation, especially those in which there is a financial transaction involved. I do feel that if I’m considered an advanced speaker by my teachers, I should be able to apply for a position in a company and be able to perhaps even become a spokesperson for the company. This, unfortunately, is not what I see. My main concern is that we have been lowering our standards and focusing only on English as a tool for basic communication when people travel abroad for tourism, and we are yet to see the rise of specialized centers students will have to go to to further their command of the language. Is this really the case? I mean, I strongly disagree with the idea that one needs to live in a country in order to learn how to speak the language properly, but if students are not pushed, this is also the impression they will get.

      As a final point, I agree with you when you ask who’s got the time to teach students how to speak in public and all that goes with it. Time is a serious issue in EFL classes, and if we already have to overlook pronunciation or other areas when teaching as it is, I don’t even want to imagine what it would be like if we had to teach them more than the language. Yet, this kind of preparation (public speaking) can be a separate course for students who will need such skill. It would help, though, if this is the only preparation they need instead of the whole package – grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation – yet again.

      Lots of food for thought for me in your comments, James. I’m still thinking about it. Many thanks for the contribution. :)

      • February 8, 2011 at 11:12 am

        That’s really interesting Henrick. If we widen this out beyond just pronunciation, then while I take your point about standards and levels on board, I do feel that it isn’t entirely realistic. To reach the levels that you are writing about requires a combination of specific factors (intelligence, motivation, location, finance, time and many more) to come together for that particular learner. For most students, with so many other subjects to study and / or work to do, to reach this level is simply not attainable or indeed even necessary. (Personally, if I could reach a reasonable level of Portuguese conversation I’d be delighted – meu portugese é ruim e eu morou en Brasília por 2 anos!)

        I’m not against it in theory, I just don’t see it happening for most people, and if we begin to judge ourselves as teachers by these standards, then we are in for a tough time.

      • February 8, 2011 at 10:33 pm

        Hi again, James! I concede it’s a tad (?) ambitious, but if done properly from the very beginning, we can achieve a lot more than we achieve these days, IMHO. I wish we’d “met” when you were living in Brasília so we could have had a nice chat on ELT. :)

        Coming back to your point, the Brazilian educational system is harsh on students and they really need to “learn” (should I say memorise?) a lot of things in physics, maths, history and biology classes, for instance. Add to that the fact that very few of them can actually witness the importance of speaking a foreign language first hand, it’s understandable their necessity to study other subjects harder than English. My only point here is that I don’t like it when teachers also see their subject as something that should be taken too lightly.

        On to your next comment… :)

  2. Virgilio
    February 8, 2011 at 10:05 am

    Hi, Henrick,

    Nice thinking. I would like to contribute with some of my own. I don’t believe accent is a problem. At least I believe it shouldn’t be. We all have accents, and there’s nothing to be ashamed of, or embarrassed about. I was in Natal this January and heard native Brazilians with an accent which is quite different from my own, and of course we interacted pretty well (even though my daughter was very disappointed with what they all call ‘feijão’, which was not the staple food she is used to).

    If the accent interferes with comprehension, then it’s a different matter, but that does not seem to be the case with your students, right? I have a feeling, however, that most EFL teachers – really most of us – are so obsessed with students ‘sounding like natives’ that they miss the real important stuff, which is making them competent communicatively. And by being obsessed with it, we shatter our students confidence in speaking up. What is language, anyway?

    Cheers!

    • February 8, 2011 at 11:03 am

      Hi Virgílio,

      Many thanks for your contribution! I also agree with you – accent is not a problem. It might sometimes make it harder for us to understand what others are trying to say, and I certainly do feel it in Brazil when I travel to places far in the north or in the south. We speak the very same language, but accent does make it slightly more complicated for understanding to take place. Yet, as you said, it’s not something we should be ashamed of or embarrassed about. Could I go as far as saying that accent is part of our identity?

      Ah, what is language? What are our own language teaching and learning beliefs? In the end, it is the answer to these questions that will define what teachers expect from their learners and how far they will push them, or how lenient they will be. We can’t raise our expectations beyond what students can accomplish, but we can’t simply spoon feed them. Foreign language teachers are the worst kind of listeners there are – we try as hard as we can to understand what our students want to say. This doesn’t really happen in the real world. My fear is not even that we all want our students to sound like natives. I had a talk with one of my teachers back in 2002 and he voiced his concerns that in the near future Brazilians would be speaking English poorly due to the lowering of standards of even the most traditional schools. This came from a native speaker teacher who was absolutely fine with accent, but who felt teachers were less and less concerned with teaching anything past the intermediate level. Add to that the view that you can’t learn a language unless you are immersed in it, and there you have it. People suddenly are OK with being taught only basic, survival language skills, schools won’t need teachers who are that experienced or even proficient in the language, publishers will stop publishing books beyond B2 level and etc.

      I feel I digressed, sorry! But when I think about our current situation in Brazil, for instance, I cannot help but remembering what Jeremy Harmer said in his workshop in Braz-TESOL – Brazilians, as a country, don’t speak English very well. Of course he was making no reference whatsoever to the people present in his workshop, but he was making a clear reference to Brazil as a whole. If we think about it, I’d say most English teachers do not speak English well enough to take a B1 level test. Even in federal universities students need to rely a lot more on their own efforts than on what they’ll get. But, honestly, what can lecturers and professors do when these students start their language courses at university simply because it was a lot easier to get in than law school, but have never even studied the language to begin with? Why is it that we have admittance exams for music courses and architecture, for instance, in which students need to already know how to play a musical instrument or how to draw, but we allow students who have never studied French to take French as a major? As I see it, university professors shouldn’t be worried so much about developing language skills, but about developing teaching and researching skills. This would probably make things a lot easier for the future students of those who are attending their university courses. If teachers were better prepared, as I believe they were in the past, and I say this as a current teacher trainer who’s had the chance to work with people who have been teaching for 20 years and still study hard to improve and with teachers who have been teaching for 5 years and ‘proudly’ say they know it all and refuse to attend workshops, read articles or doing other things.

      Phew, this looks like a whole new post… anyway, yes, we may be overlooking the really important stuff by focussing on native like pronunciation, but it might as well be that most teachers these days are being left for a hit-or-miss approach to tackling the problems that arise in the classroom. How big is teacher training and development in Brazil? From where I stand, very few teachers, comparatively speaking, seek professional development. Can’t we consider this a cause for the current situation?

      I hope I could make myself clear. :)

      Cheers!

      • February 8, 2011 at 11:23 am

        Hello, me again…

        Henrick, I think you’ve wandered into a really big fight here, but not with me! If I’m right, I think the crux of what you’re trying to say is that standards have to be higher in Brazil in general education, and I think this is true, but not just in English. I lived in Brazil for two years, and I know a law professor who had to spend the first few weeks of her course teaching not law, but basic Portuguese language skills because the students were not able to continue with the course at the levels they started the course with.

        These kinds of problems pervade Brazilian society for many complex reasons, and as an outsider I wouldn’t dream of offering a solution, but it will only change because of the dedication and inspiration of teachers like yourself.

      • February 8, 2011 at 11:06 pm

        I guess you’re right, James. That is, indeed, the crux of the matter. I’m not sure I’m happy or sad with the fact it is so easily noticeable that our current educational system is on the verge of failure.

        I hope we can all work together and benefit from the fact that the world is becoming much smaller nowadays due to all this connectivity – more solutions are likely to come due to collaboration. :)

        If this is a big fight, it’s never against any other educator who’s also concerned about what he or she does, even if our views are completely opposite (which I don’t think is the case here). The more we are together in this fight, the easier it will be for changes to take place.

        Cheers,

        Henrick

  3. February 9, 2011 at 10:25 am

    Hi Rick, great to hear you all had such a successful trip.

    • February 9, 2011 at 5:54 pm

      Hi David,

      Thanks!! It was an amazing trip, and it’s good to be back. Still trying to get everything back on track. :)

  1. February 8, 2011 at 9:25 pm

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