Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Thoughts on Teaching Listening (Part 3)

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

Back to Basics Blog for Teachers

Speaking from my own experience, I think a strong argument could be made that, wherever possible, it is better to study the pronunciation of a language before you study the actual language itself. This is because listening to a language when you have no idea of its vocabulary or grammar forces you to rely 100% on your ears, which results in you hearing the language the way it really sounds. If you learn a non-phonetic language like English or Chinese by reading and writing graphic representations of the words, your brain will automatically assign sounds to those characters according to how it thinks they would be pronounced in your first language. I had that experience when trying to read Chinese words written in “pinyin.” I was fortunate in my learning of Japanese that I was able to learn the sound system before doing any formal study of the language by listening to Japanese pop songs and learning the words by heart. One great way of helping your students to understand what it means to use only their ears is to play them videos or recordings of songs in a language that none of them is familiar with. Check out this video for a famous example of someone just using their ears to copy the sounds of a foreign language. Isn’t it amazing how much it sounds like English while being completely incomprehensible!

In my last post, I discussed the importance of developing pronunciation skills in order to improve your listening ability, but I did not say exactly what skills I was talking about. That will be the topic of today’s post. There will be nothing new here for experienced teachers, but I hope it will remind people of things that they might have forgotten over the years. For newer teachers, I hope some of the points will give you ideas about how the teaching of pronunciation can be broken down into manageable (i.e., teachable) components.

In his excellent book “Sound Foundations” (essential reading for new teachers), Adrian Underhill breaks the English sound system into three parts:

  1. Sounds in isolation
  2. Words in isolation
  3. Connected speech

Of these, it is probably the first that has traditionally received the most attention in EFL classes, yet many teachers (including me) would argue that it is actually the least important. I do not have the space to go into the mechanics of English phonetics here, but I would like to mention two points that learners may not be aware of.

The first concerns our ability to produce sounds. As far as my limited understanding goes, musical instruments can be divided into two groups: those that can produce a potentially infinite range of sounds, and those that can only produce a specified number. An example of the former group is a violin. Whatever note you play on a violin, it is always theoretically possible to play another that is slightly higher or lower by moving your fingers a tiny amount. An example, of the latter group is a piano. If you play the note “C” on a piano, the next note up on the keyboard is a “C#.” It is not possible to play a note that lies between the two.

The human voice is far more versatile than any musical instrument, and when we are born, we are like violins in that we have the potential to recognize and produce any sound of any language in the world. As we grow up and master our first language, however, we become “pianos,” only able to make and recognize the sounds that our language requires us to distinguish. This is not a limitation of our brains; it is one of its strengths. Knowing which sounds are used to distinguish meanings in our own language allows our brains to have a far wider tolerance for variation, which is a key element in our ability to decode spoken language. To return to the musical instrument metaphor, it allows us to hear which note is being played on any kind of piano, even ones that are not quite in tune. This is one of the biggest challenges faced by learners of English, who not only have to learn sounds that may not exist in their own language, but who then also have to learn to tolerate the variations of those sounds that occur in different accents and dialects.

The second point is that it is extremely difficult to produce sounds that you cannot hear. When I first studied Chinese, I remember being drilled extensively in the four tonal variations that are used to carry meaning in that language. My problem was not so much that I couldn’t produce the tones, but rather that they all sounded the same to me when the teacher pronounced them. It may help learners to know that there is no way they will be able to produce sounds that they cannot hear, and that the pronunciation and recognition of sounds will be a constantly ongoing project for them as they continue with their studies.

Underhill’s second level of “words in isolation” is one of the key areas where I believe teachers and learners need to focus their attention in the classroom. Although it is tempting to analyse the individual sounds that make up a word, it is far more beneficial from both a “speaking” and a “listening” point of view to focus on its syllable pattern – i.e., how many syllables it has, and which one(s) are accented. I was taught to use circles to represent syllables when introducing new words, with a big circle used to show the location of accents. For example, “computer” would be “oOo,” and “America” would be “oOoo.” I also use underlining to show secondary accents, so “information” would be ooOo. I have found that it is very useful for students to practice saying the pattern of a new word using “da-da-da” before they try to pronounce the word properly. Once the correct pattern has been established, it becomes much easier to say the word with good pronunciation. (Using this system, “information” would be “DA-da-DA-da.) By learning how many syllables a word has and which of these is/are accented, students will be able to store an accurate representation of a word’s “silhouette” in their brain. This, more than anything, will enable them to recognize it when they hear it in spoken language. (If you think about it, this is also how we recognise people: we tend to look at the overall size and shape of prominent features rather than at the details of how those parts are made up.)

Underhill’s third level is  “connected speech.” From the point of view of learners, particularly speakers of Asian languages, “word linking” is a vital concept that needs to be explicitly dealt with in the classroom. When learners complain of spoken English being “too fast,” the problem is often not one of speed at all, but rather an issue of words being pronounced together differently from the way they are pronounced in isolation. One common example of this is the shifting of final consonant sounds to the start of following words that begin with a vowel. (Betty Azar’s co-author, Stacy Hagen, has done a video explaining how this works.) I used to use John Lennon’s song “Imagine” for song dictations in some of my more advanced classes, and I found that someone would always ask me “What does ‘sonly’ mean?” I didn’t understand the question until we listened together and the students told me to stop the music as Lennon sang “above us only sky.” A particularly common example of this type of word linking occurs with “an” in phrases like “an umbrella” or “an orange.” Actually, I remember hearing somewhere that the only reason the word “an” exists is that it allows “a” to “lend” the final consonant to the following word so that it becomes easier to say.

This is a very brief summary of an extremely complicated area, but once again, I would like to stress its importance not so much in speaking classes, but rather in the teaching of listening. There are many great books and online resources available for those who want to do some further study. Stacey Hagen’s series (link above) is a great place to start, and you can also find some useful basic guidelines on word linking by searching for “rules for connected speech” on the Internet. As you study how word-linking works, however, remember to keep your “listening teacher’s hat” on and think about how it will help your students to develop their listening ability as well as their speaking skills.



Comment from eli
July 25, 2012 at 10:20 pm

tnx for the post

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