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.
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:
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.
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.
You’re not listening! I didn’t hear!!
Having watched a fair few classes over the summer – both trainees finishing off an introductory course we’ve been running part-time for the last year and also teachers working on our summer school at University of Westminster, one thing I’ve realised with ever greater clarity is just how hard it is to actually help students get better at listening. Just running listenings in coursebooks well is an incredibly tricky – and very under-discussed, I feel – area of teaching, and one I’m going to return to in a follow-up post. What I’d like to blog about here, though, is much more to do with the fundamentals of what it is we think we’re doing in class when we DO listening. Here goes . . .
Many years ago, I went to watch a colleague of mine teach. He had been at the university quite a long time and had managed to claim the large 1960s-styled language lab as his own private domain! In the lesson I saw, students worked on their own and listened to some sentences on a tape (which I think came from MEANINGS INTO WORDS). They had to write each sentence down 100% correctly before they were allowed to move on to the next. One poor student must have listened to his first sentence about 30 times and was clearly really struggling. The teacher pointed out that his transcription was wrong and kept telling him to listen harder. So he played the sentence yet again – and again – and again! I put the headphones on myself so I could hear what he was trying to write down. On a word, muffled tape, a voice repeated over and over again:
Tie a knot in your handkerchief in case you forget.
No context, no glossary, no explanation, just that one isolated sentence.
In the end, the student called the teacher over again and asked “What does tyre notting mean?” to which the teacher replied “You’re not listening!” – again.
At this point, the student snapped and screamed out: “I AM listening! I just can’t hear!”
Now, this experience got me thinking about what kind of problems students have when they listen in English – and I have come to the conclusion that the problems are usually much more to do with HEARING (and KNOWING the language they hear) than they are with LISTENING. Our students, to give them their due, generally do actually listen and pay attention to CDs / cassettes in class as best they can, but fail for a number of reasons:
1 They can’t hear words simply because they don’t know them!
2 They can’t hear the correct words because they can’t distinguish sounds.
3 They can hear words, but often only individual ones – and can’t (always) group them appropriately.
4 They can hear words – even chunks and expressions – but can’t process the meaning of what they are hearing quickly enough.
So there are serious issues to do with being able to process the ‘acoustic blur’ of speech as students listen to it. And yet what actually happens in classrooms when we think we’re helping students get better at listening?
I once had a teacher on a teacher training course who already had quite a lot of experience, but who was still struggling a bit. She said it would be all sorted the next day – she was going to “do a listening”. When I pushed her and asked what the aim of the lesson – or what the language focus – would be, she looked at me like I was mad and stated that the aim would obviously be to do a listening! I think that all too often we DO listenings – and our students endure them – because this is what is to be done, because they’re in the coursebook and because, well, we have the idea we should do them, but perhaps we don’t always think why we do them. What are they actually for, from a pedagogical point of view?
There are, of course, those who would say that when we do listenings, we are teaching listening skills. But what are these skills and how do we teach them?
Believers in the concept of ‘skills’ might point to the following, taken from the Common European Framework:
The CEFR claims that learners at a certain level should be able to demonstrate ability of the following ‘sub-skills’:
• listening for gist
• listening for specific information
• listening for detailed understanding
• listening for implications
• listening as a member of a live audience
• listening to audio media
But what actually are these ‘skills’? How do we do them? How do we improve our ability to do them? How do we teach them? Is doing a gist task or doing a task where students listen for specific information enough? Do they somehow learn transferable skills of ‘listening for gist’ or ‘listening for specific information’ through the process of doing listenings in class – and can they take these skills away and thus deal with other listenings better in future?
The dominant way of thinking about all of this has long been SCHEMA THEORY, which stresses what’s called top-down processing. This emphasises students’ prior knowledge and predictions / expectations about what will be said. Often this means that before we ‘do’ our listening in class, we get students to predict content from pictures, context, etc. Now, this is all well and good, but read deeper in the literature on the field and problems soon start emerging, as the following quote makes clear:
“For complex social and psychological reasons, [learners] are less sure they have grasped the topic being spoken of, the opinion being expressed about it, and the reasons for the speaker wanting to talk about it. They are less sure of the relevance of their own experience in helping them to arrive at an interpretation. On top of all that they are less sure of the forms of the language… for all these reasons learners are less able to bring to bear top down processing in forming an interpretation and hence are more reliant on bottom up processing.”
(Brown quoted in Jenkins, 2001 OUP)
What Brown focuses on is the idea of BOTTOM-UP PROCESSING. In short, this says that what is important is HEARING individual sounds, decoding words, decoding chunks, decoding sentences and so on, and that it is through the process of doing this that learners build up a mental picture of what is being discussed.
If you accept this – and I do – there would seem to be some profound implications for teaching listening:
Firstly, simply getting students to predict or use their previous knowledge – so-called ‘activating schemata’ – isn’t necessary. There might be masses of information we have previous knowledge of when we sit and listen to a conversation and yet there may not be anything at all which comes up that we have predicted or which relates to our ‘schema’. Classroom listenings are obviously designed to include more predictability, but in the real world, language in use can be very unpredictable indeed – and the only way to deal with this is to listen to it all and understand it all.
Another point to make here is that students often hear words even when they don’t make sense to them. Failure may occur when they don’t know the words they’re hearing (or, as I’ve said, when they simply can’t can’t hear the words to begin with). On top of all this, words which students may know will often get bunched up in the stream of speech, making them harder to hear. This, in turn, can lead to difficulties for students hearing new words, because they can’t distinguish them from the general mass of sound around them.
So let’s go back to the ‘sub-skills’ outlined by the CEFR earlier. What is really happening when we do these things? Well, firstly, when we perform any of these skills in the real world, we’re paying attention. It’s not that we don’t hear things we’re not listening for. Imagine that your plane is delayed and you have to listen to a long announcement to find out what’s going on. You process and understand everything that precedes the information that is relevant to you, but then afterwards you just choose to forget it. In the same way, after watching a film, you report the gist to friends – not the detail. This is NOT because you weren’t paying attention to or enjoying all the detail. It’s much more to do with what we are able to – or choose to – remember after the event.
Given this, task is of vital importance in the classroom. If you want students to remember specific details, you have to make this crystal clear to them before playing the audio. Listening involves a lot of processing: students have to hear all the words, remember what the words mean and then decide whether or not they will need to remember them. This is a big ask! Clear tasks make this process a little bit easier.
In addition, as well as doing listenings in class, we also need to think more about how to teach what Mike McCarthy has called LISTENERSHIP. One point to bear in mind about listening in class is that in several crucial ways it’s easier than listening outside of the class. For one thing, it’s often better graded and is usually recorded clearly without too much background noise. Most importantly, though, outside class, listening is often connected to conversation, which means learners have to listen, process AND think of what to say themselves. In class, they don’t have this pressure. Listenings in class therefore leave more time and space for students to react as they don’t need to participate and add. As such, it’s easier to learn language from listenings in class. It also means that if students are to cope outside of class, they need language to engage in listenership, which means teaching lots of predictable, typical chunks of language, all of which will both help them process what they hear quicker, as well as also becoming more able to control the conversations they find themselves in. This means learning expressions / chunks to help them manage their discourse. On a basic level, it means things like:
Sorry. Can you say that again?
Sorry, Can you speak slower?
whilst at a higher level, it means things like:
So going back to what you were saying earlier . . .
So what? Are you saying that you think that . . . ?
and so on.
To start to fully appreciate the importance of using listenings in class as a vehicle for bringing useful language to students, look at what it is that good listeners actually do.
– know nearly all – if not all – of the words that they hear.
– hear the words when they listen to them.
– process sound in chunks.
– understand words / chunks automatically due to repeated OVER-LEARNING in class.
So from this perspective, how can we help students get better at listening?
Well, firstly, I think we have a duty to simply teach as much typical language as we can – both as part of listening-based lessons and also at as many other times as we can. Secondly, we need to ensure we always teach language – both vocabulary AND grammar – in natural contexts and we need to say / model the things that we’re teaching, so our students get used to hearing them in context and can recognise them when they hear them again. We need to mark on the board the main stresseses of the words that we teach, and to show linking between words. We also need to do lots and lots of drilling.
Generally, we ought to be paying a lot more attention to pronunciation in class – especially pronunciation related to connected speech (elision, assimilation, weak forms, linking sounds, etc.) We maybe need to accept that while it’s nice if our efforts to improve our students’ pronunciation work, the REAL goal of these slots in class is an improved ability to HEAR natural spoken language. As such, we need to help students with problem sounds. Teach the sounds and how to say them, repeat new words with the sounds in them, and then show how these words say within sentences, so students get to hear – and get to practise saying – the way the words change how they sound once they’re within sentences. For instance, with low levels, you may well often work from sound to work to sentence. Last month with a Chinese group, they had problems saying the word WEIRD, so I drilled like this:
WHAT A WEIRD GUY
WHAT WEIRD WEATHER
and so on.
Other good things to do include doing a listening once for gist, then letting students compare answers / ideas; round up their ideas and see what the class as a whole have; then set a more language-focused task and play the listening again; let students compare ideas again, before rounding up. Finally, play the listening a third tie, but this time let students read the audioscript. This way, they – and you – can see which parts they couldn’t hear because of HEARING problems and which parts were down to LANGUAGE problems. If they read the whole audioscript and understand everything, but didn’t get it when they listened, that’s a hearing problem and the real issue is that they need to read and listen more and get more used to the blur of sound that is spoken language. However, if they read and STILL don’t understand things, that’s a language problem and means you need to teach that new language. Reading and listening at the same time helps bridge the gap between the nice, tidy way language looks written down and the messy, fast way it sounds spoken.
It’s also good to ask students to read conversations they’ve listened to aloud – especially if the conversations are full of useful, everyday language. Let them read in pairs and go round whilst they’re reading aloud and correct and re-model pronunciation for them..
It’s great if you can do gap-filed listenings, where the first listening is for gist; then the students listen again and try to fill in the gaps in an audioscript. They compare their ideas in pairs and you play the listening a third time, pausing after each gap and eliciting the missing words. This works best if the gaps are more than one word. When you elicit the answers, write them up on the board and drill them with the whole group and some individual students.
Here’s a conversation from INNOVATIONS Pre-Intermediate that works like this:
TALKING ABOUT LIFE IN YOUR COUNTRY
A You are going to listen to a conversation between Martin and Alex.
They meet while they are abroad.
As you listen, cover the tapescript below and decide:
1. Why are they abroad?
2. How long are they going to stay?
B Listen again and fill in the gaps.
Martin: What do you do back home?
Alex: Well, I was working in a car factory, but it (1) . . . . . . . . . That’s why I’m here, really. I got some money when I lost my job and I decided to go travelling (2) . . . . . . . . to think about what to do next.
Martin: And what are you going to do?
Alex: I still haven’t decided. The economy’s in (3) . . . . . . . . at the moment. There’s a lot of unemployment and people aren’t spending much money, so it’s going to be difficult to find a new job. I might try to re-train and do (4) . . . . . . . . .
Martin: Have you got any idea what you want to do?
Alex: Not really. Maybe something with computers. I might try to find a job abroad for a while, before I do that. What about your country? Is it easy to find work there?
Martin: Yes. A few years ago it was quite bad, but the economy’s (5) . . . . . . . . at the moment. I think unemployment is about four per cent, so finding a job isn’t really a problem. The problem is (6) . . . . . . . . . Prices have gone up a lot over the last few years. Everything is more expensive, so the money you earn goes really quickly.
Martin: Sometimes I think I should move to somewhere like here. I’m sure people don’t get paid very much, but the cost of living is so low, and there’s a better (7) . . . . . . . . . People don’t work as hard; life is more relaxed; the food’s great; the weather’s great; it’s just very nice.
Alex: Yes, maybe, but don’t forget that you are on holiday. Maybe it’s (8) . . . . . . . . for the people who live here.
Martin: No, maybe not.
Alex: So anyway, how long are you going to stay here?
Martin: Just till Friday. I have to get back to work. What about you? How long are you staying?
Alex: Till I get bored or I (9) . . . . . . . . money. I don’t have any plans.
As I’m eliciting the answers fro the group and writing things like (9) run out of on the board, I’ll draw the links between RUN and OUT and OF and drill RU-NOW-TOV with the group.
Dictations are also good, especially at lower levels when learners are still developing their ear. Here’s one we built into OUTCOMES Elementary.
A Listen. Write the questions you hear.
B Listen again and repeat what you hear.
C Work in pairs. Ask and answer the questions.
1 What are you studying?
2 What year are you in?
3 Are you enjoying it?
4 How are you?
5 Are you hungry?
6 Are you good at English?
7 Where are you from?
8 Where are you staying?
One other kind of exercises that focus explicitly on HEARING is this, from OUTCOMES Intermediate:
B Decide which words you heard. Then listen and check.
1 I’m involved in/on designing what you see on the screen.
2 How did you getting/get into that?
3 Vodafone were recruiting people so I applied/replied and I got a job.
4 It’s like any job. It has its boring moments/minutes.
5 It depends if we have a deadline to complete/meet.
6 I do something/anything like fifty or sixty hours a week.
7 That must be stressed/stressful.
8 I sometimes work better under/in pressure.
9 They said I would get a permanent/payment contract, but then it never happened.
Finally, I think, we just need to ensure that we recycle words, chunks, exchanges and conversations over different classes and across different levels, thus ensuring not only language development, but also massively increased opportunities for hearing.
That’s all for now. In my next post on teaching listening, I’ll go into more detail about some of the problems I think we often bring upon ourselves when doing listening in class, and we might begin to rectify things. In the meantime, I’d be really interested to hear your thoughts, questions and ideas.