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Journal entry – HMUN and some thoughts on pronunciation

February 7, 2011 11 comments

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.

Why teach pronunciation?

November 7, 2010 19 comments

“But, teacher, why do I need to learn those funny symbols? It only makes it a lot more complicated.” This is a question I’ve been asked quite often, and not only by students, but also by teachers. I must say I myself failed to see the purpose of learning the phonemic chart when I was a learner, and even in my early teaching career. Let’s face it, neither of my teachers had taught me those “funky letters”, and I was rarely encouraged to look them up in a dictionary whenever I needed to check the correct pronunciation of a word. In those days, I couldn’t see any difference between the pronunciation of close as an adjective or as a verb, basic was pronounced with the sound of /z/, and all words ending with an /s/ were pronounced with, well, the sound of a final /s/ – who would possibly be able to end a word with a /z/ sound?

Photo by Ike Valdez

This all happened a long, long, long while ago. But it was only as a teacher that I finally understood that there was something else to pronunciation than merely trying really hard to listen, observe, and repeat. More often than not, actually, I found myself making the same mistakes over and over again in the past when I thought I had finally got the correct pronunciation of a word. It is as if the brain is split into compartments for each separate sound, and if such sound is never uttered, the brain automatically shuts that compartment and naturally places the sounds you hear on different compartments based on how close that particular sound is to a sound that is already familiar to the brain. Hence, if I had never produced the sound of TH, the brain automatically changes think to sink (way to go, Titanic!), something to some sing (and others dance), third to turd, and so on and so forth.

As Nick Jaworski said on this post of his on pronunciation,

There are no final consonants in Vietnamese so their brains actually never developed the ability to hear a consonant at the end of a word.  Since they can’t hear it, they can’t say it.  Since they can’t say it, they can’t hear it.

I have, as I said above, quickly learned that this was also the case for me, and for lots of learners as well. If you don’t know how to say a sound, you will hardly ever be able to hear it. It was back in 2000 when I attended Adrian Underhill‘s session about his phonemic chart that I saw a silver lining. I was a student who also also influenced by the commonly held belief that the only way for you to truly become fluent in a language and sound natural in it is by living abroad. Well, I had never lived abroad, nor had I been an exchange student as most of my co-workers until that time. To be fair, my only experience abroad is limited to a family trip to Disney wen I was 11 years old and had just started speaking English, and later on another 2-week family trip to New York. Anyway, up until that time, I felt that I had to work on what I could improve as a non-native English speaking teacher – I quickly became a grammar buff. I simply had to be able to do one thing well if I wanted to be an English teacher as pronunciation wasn’t my forte. I’ll just leave vocabulary aside from this post.

It was only after Underhill’s session, then, that I realized that, yes, there was something I could do about my pronunciation even though I wasn’t planning on living abroad anytime soon. Ten years have passed and this still hasn’t happened. Anyhow, I started studying more and more about phonetics and phonology, and when I took that course at university, I found out I had really learned quite a lot on my own. I did buy many books, and despite my “change of accent”, I clearly remember Ann Cook’s American Accent Training did wonders for my consciousness raising regarding pronunciation. I started paying closer attention to the sound of the language, consciously trying to understand whatever it is that was going on when I heard someone speaking English – segmental and supra-segmental features alike.

The idea of using the phonemic chart as a teaching aid from the very beginning simply made sense. If we make use of the phonemic chart to raise our students’ awareness to how the sounds are pronounced instead of expecting them to be able to transcribe words using the IPA, it can certainly be helpful. If they understand that there is such a thing as a labio-dental sound (needless to say, teachers use a much more learner-friendly explanation), their brains might just pop open the lid for such compartment, enabling them to both listen and speak the sound. Learners will eventually be able to look at the IPA and reproduce the sounds, but this is not the main goal. We make pronunciation physical and visual through the use of the chart in order to cater for visual and kinesthetic learners as well as the auditory ones.

We are also fostering autonomy and independent learning. Students no longer rely solely on a teacher for the correct pronunciation of a word. They are finally capable to correct themselves simply by using a learner’s dictionary – just the paper version of it. They might finally be able to appreciate subtle differences which may make a difference in connected speech. However, I’ll go back to a point I made above. I truly think it’s important for teachers to have a sound knowledge of phonetics and phonology in order to show learners what they’re doing wrong and teach them how to correctly position their tongue in their mouth, for instance, in order to get a sound right. The phonemic chart is, thus, used as a teaching aid, and not as a teaching goal in itself.

Oh, and I don’t know whether you’ll agree with me or not, but learners do seem to have a lot of fun when learning correct pronunciation. They also see how much their listening benefits from pronunciation teaching. They are a lot more engaged and eager to learn pronunciation than other areas. Why is it, then, that pronunciation is so often overlooked in the language classroom? As a non-NEST who also knows lots of other non-NESTs who can speak English extremely well, I don’t think we can use the NESTs x non-NESTs dichotomy to explain this. Where there’s a will, there’s a way. I see pronunciation and listening as skills that depend on one another, and we won’t get our learners to be better listeners if we don’t teach pronunciation properly – recycling, revising, and constantly correcting it.

World Englishes and standards

July 25, 2010 26 comments

Image by lumaxart

The idea of world Englishes, or even Globish, seems to be everywhere I look this past month. Not only was there an article by David Crystal on the Braz-TESOL magazine about world Englishes and the importance of learning a bit more about the variety of English of the country you’re going to visit – vocabulary and other features. In addition to that, the cover of the Newsweek magazine has on its cover a picture of the world saying, “Speak Globish?” what does this mean to our learners?

A couple of things that spring to mind are some conversations and articles I read a while ago when people said that nowadays people shouldn’t be so concerned about achieving native-like proficiency as there are many different varieties of the language. Non-native speakers of the language outnumber native speakers by far. Some years ago, Newsweek published an article talking about the rise of English as a lingua france where they said that there are 3 non-native speakers of the language for every native speaker. I guess there might be 4 or 5 nowadays. The trend, then, is to understand and acknowledge the differences. But this has always been something that kept me wondering: if I’m learning a language in order to be able to communicate with people from other cultures, and if this is the so-called lingua franca of the world, should teachers let their students get away with something that’s really distant from native-like pronunciation, vocabulary, and grammar usage?

The first time I thought about it was probably about ten years ago. One of my students was in the Brazilian navy and he told me that anytime they met and had to talk to people from other ships, they spoke English. Now, he could easily communicate with Italians, Chileans, Spanish, French, and people from other nationalities using English. However, every time they had to talk to Americans, British, or Canadians, for instance, they couldn’t understand what they were saying and vice-versa. I’m sorry if this goes against what some people might believe in, but I truly believe there’s something wrong with this.

We learn to speak a foreign language to communicate. We study a foreign language because we want to be able to function in a foreign country using that language we’ve spent so long studying. When I think of native-like English, I’m not saying people should work exhaustively to reduce their accent, by no means! However, There are certain standards I feel that should be taken into account. Learners from languages whose rhythm is syllable-timed should learn that English is a stress-timed language. They should be taught some of the individual sounds which do not exist in their L1. And teachers ought to expect nothing but the best these students can produce.

I’ve always thought that language teachers are the worst listeners out there. Language teachers want to (and have to try as hard as they can) understand what their students are saying. We’ve got to do this if we want to recast, repeat, provide correct form, or do anything else that teachers have to do to get learners to learn the language. Things are not like that in the real world, though. One of the problems I can see there is that teachers might end up limiting their learners. By not showing learners that they do need to improve their pronunciation, to learn new words, and to change their speech to make it sound more natural, teachers are telling learners that they may be able to do whatever it is that they might want to in the foreign language. Well, sometimes simply being able to communicate and say, “me wants water” or “have a possibility is true” may be way less than what our students will need.

What if your learners end up having the chance to work for a multinational company and are chosen to become spokespeople? I’m pretty sure their chances will be way slimmer if they can’t speak English with native-like pronunciation and correct usage of vocabulary and grammar. There’s a huge gulf between being chosen by a non-profitable organisation to speak in public mainly due to your contributions to a cause and being hired by a company. It would be naive of us to say that people don’t judge you by the way you talk. This doesn’t mean using obscure words and complicated structures will get people to hold you in high regards – but being able to use the language properly and naturally certainly will.

What should be done about world Englishes and all of the varieties of English one might encounter in the world? Well, I think teachers should look at things from two different perspectives: productive and receptive skills. When it comes to productive skills (speaking and writing), learners should be taught according to high standards and, in my view, respecting the rules of the two mainstream varieties of the language – British and American English. When it comes to receptive skills (reading and listening) the more varieties we can expose our learners to, the better. If teachers can show students examples of both natives and non-natives using the language, the better we will be preparing them for the world of ‘Globish’. If you ask me, the question is not really “Speak Globish?”, but it should be “Understand Globish?”

Over to you…

Teaching, recycling, and correcting pronunciation

June 13, 2010 10 comments

A lot is said about the importance of recycling in language learning. By that, we mean that it’s important for students to be exposed to what they learned on previous lessons as a way to, for example, allow for faster retrieval from memory. Not only do we talk about multiple encounters with words, expressions, grammar structures or anything else related to language learning, but we also stress that it’s paramount that such encounters be meaningful. More and more often coursebook writers make sure they include the same expressions in different parts of the book in a way to help the absent-minded (or, in a worst case scenario, the careless) teacher expose his or her students to such item. But there’s one area I feel many teachers fail to get their students to practise after they’ve first been exposed to: pronunciation.

When we learn mathematics, for instance, we are constantly exposed to what we were taught previously. Teachers make sure you remember 2+2, 9*7, or any other basic math for the rest of your school life. Well, it can’t be any different, can it? It is this very basic knowledge that will get you into more advanced maths. However, this doesn’t seem to be true when it all comes down to the teaching of English pronunciation. And the worst part of it is that, in a communicative classroom, there is always a chance for us to have meaningful encounters with an aspect of pronunciation that has been taught in any given lesson. Why is it that this is still overlooked by many teachers?

I’ll give you one example: If a coursebook writer (let’s not even leave it to the teacher alone) presents learners with the correct intonation of information and yes/no questions in the very first unit, and if there are exercises on that to help learners notice such features, why is it that learners still get to the end of the semester without the faintest idea of how to use the correct intonation? One thing that might shed light into that is the fact that after this exercise is done, teachers no longer make sure their learners use the correct intonation to ask questions. Instead, they seem to worry much more about the grammar or the vocabulary involved in asking the question. If one thing is left out, it certainly is pronunciation.

Just like learning and practising that 2 + 2 = 4 is of utmost importance if one wants to solve an advanced maths equation, I believe that learning and practising the correct intonation for questions is important if one wants to understand the many pronunciation features that come into play when using an unreal past conditional (a.k.a. third conditional). If teachers don’t understand that it only makes sense to teach learners one new thing if this one thing is going to be recycled afterwards, then it’s simply a waste of time to spend time teaching that. Teaching doesn’t imply learning. Learning is far more complex than teaching, and as such needs to be treated more carefully. If teachers are not willing to spend time in future lessons revising and correcting learners on something that they’ve learned before, why would you bother to teach that in the first place? If it’s not important enough to be recycled, revisited, and corrected, it’s probably not important to be taught in the first place.

Pronunciation, Grammar and Vocabulary

May 4, 2010 10 comments

There are three things involved in knowing a language, and these have been called “the ‘what‘” by Penny Ur in her “A course in Language Teaching“. The three ‘whats’ would be pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar. Needless to say, there are lots of things involved in each one of these topics. For instance, when we’re talking about grammar we can look at it from many different perspectives (Scott Thornbury has done a presentation on ‘7 ways of looking at grammar’, which you can watch here), and I myself like the idea of the 3 dimensions of looking at grammar (form, meaning and use). If we turn our attention to vocabulary, a lot has been said about it as well, and there’s even an approach that puts lexis on the spotlight. We know that there’s a lot more to learn about a word than just its meaning. Lots and lots of people have discussed/been discussing the importance of lexis in language learning these days, and grammar seems to still be the guiding principle of most curricula. What about pronunciation? (Just to make things clear from the start, I’m not talking about accent reduction, elimination or any other thing related to accents on this post. Accents are OK, but certain pronunciation problems really do hinder communication)

It seems to me there’s just so much teachers need to pay attention to that it’s easy to end up overlooking this leg of the tripod of language learning/teaching. We’ve arguably had more importance given to pronunciation these days – it’s more and more common for coursebooks to incorporate the IPA,  for example. However, it seems to me that whenever teachers have to sacrifice something due to time constraints or any other situation that may arise in the classroom, pronunciation gets it. Add to this the fact that language teachers are the worst listeners there are (well, we all try really hard to understand what our learners are saying, don’t we?) and there you go: the perfect scenario for lots of pronunciation problems. But why does this happen?

For one thing, we can look at teachers. Native speakers may sometimes feel it’s enough to model the correct pronunciation and learners will eventually pick it up, or they may simply not have been given proper training to work with those “greek” letters from the IPA. Non-native speakers, on the other hand, may not feel secure enough so as to correct learners as they themselves aren’t sure how that word should be pronounced. Oh, but if it were only the individual sounds. Teachers have to worry about supra-segmental features as well as segmental features when working with pronunciation. What if you’re teaching speakers whose rhythm of their native language is syllable-timed how to speak a stress-timed language? What I’ve noticed is that teachers tend to settle for anything they can understand and that’s it – no corrections are necessary. And right there we’re likely to have students making mistakes (which will be fossilised by the time they become aware of it) for a very long time.

Another problem might be the curriculum itself. If teachers are always pressed for time to do things, they’ll eventually have to choose to omit A or B, and guess what tends to be left out? Anyway, I guess the problem I’ve witnessed (and went through as a learner myself) is that teachers do not give pronunciation the importance it deserves in language teaching. It’s almost as if we took it for granted that learners would magically learn how to speak correctly as they progress. To be honest, I believe consciousness raising may help a lot in this regard. I’ve had many students who complained that native speakers spoke too fast or they couldn’t get any conversation in movies for the same reason, and I won’t even mention songs. But is that really so?

Having gone through this myself, I decided that the best way out would be to study. And this study is what enables me to tell my students to pay attention to how they should position their tongue in the mouth if they are to produce a certain sound correctly, or tell them which words are stressed and which are unstressed, and teach them a thing or two about elision, assimilation and intrusive sounds in connected speech. What I found out is that students from all levels tend to pay closer attention to these lessons than to vocabulary or grammar lessons – regardless of their level. (If you’re looking for a book on this, check Sound Foundations, by Adrian Underhill.)

So, if you agree that teaching a language is indeed teaching the tripod pronunciation/grammar/vocabulary, and if we’ve got a series of constraints that prevent us from doing all three as much as we feel we should at the same time, how does the following sound to you: we should work harder on pronunciation with beginners (A1/A2 students). This means we’d have to worry a lot more about correct stress and intonation. Grammar and vocabulary will also be taught, obviously, but these are rather simple at initial stages, especially these days when the English language is everywhere. Once we get students to pronounce things correctly and understand certain features of connected speech, they’ll have no problems listening to / speaking sentences in the “third conditional” (If I had spoken to my teacher, I would have been able to give you an answer.) when the time comes. After a short while (B1/B2), grammar becomes increasingly more complicated for learners. They need to learn more complex grammar structures to convey complicated messages so we shift our focus to the teaching of grammar. A while later, learners will know pretty much all they need to know in terms of grammar to communicate and we can then focus heavily on vocabulary (B2+).

Well, how does this sound to you?

Linking sounds

April 9, 2010 15 comments

I’ve noticed that some of my students, or perhaps most of them, have problems with connected speech. This is true to many different areas, but I realised it’s particularly difficult for them to understand the linking sounds in English. So, this is an activity I used a long time ago to show students such linking sounds. I focussed specifically on the last consonant sound of a word linking to the first vowel sound of the next word. Let me show what I mean by using one of the sentences from this paragraph:

  • So, this is an activity I used a long time ago to show students the linking sounds in English.

The sound of the consonants in red is linked to the sounds of the vowels in blue, and this is what it sounds like:

  • So, thi sisanactivity I use da long ti meago to show students the linking sound sinEnglish.

It all looks pretty messy if we don’t change things a bit to help students ‘visualise’ the sounds. If you work with the IPA and your students are acquainted with it, the best option is to go with it. However, if they’re not that acquainted with it, perhaps the best alternative is to try to show these linking sounds differently. I used a song (Bizarre Love Triangle – sung by Frente) and it worked out quite all right.

It all depends on how much you have to work on the song: if there’s plenty of time, you can explain the idea of the consonant-vowel linking before you play the song. If possible, make use of some examples in the students’ L1, as this particular feature of connected speech tends to appear in many different languages. After that, play the song and give students the handout with the actual lyrics. Ask them to try to identify the words that end in a consonant sound and that are followed by a vowel sound. Once they finish doing this, get them to practice the links. As they end up having difficulties doing so, it helps if you modify the lyrics of the song to make it sound slightly more “natural” to your learners. For instance, the first line of Bizarre Love Triangle is:

  • Every time I think of you

I rewrote it as if it were:

  • Every tie my thin co-view

When students hear the song, they can easily relate this modified version of the lyrics to the words being sung. Here’s a video of the song:

An alternative is to give students the modified version first and let them try to guess the actual lyrics. To make it even more challenging, don’t play the song and get them to work in pairs or small groups and read the sentences aloud to try to guess the actual words.

You can find both the complete modified version of the song and the actual lyrics here: Bizarre Love Triangle (this is a .doc file).

Well, I hope you liked it!

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