Archive for Tag: David Barker

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: ??

Me: The CURTAIN.

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.

 

 

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Thoughts on Teaching Listening (Part 1)

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

I can’t remember who said it (I have a feeling it may have been Penny Ur), but I remember hearing a quote about teaching listening once that really made me stop and think:

We don’t really teach listening; we just keep testing it.

Whoever it was, I think he or she had a very valid point. Our standard methodology for teaching listening is a cycle of giving listening tasks and then asking questions in order to test the learners’ comprehension of what they have heard. In our defence, of course, it is difficult to see how we could do otherwise. Like reading, listening is a receptive skill that can only be developed through repeated practice, so there are good reasons for teaching it the way we do. Anyway, I was recently asked to do a presentation on this topic, and I started thinking about aspects of listening that do actually need to be taught rather than simply practiced. The first thing that came to mind was a list of general principles of which learners often seem to be unaware, and I want to write about the first of those today.

The first point is that we listen with our brains, not our ears.

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Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Teaching Students What Not to Say

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

When I worked in Singapore, I lived in an apartment block where most of the other inhabitants were Chinese Singaporeans. I regularly met other people from the block in the elevators and in the food courts, and they were always very friendly and chatty. Unsurprisingly, the first question people normally asked me was, “Where are you from?” I found this quite normal and inoffensive, but I have to admit that I was more than a bit thrown by the inevitable second question the first few times I was asked: “How much rent do you pay?” Just to be clear, I am not saying that one or two people asked me this—almost everyone did! The reason that people asked this was apparently that most ex-pats lived in much more expensive places, and the Singaporeans were fascinated to know whether we were paying the same rent as them or whether we were paying more. Unfortunately, of course, “How much rent do you pay?” is not a question that people would normally ask someone they had just met in my country, so being asked it made me reluctant to develop the conversation with that person any further.

Of course, this was Singapore, so the problem was not one of language; it was more a question of cultural differences. When a language barrier is added, the problem becomes even more acute, and learners of English can often unwittingly create a bad first impression by asking or saying something inappropriate, or something that causes them to be perceived as being dull. In other words, the problem for a language learner might not how they are saying something, but rather the fact that they are saying it at all.

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Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Just Keep Doing It

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

Most people are familiar with the motto “Just do it,” which was introduced by the Nike sports company in 1988. This slogan struck a chord with so many people because it is simple, but incredibly powerful. If followed, it could be a life-changing piece of advice.

There are many fields in which “Just do it” could be said to be an effective philosophy, and language learning is definitely one of them. However, I think that this motto can be made even more appropriate for language learners by changing it slightly, and that is what I want to discuss in this article.

There are basically three stages that successful language learners will go through:

1) Decide to do it.
2) Do it.
3) Keep doing it.

The first step on the road to eventual success is deciding to embark on the journey. All of us have limited time on this earth, and we constantly need to make decisions about how we are going to spend that time. These decisions have particular significance when they relate to an activity that requires us to invest a huge amount of time in the hope of reaching a desired goal at some point in the future. The decision to learn a foreign language is therefore not one that should be taken lightly. Partially learning a language (and then forgetting what you have learned) is a bit like partially building a house—you may learn some things through the experience, but there are probably lots of other ways in which that time could be better spent.

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Monday, July 18, 2011

How to Be a Popular Teacher

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

As anyone who has ever worked in a language school or other educational institution will know, it is a fact of life that some teachers are more popular than others. Come to think of it, anyone who has ever been to school will know that! I remember from my own school days that there were huge differences in the way the teachers were regarded by pupils. Some were loved and respected, while others were despised and ridiculed. Of course, it is not the case that the most popular teachers are necessarily the best teachers, and teaching should never be a popularity contest, but it is a matter of common sense that a teacher who is popular (or at least, not unpopular) with his or her students will probably find it easier to be effective in the classroom.

Like most teachers, I would like to think that I am generally popular with my students. Having said that, I am reminded of a survey in Britain that found that almost 80% of drivers believe that they are better than average. I suspect that a similar result would be found if language teachers were asked to assess our own popularity!

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Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The “New Car” Phenomenon

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

When I was about ten years old, my father announced one day that we were getting a new car. Now, there is very little in the world more guaranteed to arouse the interest of a 10-year-old boy and his younger brothers than a new car, and naturally, we wanted to know what my father was planning to buy. He told us that we were getting an “Opel Mantra.” This was a bit of an anticlimax, because neither my brothers nor I had ever heard of it. Later that day, however, my dad pointed one out to us when we were out shopping. Suddenly Opel Mantras were everywhere! It was as if everyone in the country had gone out and bought one at once. Of course, the actual number of these cars had not changed at all; what had changed was our awareness of them.

This “new car” phenomenon can be observed in many areas of life, and it can be a very powerful tool for language learners. In my own language studies, I have noticed a cycle that has three stages: priming, triggering, and consolidation. “Priming” is what happens when your attention is drawn to something, or when your awareness of it is raised; “triggering” is the point at which your raised awareness causes you to notice the thing in a different context; and “consolidation” is what happens when you deepen your knowledge of it through repeated exposure.

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Monday, April 25, 2011

Why I am not a fan of the Communicative Approach

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

I am writing this in response to Alex’s question about why I am not a fan of the Communicative Approach. Let me say before I begin that the case I want to make has already been made far more eloquently by Michael Swan in his 1985 articles in the ELT Journal. If you have not read these, please do. In my opinion, they should be compulsory reading for all language teachers.

A critical look at the Communicative Approach (1)

A critical look at the Communicative Approach (2)

One problem with discussing the Communicative Approach is that the term has come to mean different things to different people. I recently had a very heated discussion with a Japanese teacher of English about Communicative Language Teaching. He insisted that my interpretation was out of date, and that CLT is actually just an umbrella term for any kind of teaching where the goal is to improve the students’ ability to communicate. Under the “correct” definition, he claimed, CLT actually embraces things like Grammar-Translation and the Audio-Lingual Method.

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Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The SHAPAL Method

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

Language learners all over the world will no doubt be pleased to hear that I have finally discovered the definitive technique for learning a foreign or second language. I am so confident of its effectiveness that I am prepared to guarantee that anyone who follows it will be successful. I can also say with a high degree of certainty that anyone who chooses not to adopt this Method will be doomed to failure.

I first became aware of the importance of the SHAPAL Method when I was talking to a Canadian who had learned Japanese. Actually, I had been following the Method myself in my own studies, but I had not fully grasped at that point just how universal it was. The Canadian in question was called Chris, and he had mastered Japanese to a higher level than any Westerner I had ever met. My own Japanese was not bad at the time, but it paled next to his command of the language. Of course, I was curious to know more about his study techniques, so I asked him, “How did you learn Japanese? Did you just Study Hard And Practice A Lot?” He looked at me quizzically and enquired, “Do you know any other way?”

Good point.

Stupid question.

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