Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Thoughts on Teaching Listening (Part 2)

By David Barker
Author and Publisher of Materials for Japanese Learners of English

Back to Basics Blog for Teachers

Pronunciation is one element of language courses that often gets overlooked. Part of the reason for this is that experienced teachers know how difficult it is to learn the sounds of a foreign language as an adult, especially if that language is nothing like your own. This basically means we accept that Japanese students will always have a Japanese accent, that Koreans will always have a Korean accent, and so on. Incidentally, I always used to think in terms of learners “gaining” the accent of a foreign language, but I remember hearing a friend talking about a Japanese person he knew who had managed to “lose” her Japanese accent. That is an interesting way of looking at it. I wonder which viewpoint is more common among teachers?

Anyway, as well as acknowledging the difficulty of the task of teaching pronunciation, most teachers also realize that even with a heavy accent, the majority of learners will be able to make themselves understood to proficient speakers of English. The combined effect of these two beliefs is that pronunciation often gets relegated to a once-in-a-while exercise with the sole purpose of providing a bit of variety in the course.

There are at least two problems with this way of thinking. The first is that teachers, particularly those of monolingual classes, are often very poor judges of how comprehensible their students actually are to regular speakers of the language. When I lived in New Zealand, I did the examiner training for IELTS (International English Language Testing System). As part of the workshop, we had to watch videos of candidates speaking and assign grades. What soon became clear was that teachers were giving far higher grades to students of nationalities they were familiar with. For example, two teachers who had worked in Korea gave a Korean student a high grade for her speaking, whereas the teachers who had mainly worked with European learners gave her a low one. Their reasoning was, “We can’t really understand what she is saying.”

The second reason why pronunciation deserves more attention in language courses is that a learner’s knowledge of the sounds of a language will directly affect their ability to perceive and recognize those sounds. In other words, having good pronunciation is just as important for listening as it is for speaking. My limited understanding of how recognition systems work is that they compare sensory input with stored representations of a variety of forms. For example, we learn how the word “boy” sounds, and we then create and store a template of it in our brains. When audio signals reach our ears, they are run through the database in order to find matches. The same principle applies to the recognition of words and letters. You recognize “x” as the letter that comes before “z” because the marks on this screen fit the representation of that letter that you already have stored in your brain. Of course, you would probably recognize it if I wrote it as “X” too, and even if I wrote it by hand. The human brain has an incredible tolerance for variation that allows it to recognize shapes in a way that computers cannot. That is the theory behind those weirdly shaped letters you have to input manually on some blogs in order to post a comment. The system works because humans can tolerate greater manipulation of basic forms than computers can.

Even so, there are limits to the tolerance (I am using the word here in its engineering sense) of even the human brain’s recognition systems, and these become stricter when representations of objects or phenomena resemble each other. For example, in many cases, it is impossible for us to distinguish between “1,” “l,” and “I” when written in isolation because they look so similar. When that happens, the knowledge of language and context that I described in my previous entry kicks in and allows us to make inferences that go beyond the information that is being provided by the senses.

When a language student learns a new word, they create a template for it and store that template in their database. It is quite possible that when they reproduce the word from its template, the audio signal that results will be within the limits of tolerance of proficient speakers of the language, so the learner will be able to make him or herself understood. A problem arises, however, when the focus switches to listening. Because the template the learner has created does not really match the signal produced by proficient speakers, and because the learner’s recognition system will naturally have a more limited tolerance owing to their lower mastery of the language, there is a very good chance that they will not recognize what they are hearing. It’s a bit like going to meet someone that you have never met at an airport armed only with a photograph that was taken twenty years ago. If the person doesn’t actually look like the photograph, there is a good chance that they will walk right past you without you recognizing them at all.

Like all language teachers, I constantly struggle to make myself understood to my students. I have often noticed that the reason my students cannot understand what I am saying is that they have learned an incorrect pronunciation of a particular word. The following is a typical example of a conversation in one of my classes:

Me: Can you close the curtain?

Student: ??


Student: Curtain??

Me: (gesturing) The curtain!!

Student: Ah, kah-ten!!

It is almost as if they are correcting my pronunciation to match their internal representation of the word. Every teacher in Japan knows that we can easily make ourselves understood by simply saying a word the way our students say it, and I suspect the same is true of any teacher with experience of teaching a particular language group.

My point is that learners need to learn words as accurately as possible so that the template they create reflects the audio signal that is produced when proficient speakers of the language pronounce that word. If a learner creates a template that is significantly different, it might be close enough for their recreation of it to be understood by proficient speakers, but it may not be close enough for them to recognize the word when they hear it.

As teachers, I think we need to start realizing that pronunciation is just as much a listening skill as it is a speaking one, and we need to start giving it greater prominence in our courses.




Comment from Abraham Patrick
April 24, 2012 at 1:05 am

I agree with you that we often ignore right pronunciation. The reason, in my opinion,is it gets so tedious correcting students every time and they make the same pronunciation mistake again and again. The only way out seems to be oral drills and a lot of exposure to good spoken language.

Comment from B. S. Usta
April 24, 2012 at 2:11 am

As a non-native ELT student I often find my classmates struggling with understanding what is said and speaking. They’ve learnt English without having exercises on listening or pronunciation thus ignoring that aspect for years, because the examination system for universities was solely based on a multiple-choice test on grammar and reading comprehension, whereas I learnt most of what I know from series and movies and songs; and I have almost no problem with listening or speaking. Listening and pronunciation courses in schools have always been seen as time consuming, and that understanding needs to be changed-just because you can tell one what you need ‘somehow’ doesn’t mean you’ve learnt the language.

Comment from Kristin
May 15, 2012 at 5:39 pm

When I started learning Spanish I found practicing listening to the language spoken slowly and articulately helped me learn how to recognize individual words/phrases. It also allowed me time to process the information without getting lost. But more to the point, it was slow enough for me to practice reading out loud along with the audio to practice my pronunciation. Which I found to be very important as the change of one letter/sound could seriously alter the meaning of a word.

Comment from Richard Firsten
May 16, 2012 at 6:00 pm

I enjoyed the article, David, and got a really big kick out of “kah-ten.” Yes, during the years that I taught ESOL in Miami, I came across this problem of fossilized mispronunciations more often than I care to remember — and sometimes these were caused by colleagues of mine who weren’t native speakers, although they were truly bilingual (Spanish/English). One of the bilingual teachers I was very friendly with had perfect English pronunciation except for one single solitary word: situation. She always said “sih-too-AY-shun,” and it drove me nuts. After quite a few years of wincing every time I heard her say that, I finally couldn’t stand it anymore and confided in her about the problem, demonstrating the more typical American pronunciation of the word. She was shocked to find out she’d been saying it wrong practically her whole life (interesting that she’d never picked up on the difference between the way native speakers would say it and the way she’d say it), but she was very glad I’d brought it to her attention, and she realized how many “generations” of students she’d taught the word to incorrectly. I felt better getting that off my chest at long last, and so did she! So now she says something more in line with “sih-choo-AY-shun” — and so do her students! 🙂

Comment from David
May 16, 2012 at 8:23 pm

Hi everyone,

Thanks for your comments. I’m glad you found the article interesting. I promise I will get around to doing part 3 in the near future.

Comment from Karen
June 7, 2012 at 1:03 pm

I completely agree. I find that most programs either have a very rudimentary pronunciation class, or it is taught as part of another class (for example a speaking class). The goal for most ESL learners is to communicate. They can develop a large vocabulary and learn the grammar needed to create the sentence, but when it comes time to actually say the sentence aloud – no one can understand them. We need to spend more time on pronunciation.

Comment from David
June 7, 2012 at 8:58 pm

Hi Karen. Thanks for your comment. The point I was trying to make is that having poor pronunciation doesn’t just affect your speaking skills; it affects your listening as well. As you say, “no one can understand” when learners with poor pronunciation speak, but just as importantly, they can’t understand when others speak because their image of how words and structures sound in English is so different from the reality.

Pingback from Teacher Talk » Thoughts on Teaching Listening (Part 3)
November 1, 2013 at 11:54 am

[…] my last post, I discussed the importance of developing pronunciation skills in order to improve your listening […]

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