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.


Comment from Ninos Ishaia
June 21, 2011 at 11:31 am

Very useful article. But again some practicality should be needed there; more examples at class, and not on a trip. Don’t you think?

Comment from Luis Reinoso
June 21, 2011 at 3:35 pm

Well said. As an English teacher for Spanish speakers, I have had to come up with some tools to cope with this issue and after more than a decade of teaching, I have come to the conclusion that is better to teach my students to link the words, so they themselves become accustomed to listen to this non academic English. I have even ventured in creating my own phonetic symbol chart which i find useful to teach when beginning a course.
Thanks for the article.
Luis Reinoso

Comment from Luis Reinoso
June 21, 2011 at 3:36 pm

And may I also recommend the “Using and Understanding English Grammar” by Azar and Hagen (the fourth edition that comes with answer key and audio files and audio scripts as a good source for everyday English when teaching to foreign students?

Comment from admin
June 21, 2011 at 3:48 pm

Hi Ninos Ishaia,

You should check out Stacy Hagen’s Understanding Spoken English video lessons on YouTube. http://www.youtube.com/user/EnglishwithStacy Lots of clear explanations and examples on this subject. Stacy is Betty Azar’s co-author and this is an area of English language teaching she is well-versed in.

Comment from Claire
June 21, 2011 at 5:45 pm

A good article and a good reminder. Thank you!

Comment from Sharp
June 22, 2011 at 1:22 am

I absolutely feel it’s imperative to teach students the unpleasant as well as the “correct”. We are doing them a huge disservice not to teach them what people say in the real world, short of cursing at them. I believe this, and have always taught these aspects in my classes. Students greatly appreciate it, and actually want more.

Comment from Tamara Jones
June 22, 2011 at 2:34 am

Thanks for all your interest in this topic! There are many great resources for teaching linking out there! I am new to Stacy Hagen’s Understanding Spoken English , but I like what I see, so far. Clearly this is an important skill and teachers can really help their students’ listening out by teaching them how to link!

Comment from Toni
July 9, 2011 at 10:07 am

I strongly recommend “Accurate English” by Rebecca Dauer and “Jazz Chants” by Carolyn Graham as wonderful resources for addressing pronunciation and comprehension including elision. (Note-I haven’t taught ESL for quite a few years, but I found these very helpful for students at varying levels. Accurate English is very sophisticated, and thus only useful as a STUDENT resource with a narrow band of students. However, as a teacher resource, it is adaptable to a wide range levels of English and literacy. By the way–in my current life (as an immigration attorney rather than teacher) I had a hilarious experience where my client (a fluent English speaker) was administered the English test for naturalization by an officer with a strong accent. He was totally flummoxed when asked to write “I vent to school by bus” because he didn’t know whether to write “went” or “vent”!

Comment from Tamara Jones
July 12, 2011 at 7:03 am

Rebecca Dauer is a well-respected name in ESL Pronunciation, but I haven’t seen her book. I LOVE Jazz Chants,though! Thanks for sharing (especially the anecdote)!

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