Monthly Archives: July, 2013

Twenty things in twenty years part ten: the main point of focusing on pronunciation in class isn’t to improve pronunciation!

Pronunciation is quite possibly the most neglected area of language teaching. In many of the classes I’ve observed over the years, I’ve seen little or no attempt to work on pronunciation and where it IS focused on it’s often instinctive attempts at correcting mispronounced discrete phonemes of the kind we’re all so familiar with due to the phenomenal success of certain books that hone in one these areas.

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Part of the problem, of course, is that after a certain (very formative) point, time spent on pronunciation reaps very scant reward, especially when compared to other areas of language that one could work on. Imagine the degree to which you might expect your communicative competence to be boosted if you were to spend a hundred hours studying, developing and revising vocabulary – and then compare and contrast to what you might expect to gain in communicative terms if you were spend those hundred hours working on your pronunciation. In all but a few rare cases, there’d be no comparison.

Partly this is because – unlike other areas of language skill (with the possible, arguable exception of writing, of course), pronunciation is essentially a motor skill, and ultimately develops as a result of practice, practice and practice. And then some more practice after that – in much the same way as a musician learns a song by going over and over and over the fingering and the strumming and the chords and the notes, drilling them into the muscle memory until they become second nature.

When it comes to discrete phonemes, there is often little we can really do in the limited time that we inevitably have with. If students are struggling, say, to produce a /v/ instead of a /b/ or a /r/ instead of a /l/ we can stop them when they err; point out what they’re saying and show with our own mouths and voices how we would do it differently. We can explain and demonstrate that a /v/ sound is voiced and requires the bottom lip to raise up and touch against the two front upper teeth, for instance, and we can encourage students to practise, pointing out when they’re still doing it wrong – and once they nail it, telling them and encouraging them to remember the feel in the mouth the sound makes and to practise it at home. We can correct it again next time we here it, but really after that they’re pretty much on their own.

Some people seem to have a much better ear for the degree to which what they’re producing resembles the output or models they’re exposed to, and there’s also surely some kind of sociocultural / psychological element involved which must affect the degree to which many speakers try – and deliberately don’t try – to accommodate themselves to particular kinds of native-speaker norms. I’ve often pondered how it is that the manager of my beloved football club, Arsene Wenger, can have lived in London for almost two decades and can have learned English to such a remarkable degree and yet all the while has clung to more or less exactly the same kind of French-inflected accent he first arrived with.

Well, part of the problems seems to be the fact that accents stick very early on, and once we’ve passed a certain point, changing this is incredibly hard to do. Research findings on this obviously vary, but there does seem to be a considerable body of evidence to suggest that we start being primed in our own first language from our very earliest moments here on earth, and this priming seems to last. This, coupled with the kind of lingering class-bound prejudices and perceptions that once led George Bernard Shaw to observe that “it is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him”, might explain the proliferation of accent reduction courses that prey on the insecurities and fears of NATIVE speakers. Obviously, if your priming in L1 has led to the production of sounds radically different to English, then you may well have problems unless quite an intense focus on pronunciation is made a central part of your early experience of learning the language. Debate rages on about whether or not there actually is a cut-off point beyond which it’s all-but impossible to acquire native-like pronunciation, but there does seem to be a fair amount of evidence to suggest that by the early twenties accents in a foreign language are already pretty fixed. All of this may well go some way towards explaining why I’ve met only perhaps three or four non-natives who didn’t live in a native-speaking country until they were adults who could nevertheless be mistaken for natives (as well as why the vast majority of non-natives I know who do live in native English-speaking environments are easily identifiable as non-native – often to their great annoyance – despite speaking amazingly good English). It also accounts for the Chinese and Thai students I somehow teach whose learning thus far has been both almost entirely based on written sources and also very much in vain as the English they have acquired is rendered unintelligible by their accents, which are rooted very strongly in the tonalties of their mother tongues.

To add a further level of complexity to these obvious issues, recent discourse about ELF – and particular the work of Jennifer Jenkins, who has written at length about what she sees a phonological core of ELF that allows communication unimpeded by lapses in intelligibility without forcing strict adherence to the native-speaker RP construct (as she sees it) – has (and I’ll be gracious here and add unintentionally) led to a furthering of the Why bother? attitude to pronunciation. The vast majority of discrete phoneme mistakes don’t affect intelligibility; natives can’t even agree on how to pronounce grass and castle, while the Irish (allegedly!) say TREE TREES to describe these things:

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We’ve all got accents, even native speakers . . . so what if my students sound French or Russian or what-have-you? That’s because they are. I can understand them all, why bother? And so the self-justification continues. Given all of this, you may yourself by now be thinking why bother. What’s the point of slogging on with something so unrewarding and that offers so few noticeable signs of improvement in return for such hard work on your part?

Well, on one level, the point is that even incredibly fluent students, like the Finnish woman Hanna who I recently taught on a Pronunciation & Presentation Skills course, still fret (in what may, to many native speakers seem like an unnecessary manner, but this does not detract from the reality of these emotions) about their accents and feel they could be improved – often by moving closer to some perceived idealised native speaker mode, which often means RP. Interestingly, actually, non-natives seem far more concerned about the finer details of pron than most natives for whom a diversity of options is a norm. I’ve lost count of the number of times after a talk I’ve done a non-native teacher has asked me whether I say ofTen or off-en, for instance.

So there’s that, but even this argument about student desires, persuasive though it may be, still actually misses the point.

Because the main issue here is that the REAL reason for persisting with pronunciation is NOT because it has that much of an impact on students’ own pronunciation.

It’s because it’s help students LISTEN better.

For students, listening is hard for one of two reasons: either they’re hearing language that’s simply unknown to them, and thus they fail to understand it in the same way as they would if they were to see it written down – or else they’re hearing language that they’d be able to deal with if they saw it written down, but cannot grasp as it comes out in the acoustic blur of normal speed speech. This is often because their main exposure to language has been the written form; and because listening – and more crucially the inter-relationship between listening and pronunciation – has been neglected during the early stages of their language learning experience.

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If students cannot hear language that they are able to process when written down, it is rarely if ever because of issues with discrete phonemes. If it’s outside of the classroom, it may perhaps be because of a particularly unfamiliar or strong accent, though inside the classroom such accents are generally filtered out. This means that it’s down to what happens when we speak at speed: the use of weak forms, the elision of sounds at the beginning or end of words, the way words ending in consonants are linked to following words if they begin with vowels, the way we add in /w/ and /j/ sounds to link between vowels across words (as in the /j/ English or go /w/ ahead) and so on.

What this means is every time you take your time when modelling and drilling (both chorally and individually) the weak forms and linking and so on in a phrase like IT’S A BIT OF A NIGHTMARE or HOW AM I SUPPOSED TO KNOW, you’re helping the students get that little bit more used to how words sound when run together and said consecutively.

And while your efforts may or not impact positively on their own actual pronunciation, the chances are they’ll slowly contribute to your students being better able to distinguish language they have already studied when it comes at them think and fast in future listenings.

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Grey cardinals, rubber time and the piece of shame: speaking foreign languages in English!

This post follows on from the one I bashed out last week considering the influence of advertising on speech, and the way in which this can sometimes make life hard for even the most fluent of non-natives. It also follows on from conversations and thoughts I had during my one-week stay in St. Petersburg recently. During a typically intense conversation in a bar one night, a Russian teacher started talking about the undermind – instead of the subconscious. I was curious about the expression and wasn’t sure whether this was simply a direct translation from the Russian and was being used to paper over the fact that word subconscious wasn’t known (or because it was just being assumed that it ought to also work this way in English!), or whether it was actually a slightly different concept to the subconscious, that I myself had yet to grasp!

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It turned out that the teacher simply hadn’t realised that the words would be different from Russian to English, and so was translating directly in optimism and hope, but the idea of the under mind stuck somehow because the next day, whilst presenting to a big group of teachers there, I (subconsciously!) used the phrase myself- a fact which was noted and commented on by the teacher who’d passed it my way in the first place.

Now I can already hear you thinking so what, right? Well, as you are probably all aware, we all – to varying degrees – accommodate ourselves to our linguistic environments. The theory of communication accommodation was developed in the early 1970s by Howard Giles from the University of California and basically states that “when people interact, they adjust their speech, their vocal patterns and their gestures, to accommodate to others.” The theory also explores why it is that humans tend to do this, and considers  the links between language, context and identity.

All of which got me thinking about the degree to which people living outside of countries where English is the first language, and who are conversant to at least some degree with the local language, but who also spend a lot of time interacting in English with locals who speak the language well, start to pick up and use expressions which basically don’t really exist in English in any broader sense, but which work in the local language and thus also work when used in English conversations between (semi-) bilingual locals and foreigners. In other words, there must be countless EFL teachers (and other long-term peripatetic ex-pats) out there, residing in this country or that, spending much of their free time with very fluent locals and speaking a strange mashed-up hybrid that is in essence English as it’s spoken elsewhere, but all manner of locally-inflected variants.

Last year, I saw David Crystal talking at Spain TESOL about the way in which conversations such as those mentioned above can often be derailed by casual references to local phenomena that speakers take for granted and that they assume all participants must be aware of as they have such common currency in the local / national context. Crystal was referring more to the kind of thing my colleague Andrew Walkley has been blogging about of late – the Stephen Lawrence murder, the Leveson Inquiry, 7/7 – and so on and was suggesting that a worthwhile project would be to establish a kind of Wiki of some sort detailing and exploring the cultural meanings and significance of such condensed summarised tagging phrases. Of course, the longer one lives in a place, the more of such references one comes to understand.

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But at the same time, and this is, I think, far less discussed or appreciated, one also comes to acquire a whole range of chunks, idioms and expressions that are used in the local L1 and one starts to use them freely in English as well. Thus it is that when I’m with Indonesian friends (either here in the UK or back in Indonesia) who speak good English (my own Indonesian is around B2 level, I guess) I may well joke about rubber time when they’re late, a directly translated reference to the local concept of jam karet, often used to justify or excuse lateness that by English standards verging on the psychotic!

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In the same way, I’ve spent enough time with super-fluent Russians over the years to understand that if someone – usually Putin (!) – is referred to as the grey cardinal, it basically means he’s the power behind the scenes, the puppet master pulling all the strings. I’ve heard the expression used by Russians – in English – so many times that the fact it’s not actually a real English expression with currency beyond the Russian-speaking world barely registers. It’s become so that it actually feels like it IS normal English, albeit the kind of normal English one only engages in with Russians.

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In the same way, I’ve heard so many Spaniards – and ex-pats who’ve lived in Spain for a fair while – offer me the piece of shame (the final piece of a particular dish designed for sharing, so the final bit of tapas, or the final biscuit on a plate or whatever), that I’ve started adopting the expression myself and have even found myself using it with other English natives or fluent foreigners of non-Spanish origin. I’ve also long since ceased looking puzzled when Japanese friends joke about sleeping dictionaries or when Swedes tell me not to paint the Devil on the wall if I’m being particularly pessimistic. As with anyone who’s spent half their life working with non-native speakers, these expressions – and many many others – have seeped into my own vernacular to the point that they almost feel ‘native’.

There must be thousands and thousands of these expressions out there, many of them maybe used by you! They maybe fill a gap that the English language doesn’t quite capture properly, or else capture a locally common concept in a particularly condensed and pithy manner. They exist in the grey areas being local pidgeonised variants and that elusive and possibly mythical beast ELF and, as with advertising slogans, basically have no place in the EFL classroom, particularly not as something one sets out to consciously teach!

However, sometimes democracy does strange things. In a Pre-Int class last year, one of my students turned up late and left the door wide open on entering. A Chinese student became very animated and shouted “OH! How long is your tail!” – a direct translation from Chinese. I laughed, as did most students, for the concept was immediately clear. I then explain that usually in English we say something like Were you born in a barn?

Even after the concept had been explained, the class remained unconvinced. The next day, when another student arrived late and left the door open, the masses had decided. Chinese English prevailed over my own preferences – and for the next few weeks in the particular micro-climate of our class How long is your tail was one of the most commonly recycled phrases!

Probably the best blog post in the world . . .

I’ve outlined my (many!) thoughts about the relationship – or lack thereof – between language and culture several times on this very blog, as many of you will already know. What may be less well known is that some time ago, over on a site run by the always provocative Chia Suan Chong, I engaged in a lengthy debate about the degree to which teaching EFL (in particular) also involved teaching culture. My answer to this oft-asked question was a fairly resounding NO! and I still very much stand by that view. Whilst language can on occasion obviously be used to express culture, or a whole host of cultures to be more accurate, these kinds of uses do not, in my opinion, belong in the EFL classroom, where the primary focus should be on helping students to use as high a level of language as they can across a range of situations, with speakers from all manner of backgrounds, both native and – increasingly often – non-native.

However, I’ve spent the last week working with a lovely group of incredibly fluent Russian teachers of English in St. Petersburg (one of my very favourite cities in the world!).

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Among the many issues we covered were literature, changes to English and the use of L1 in the classroom. Now, all of this started me thinking about two areas of language use which even incredibly fluent non-natives simply wouldn’t be able to grasp without actually having lived in a particular country – or perhaps its truer to say, without having been immersed in particular aspects of what occurs there (and I should say at this juncture that it is conceivably possible that, for instance, a TV addict would actually ‘get’ some of the references I’ll go on to describe even if they’d never visited a particular ‘host’ country).

As someone steeped in the Lexical Approach, I have long been interested in the way in which the kinds of fixed and semi-fixed expressions that are so common in spoken language embed themselves in our heads and in the pragmatic functions they serve as we converse with others. However, a less obvious source of fixed expressions is the advertising industry, and it’s perhaps sobering to sit and contemplate quite how many sentences you have echoing around the dark corners of your mind that come from the evil art of the advertiser. There are hundreds, possibly even thousands. Just off the top of my head and without even trying, here are some of the first ones that spring to mind as I ponder this.

Have a break. Have a Kit-Kat.

A Mars a day helps you work, rest and play.

Anytime, any place, anywhere.

The man from Del Monte. He says Yes!

For mash get Smash!

Go to work on an egg.

You know when you’ve been Tangoed.

This is your brain. And this is your brain on drugs!

Beanz meanz Heinz (a memory that automatically triggers the predictable follow-up of Beanz meanz fartz as well!)

Every little helps.

It’s finger-lickin’ good

Refreshes the parts that other beers cannot reach!

It’s got our name on it.

The best a man can get!

As you may have realised by now, I could go on for hours. Indeed, whilst putting this post together, I discovered that the web contains a whole range of games designed to test your knowledge of obscure and sometimes fairly dated advertising slogans and got very entertainingly sidetracked for quite time as a result! How many of the ones above are familiar to you? For all I know, some of them may trigger a whole stream of Proustian memories and associations in the minds of some of you readers out there, sending you flashing back to long-forgotten outings to KFC or camping trips where the baked bean suppers had disastrous consequences as you and your brother were forced to share a small tent!

Interestingly, and this is a testament to the whole art of the advertising agency,  with almost all of the slogans above, I not only remember the exact words, but I also retain the phonological envelope they were delivered to me in. I can sing the jingles in my head, or say them exactly as they were said on the original adverts. Just as with telephone numbers, we record and retain and reuse them in a particular way (oh-seven-seven-nine two //pause// three -five six //pause// double six three, for instance) and they exist as a combination of sound and language (and frequently music too).

Now, for the most part, this mass of cultural detritus simply sits in my head, taking up space, serving only as background or colour to particular memories that come bubbling up from what I’ve learned the Russians delightfully term ‘the undermind’! In other words, it’s not used or referred to (except perhaps in the odd book here and there, or maybe in a particularly random pub conversation). However, many of the catchiest slogans take on lives of their own and become part of common parlance. My colleague Andrew Walkley has written about the way the concept of something being a Marmite thing has become part and parcel of the language in the UK, all on the back of their genius advertising campaign that accepted – and celebrated – the polarising effects of God’s own spread.

However, Marmite is but the tip of a much larger iceberg. According to a Daily Telegraph survey of a few years ago, 45% of Britons use – or have used – the Guinness tagline Good things come to those who wait in their daily speech. Ronseal, a British wood stain and preservative manufacturer, are responsible for the “Does exactly what it says on the tin” phrase, created by the HHCL agency, and much used in their adverts:

It’s no surprise that such a clever, pithy, direct slogan has become so widely used in other contexts. Here are just a few examles coured from the Internet of the way the phrase has worked its way into the language:

Martin Amis appears to be taking the Ronseal approach to book titles with his next novel, State of England: Lionel Asbo, Lotto Lout, which is said to feature a “ferocious” antihero who gets his first anti-social behaviour order at the age of three.

Gordon Brown is the very opposite of a Ronseal prime minister.

I was once in a final salary pension scheme and it seemed to pass the Ronseal Test – a pension that kept pace with my earnings and grew each year I worked for the company.

You get the picture. And here’s the thing! there are tons of these mind worms, as the Germans call them, that pass into day-to-day use and both bemuse those in the know and bemuse those on the outside listening in. When I hear teenagers on the bus singing I’m Lovin’ It to friends down the phone in response to a question about a course they may be doing, I cannot but help envisage the Golden Arches of Mickey D’s lair; every time a L’Oreal advert airs, another ten people suddenly start saying Because I’m worth it every tome they splash out on something they probably shouldn’t be buying; every time someone trips over something or fails to see something somewhere, a nearby wag will comment that they should’ve gone to Specsavers.

Perhaps the most bizarre instance of this phenomenon I can remember happened a few years ago when I was waiting anxiously to see if the fix-it man was going to get the staffroom photocopier up and running in time for me to use it before class. he closed it, patted it and gave it a quick test run. I thanked him profusely and he replied, casually: Oh well, you know. Vorsprung durch Technik . . . as they say in Germany! What even the most proficient foreign student not au fait with recent British TV advertising trends would’ve made of this bizarre exchange is beyond me. The fact that a piece of German passed into the lexicon of even the most foreign language-phobic Brit is nothing short of a minor miracle, but pass it most certainly did. The story of this remarkable feat is relayed here, for those interested.

Nevertheless, as the world we live in becomes ever more interlinked and globalised, and ever more in thrall to mass market consumerism, perhaps access to such intertextual nuancing and subtle comedy also becomes globalised itself. The other week in class, one of my Japanese students was saying he expected to get 7.0 in his forthcoming IELTS test. other students were mocking his lofty ambitions and saying it was impossible, whereupon he suddenly looked deadly serious, stood up, put his hand across his heart and uttered the immortal line Impossible is nothing – to much laughter!

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That said, there are clearly some issues when it comes to advertising around the world – and we may well never see the day when slogans are used – or useable – universally. A Dutch friend of mine works for an ad agency here in London, specialising in researching the degree to which adverts from one country work in another. She’s been working on ad advert for Bjorn Borg’s kids’ underwear recently, and apparently in Sweden they sell using a phrase that says something like Lucky ducks. She asked me if such a phrase would work in English and if not, what the nearest equivalent would be. I replied that I found the whole concept of calling kids lucky because they had one particular brand of underwear rather than other very very weird in itself, and that if you wanted to say lucky something in English, it’d be something like lucky git or lucky bastard, neither of which really lent themselves  to selling kids’ pants!

Oh, perhaps by this stage you’re wondering where the profoundly out-of-character boasting in the title of this blog post comes from, aren’t you? Well, simples, as the really annoying meerkat in the compare the market dot com advert always put it, it’s from here:

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Right, I know at the start of this post, I said that I wanted to write about TWO areas of language use that even fluent non-natives simply wouldn’t be able to grasp without actually having lived in a particular country – and the astute observers among you will have noticed I’ve only really tackled one.

That’s because all this talk is making me thirsty, so I’m going to sign off for now, grab a cold beer from the fridge and come back to the second part of this later on in the week.