Tuesday, June 21, 2011
Confusion in Conversation
By Tamara Jones
ESL Instructor, SHAPE Language Center, Belgium
I was visiting some friends in Madrid last weekend. A few years ago, I used to teach a class of women who got exceptionally close over the semester. Since then, we have all kept in touch, going out for dinner and emailing often. When two of our group moved back to Spain, it was logical for us to plan a weekend away to visit them.
So, there I was in the back seat of the van with my Polish and Greek friends. Our two Spanish friends were busy driving and navigating in the front seat. To make conversation with my back-seat-mates, I asked them, “What time did you get to bed last night?” (I need my beauty sleep, so I always went to be long before they did.) My question was met with looks of complete confusion. Let me be clear; these are high-intermediate speakers of English. My question wasn’t grammatically complex and the vocabulary was simple. Even a high-beginner could probably comprehend the question if it was part of a lesson. So, why the bewilderment, even after I repeated the question?
What I Said / What they Heard
After I had repeated myself a couple of times, one friend looked at me with her brow creased and said, “Class?”
“Yes,” the other nodded vigorously, “I heard you say class.”
Suddenly it dawned on me. Of course, their problem understanding me had nothing to do with vocabulary or grammar. I had forgotten to enunciate, and I was speaking to them like I would to my native speaker friends. Instead of saying “What time did you get to bed last night?” I had said, “Wattimejagedabedlasnight? As a result, the only discernable word my friends had heard was “class.”
Listening Meets Pronunciation
When we teach listening skills in our classes, we often do a lot of “right” things. We pre-teach difficult vocabulary. We choose recordings that are not too difficult or too easy for our students. We provide them with the chance to listen again, if necessary. Rarely, though, do we explicitly prepare our students for the characteristics of spoken English that may most impede their comprehension in the real world. We often think of “linking” and “blending” as Pronunciation skills; however, I would argue that they should be taught, along with “sentence stress,” in our listening lessons as well.
Students need to know that native speakers push all our words together and that this push causes sounds to disappear (as when “last night” became “lasnight”), sound to change (as when “did you” became “ju”) and new sounds to appear (this didn’t happen in my example, but for instance when you say a word ending in a vowel sounds and then a word beginning in a vowel sound, you add /y/ or /w/, as in “gowaway”).
Students also need to know that if they are straining to listen to every word in English, they are working much, much too hard. Native speakers don’t pronounce every word clearly. Rather, we stress the content words and slur the function words (I call them the garbage grammar words). I didn’t say, “WHAT TIME DID YOU GET TO BED LAST NIGHT?” I said “What TIME did you get to BED LAST NIGHT?” No wonder all my friends hears was “class”. Most of the other words were mumbled.
Most listening activities in existing texts don’t help students master these skills. It is up to us teachers, armed with some of the great supplemental materials out there (some of my favorites are listed below), to merge the worlds of pronunciation and listening and bring “linking” and “sentence stress” into our listening classes.
Beisbier, B. (1994) Sounds Great, Thompson and Heinle
Gilbert, J. (2001) Clear Speech, Cambridge University Press
Grant, L. (2001) Well Said, Heinle and Heinle
Meyers, C. & Holt, S. (2001) Pronunciation for Success, Aspen Productions
Noll, M. (2007) American Accent Skills, Ameritalk Press
Editor’s Note : We completely agree! In fact, check out the new editions of the Azar-Hagen Grammar Series. All three books integrate listening with grammar instruction. There’s lots of material to help students understand real-world English. Stacy Hagen’s Sound Advice: A Basis for Listening is another excellent resource. The entire book focuses on these very challenging features of spoken English. Stacy’s “Understanding Spoken English” video lessons on YouTube are also quite useful. Here’s one on Linking.