Archive for Tag: pronunciation

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Learning to Listen

TamaraJonesBy Tamara Jones
EAL Instructor, British School of Brussels

For years (and years and years), whenever I had to teach “listening”, I just popped the CD into the machine, pressed play and hoped for the best while the students scrambled to fill in the gaps, answer the questions or match the cards. I always had the sneaking suspicion that I could, and in fact, should, be doing a lot more to support my students’ listening development, but aside from listening practice and more listening practice, I was not sure what else to do. In spite of my many years of teaching and the confidence I feel helping students with speaking and pronunciation, I felt like a neophyte when it came to teaching listening. So, imagine my relief when, as the Speech, Listening and Pronunciation Chair elect, I was tasked with organizing an Academic Session at TESOL on teaching listening for the 2013 TESOL Conference in Dallas. It was actually Helen Solorzano who organized the session, and all I had to do was show up, take credit, and learn!

Top Down Strategies – Check!

So, here’s what I learned: it turns out that what I have been doing for all these years was, in fact, “testing” listening and not teaching it at all. I needed to back up a bit and think about listening as speech processing. Dr. Steve Brown spoke about how listening is a combination of top down and bottom up strategies. Stronger listeners make more use of top down strategies, which means they pull from their general knowledge about the context and the topic to make inferences about the listening. Happily, a lot of texts on the market encourage students to do this by including pictures and warm up questions designed to activate students’ prior knowledge about the topic. As a result, even in my very primitive approach to teaching listening, I did occasionally manage to expose my students to top down listening strategies.

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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.

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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.



Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Singing the Way to Pronunciation Success!

By Tamara Jones
ESL Instructor, SHAPE Language Center, Belgium

Last week I talked about some ways I incorporate songs into my Conversation classes. I’ve also had great success with bringing music into my Pronunciation lessons. Singing and Pronunciation are just a perfect fit. At no time is my French /r/ sound more perfect than when I am singing along with my recording of Edith Pilaf’s “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien.”

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Thursday, January 21, 2010

Wussup Wit’ Dat?

By Richard Firsten
Retired ESOL Teacher, Teacher-Trainer, Columnist, Author
There’s been a great deal of hoopla lately over a statement made by Nevada Democratic Senator Harry Reid in which he commented during the last presidential campaign that he thought Barack Obama had a good chance of winning the election because he “… has no Negro dialect unless he wants to have one.” Of course, people have reacted very negatively to such a statement, claiming it was basically racist. Others have added that hearing Senator Reid’s choice of words, Negro dialect, was like going through a time warp back to the mid-twentieth century. So what’s really going on, and how might this be of concern to ESOL teachers?
I don’t think that Senator Reid was saying anything that many – if not most of us – don’t think, but may not have the fortitude to openly verbalize. For quite a long time, we have struggled with the issue of how we judge people by their speech. The truth is that many of us don’t look favorably on people who speak in what are considered nonstandard dialects of English. Theoretically speaking, those people may have large portfolios and be living very “comfortably,” but if they open their mouths and speak with a Brooklyn or Cockney accent or Southern drawl, or if they use vocabulary and grammar associated with African-American Vernacular English (AAVE, sometimes referred to as Ebonics) or Chicano English, we don’t consider them polished and of high social status. That’s just the way it is. Unfortunately, we do judge books by their covers. And that was the point that Harry Reid was getting at. He wasn’t being racist; he was simply being realistic and honest.
In the 1980’s, while working as Associate Director of the English Language Institute at a university in South Florida, I was approached by many instructors who told me of their frustrations in dealing with students who wrote the way they spoke, that is, in nonstandard English. The instructors pleaded with me to create a course that would correct the problem. They felt it was a terrible disservice to the students that nobody was telling them they needed to speak and write in standard English in order to get ahead in the future. They knew their views might not be considered “pc” at that time, but their consciences wouldn’t allow them to say nothing about this problem.
I couldn’t have agreed with them more. Using nonstandard dialectal variations in the streets or with family and friends in relaxed, totally informal situations is just fine, but should we consider such language as proper for school or the workplace or government? The answer is decidedly no for many reasons, probably the most important being that we need to speak a standard form of our language in such settings so that chances for miscommunications or misunderstandings are minimized. Another important reason is to make sure that the listener is focusing on the meaning of our message rather than on any “oddities” in how we deliver the message.
I conscientiously worked on a proposal to offer a course at the university called “English as a Standard Dialect.” When the proposal was ready, I decided to test the waters by showing it to faculty members who were representative of the groups of students my colleagues had been complaining about. I figured that would be a smart move before showing the proposal to university officials for approval. The faculty members who saw what I had prepared gave me very positive feedback. Not one of them found the proposal offensive, which I found gratifying. I then presented my proposal to the dean – and that’s as far as things went. He considered the course too controversial, a political hot potato, even with the positive feedback I’d already gotten. No matter what I said, it made no difference, and he refused to let me develop the course any further. I feel that was a terrible mistake, and I’ve always felt bad that the students who needed the language skills my course could have offered them never got those skills.
The main thrust of my proposal was that there’s nothing wrong with students using their dialects in appropriate settings, but that they should learn how to code switch and use standard English in settings appropriate for that dialect as well. In other words, the course would not put down the dialects that the students used all the time, but it would offer them the skills to have an option they really needed to have at their disposal. I had been given that option when I was in elementary and junior high school back in Brooklyn, New York. All of my teachers, not just my English teachers, made it a point to teach us standard English grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation and when it was not appropriate to use Brooklynese. The language skills that our teachers gave us in how and when to code switch have served me well my whole life. I’m sure that’s what Harry Reid meant when he said that Barack Obama “… has no Negro dialect unless he wants to have one.” Senator Reid must have recognized the fact that people with enough language skills can code switch at will – which is a good thing.
This subject about having at least two dialects in English, the standard one and the dialectal variation, is something that ESOL teachers working in English-speaking countries should keep in mind. But I’ve never lost sight of the fact that ESOL teachers must clearly explain the differences to their students and teach them very carefully when to use one or the other form if this is truly an issue where they are located and if their students are ready to deal with it. That’s for each teacher to determine.
Here are three very simple examples of the kinds of code switching that ESOL teachers might need to deal with at one time or another:
• In the New York City area, you get on line when waiting to do something, but in the rest of the United States, you get in line.
• In parts of New England, the word wicked means very, as in saying It’s wicked cold outside.
• In AAVE, you say He workin’, while in standard English you say He’s working. In AAVE you say He be workin’, while in standard English you say He works.
To sum up, let’s not overreact to what Senator Reid said about our current President’s language skills. True, he may have made his point somewhat crudely, but that doesn’t diminish the validity in what he said. Every English speaker or English language learner should have solid skills in using the standard dialect that is understood by everybody, but that doesn’t mean that those same people shouldn’t have the skills in one or another dialectal variation when appropriate. Da’s wussup wit’ dat.

So what’s your take on this subject? I’d love to hear your comments.

Friday, January 8, 2010

To Read or Not To Read

By Tamara Jones
ESL Instructor, SHAPE Language Center, Belgium

Getting students to read aloud is something I had often done as a teacher without giving it much critical thought. After all, if the students are reading, it means that I am not. And that means a reduction in teacher talk time — something we all strive for, right? However, in the past year, I have had two personal experiences that have shaped the way I approach reading aloud in my own ESL classes.

I have no idea what I just read.

About a year ago, my former supervisor convened a study group with the goal of learning more about how students learn to read. The teachers who participated were given several academic articles to read, and we met after reading each one and discussed it. One article was particularly dense and difficult to understand, even for educated native speakers. The study group was focused on one specific paragraph. In order to get a clearer grasp of the information, the group leader asked me to read it aloud. As I did, I noticed something fascinating happening. I was concentrating so hard on correctly pronouncing the words and getting the phrase groups right, that I had no idea what I had read when I was done.

If this can happen to a person reading in her own language, what happens when students read in a language that is not their first? As a result of this experience, I tried to avoid having students read aloud at all. I read everything, from the course syllabus on the first day of class, to the instructions for each activity, to the reading passages that I didn’t have them read silently. I wanted to make sure that they never read something aloud with no idea of what they were reading. However, I was often left with a tired voice and the nagging feeling that I was cheating my students of valuable practice.

Read after me.

It wasn’t until I joined my French class that I experienced the joys (or at least the benefits) of reading aloud for myself. When she gives us a text to read, my teacher, Sandy, reads it aloud or plays a recording of it first. That gives us a chance to note the pronunciation of key words, mark down the liaisons, and figure out what the text was actually about. Then, she assigns pieces of the dialogue or text for each of us to read aloud. We each read our bit and then listen as the other students read theirs. We recycle the same text over and over until every student has had a chance to read. Sandy interrupts our reading to correct our pronunciation as necessary. As a student, I feel quite comfortable with this activity. I feel well prepared for the phonological aspect of the task, and I already understand what I am reading, so I don’t feel stressed out in the slightest when I am asked to read aloud.

The consequence of this experience has been a limited return to reading aloud in my own classes. When we come across a dialogue or text in our course materials, I read it first and then the students take turns reading one or two sentences each. Sometimes I call on students randomly, and sometimes we go around the room. It gives me a chance to hear students’ pronunciation and address any issues they have, and it appears to increase their confidence as well.

“Is Reading Aloud Allowed?”

However, this evolution of my teaching practice had all been more or less subconscious until I read an article in the latest edition of English Teaching Professional by Jeremy Harmer called, “Is Reading Aloud Allowed?” In it, he debates the pros and cons of reading aloud and ultimately argues that there are many benefits to incorporating this activity into the ESL lesson plan. He makes the case for reading aloud as a diagnostic instrument (back to having students read bits of my syllabus on the first day, then) and as a tool for helping students to make connections between words and phrases and the sounds associated with them.

In addition, he also contends that reading is an actual real-life skill. As a PhD student, I use reading aloud when I have to read a dense academic text. I read it aloud to myself a couple of times and rely on the pausing to help me decipher the message of the text. In my experience, this is also a useful strategy for students who face the difficult academic texts from standardized tests. Being able to chunk the texts into manageable bits can help students to more quickly and easily understand what it is they are reading.

I am convinced that reading aloud has an important place in our classrooms. When done carefully, it can be a powerful tool and can help students hone reading and pronunciation skills they otherwise might not be able to. However, Harmer insists that the text that students read aloud has to be carefully chosen, they need to understand what it is they are reading, and they need time to listen and/or rehearse before being asked to do it in front of the class.

Harner, J. (2009) “Is Reading Aloud Allowed?” English Teaching Professional, 65.

Monday, December 7, 2009

The Ryhthm of English Grammar

By Tamara Jones
ESL Instructor, SHAPE Language Center, Belgium

Does this exchange sound familiar to you?

   Student: I can go.
   Listener: You can’t go?
   Student: Yes, I CAN go.

The frustration experienced by students when they believe they are speaking clearly and grammatically correctly, but they are still misunderstood, is palpable in this kind of conversation. However, there are some simple, low-cost ways of helping students avoid this kind of frustrating exchange.

All Words Are Not Created Equal

As I said in a previous blog, English is a stress-timed language. This means that not all syllables in English are said with equal stress. Some words convey important information. These content words are stressed; we say them longer, louder and higher than the other words in the sentence. The function words (I call them garbage grammar words, just to make the students laugh) are unstressed. They are said more quietly and weakly. There is a comprehensive list of these words in Melody Noll’s fantastic book, American Accent Skills: Intonation, Reductions and Word Connections (2007). (If you are not teaching in the USA, don’t be scared off by the word American in the title; her tips work for all kinds of English pronunciation!)

Main verbs are usually stressed because they tend to give essential information. However, auxiliary verbs, including modal verbs, are usually not stressed, unless they are negative. Hence, the conversation above occurs frequently. Students whose first language is syllable-timed want to pronounce each word clearly when they speak English, but native English speakers’ ears are trained to only listen to key words. Conversely, when a native speaker says something like,

     “By 3:00, I will have been studying for more than 6 hours, so I’ll be ready for a break.”

The student hears,

     “… I’lluhbin studying …”,

which sounds unlike any vocabulary word the student has ever studied.

So, What Does This Mean For Grammar Teachers?

It is not enough for us to simply teach the structure of the language. We also need to make sure that students can actually use the language successfully in a conversation. One important part of this is being familiar with the role stress plays at the sentence level. We need to make sure that when we cover target structures in our classes, we also prepare students for the stress or lack of stress they will hear and be expected to use in the world outside the grammar class. 

The Glorious Elastic Band – Part Two

As I mentioned, a few weeks ago, I wrote a blog extolling the virtues of the elastic band, as it is particularly helpful when introducing students to the pronunciation of regular verbs in the simple past tense. However, its usefulness does not end there. In fact, elastic bands can also help students master the pronunciation of the perfect and progressive tenses as well as modal verbs like can. I give an elastic band to each student in the class and then we read sample sentences. We pull hard on the elastic band when we say the stressed words and relax it when we say the unstressed words. This helps students to really feel the difference between the two kinds of words. 

A Round of Applause

Another wonderful strategy for helping students to internalize the rules of sentence stress is clapping. Meyers and Holt (2001) demonstrates this technique clearly in their videos. On the board or using a PowerPoint presentation, I write the key words of a sentence. For example, for a sentence like, “I haven’t been able to wash my hair.” I would write the words haven’t, able, wash, and hair on the board. Then, students and I chant the words and clap in rhythm several times until the students are repeating and clapping in unison. Once the students have the hang of that, I add in the other words, writing them in a small script and crowding them between the main content words. The students then read the entire sentence while clapping, but they should not change the rhythm of their original clapping. In other words, students accelerate through the unstressed words to fit them in between the stressed words and claps. This activity is a lot of fun and efficiently reminds students of the importance of speeding up on the unstressed words and slowing down on the stressed words.

Incorporating pronunciation into grammar lessons needn’t be stressful (pardon the pun) for teachers or students. Some simple strategies for helping students feel the rhythm of English can make all the difference. There is no reason to neglect this important part of the process. After all, most students aren’t studying English just so they can fill in blanks on worksheets. They want to USE English easily to communicate. Not being aware of the norms of sentence stress can hinder them in their goal. However, students most likely won’t master the skill overnight. Applying English stress to their speech will take months or even years of conscious effort. Our job, it seems to me, is to show them the path and help them along.

Meyers, C. & Holt, S. (2001). Pronunciation for success. Weston: Aspen Productions.

Noll, M. (2007). American Accent Skills: Intonation, Reductions and Word Connections. Oakland, CA: The Ameritalk Press.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Simple Past’s Best Friend . . . The Rubber Band?

By Tamara Jones
ESL Instructor, SHAPE Language Center, Belgium 

There is always at least one of me at the bottom of your purse, bag, backpack or briefcase. I come free when you buy celery and when your newspapers are delivered. I am everywhere, but I also hold a magical power for students when it comes time to learning the simple past tense. What am I? An elastic band!

English is Stressful

Have you ever heard students say that they “miss-ed” their families or that they “watch-ed’ TV last night? On one hand, it is great that the students know there should be an -ed ending with simple past regular verbs. On the other hand, their mispronunciation of these verbs in the past may cause listeners to have difficulty understanding them. English is a stress-timed language. This means that pronouncing the correct number of syllables (or beats) in a word is key to “listener-friendly pronunciation.” (Gilbert, 2008). If a student adds an extra syllable or doesn’t pronounce enough syllables, listeners may have a hard time understanding the word.

Pronunciation and the Simple Past

After we have covered the “grammar-y” part of the lesson – the formation and use of the simple past – I show a slide in my PowerPoint presentation that shows the three different pronunciations of the -ed ending: /d/, /t/ and /ɪd/. Specifically, in verbs that end with a voiced consonant sound (/b/, /g/, /ʤ/, /v/, /δ/, /z/, /m/, /n/, /ŋ/, /l/, /r/, and /y/) and any vowel sound, the -ed ending is pronounced /d/. In verbs that end with an unvoiced consonant sound (/p/, /k/, /ʧ/, /f/, /θ/, /s/ and /ʃ/), -ed is pronounced /t/. Finally, with verbs that end with the sounds /t/ and /d/, -ed is pronounced /ɪd/.

Then, I let my students in on The Big Secret. The biggest difference between the three endings is that with /d/ and /t/ endings, we don’t add an extra syllable, but with /ɪd/, we do. Students are unfailingly delighted to learn that they don’t need to sweat the difference between /t/ and /d/ as long as they get the syllable count right. (In my opinion, students and teachers who are obsessed with exact pronunciation are the only ones who really care whether the final -ed is pronounced /d/ or /t/. Listeners certainly don’t, because the speaker can be easily understood regardless of which of the two endings they pronounce.)

Enter the Rubber Band!

When I am teaching the simple past tense of regular verbs, I bring enough elastic bands to give one to each student in the class. Students pull once on the rubber band when the verb has only one syllable, like pushed and moved, but they pull twice for verbs that have an extra syllable when the final -ed is added, like wanted and added. For these verbs, students pull hard on the rubber bands when they say the stressed syllable and only pull it a little when they say the rest of the verb. This helps them to feel the difference between a one-syllable past tense verb, like laughed and a two-syllable verb, like waited. Gilbert (2004) suggests that the elastic bands be thick, the thicker the better. Pulling on a thick elastic band requires more effort, which helps students to internalize this pronunciation skill. Students have lots of fun with this activity, and getting students laughing and moving in a grammar class is always a good thing!

Gilbert, J. (2004). “Exchanging thoughts on teaching pronunciation.” Paper presented at TESOL 2004 in Long Beach, CA, USA.

Gilbert, J. (2008). Teaching Pronunciation. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Acquiring Proficiency in English: How Much Does Geography Matter?

By Ela Newman
Instructor in Developmental Writing and in ESL
University of Texas at Brownsville

I have been following with genuine interest Dorothy and Richard’s discussion on the possibility of acquiring a “full command” of English while not living in an English-speaking country. I’d like to enter that discussion by focusing on some of the issues addressed by my fellow-bloggers. 

First off, is the terminology that we use to describe the level of language command important?

Yes. Although saying that some learner has a “full command” or “mastery” of English may suffice in many contexts, I would suggest using the term “proficiency.” Academics in English language studies at the University of Cambridge have employed this term to designate success on Cambridge ESOL’s most advanced exam: The Certificate of Proficiency in English exam, and to categorize exercises and entire textbooks designed to prepare learners for that exam. The Cambridge exams are globally recognized and the term is very serviceable. According to exam materials, those who have earned the Certificate can comprehend practically everything they hear and read, can discuss complex topics “without awkwardness,” and can “express themselves precisely and fluently.” It is an exam designed for those language learners whose level of English is similar to “that of an educated native speaker.” (See .) 

Does studying English in a non-English-speaking country mean only memorizing vocabulary and grammar rules?

Absolutely not. Activities focused on successful and meaningful communication as well as on context-specific language dominate in English-language classes offered in many countries, at least many European ones. In Poland, for example, both oral and written parts of the standardized National Secondary-School Exit Exam in English include many tasks which assess students’ communicative competence. Judging from the contents of the textbooks which are most popular in Poland, The Czech Republic, Germany, and the Scandinavian countries, one may conclude that it is effective communication, not “memorization of vocabulary and grammar rules” that constitutes the core of English-language curricula in these and some number of other countries. 

Can you acquire native-like pronunciation without living in an English-speaking country? 
Yes. It is widely recognized that good instruction focuses not only on fundamental grammar and vocabulary as well as register-specific grammar and vocabulary (including slang), but also on phonetics (including emphases on consonant and vowel articulation, stress patterns, and intonation units). In Polish schools (and I’m quite sure that my home country is not an exception here), all those components are regularly part of English language curricula adopted in programs designed for all levels of language competency. Most textbooks, even those for beginning learners, devote a section of every unit to practicing phonetics. Those studying to be teachers of English are very often required to take a three-year course in phonetics. 

Can you be exposed to enough English to become in other ways proficient in the language without living in an English-speaking country?

Available evidence suggests so. There is no doubt that exposure to spoken and written English is required for the internalization of the language, and that English language input is generally more abundant in countries where it is spoken as a first language by the majority of the population. There is also no doubt that variation in register and idiom is concentrated in those countries. However, sufficient exposure to spoken and written English (both formal and more colloquial English) is demonstrably available in places beyond the borders of those countries. Where school and university curricula demand that English is the medium of instruction and all oral and written exercises, all oral and written exams, all graduate papers, and all theses must be done in English (as is customary in many Departments of English in European countries), the amount of exposure is routinely sufficient. English is mandatory in English language classrooms, but it is also commonly read, heard, and spoken in public arenas in those countries, where, I think it’s fair to say non-native speakers of English meet with native speakers of English more than occasionally. It hardly needs mentioning that various media, both monodirectional (e.g. television) and bidirectional (e.g. the Internet, with its email, chat groups, and Skype), add to the amount of English language input available in such countries. 

Is exposure to sufficient English language input- without studious attention to patterns of English grammar, vocabulary, and idiom- enough to guarantee proficiency?

Of course not. Untold millions of people have relocated to the United States from non-English-speaking countries and, after years or decades of copious exposure remain functional but less than proficient in the language. On the other hand, there have been those who have lived in non-English-speaking countries and who have been sufficiently devoted to becoming proficient, and have achieved proficiency in English. 

What are the keys to becoming proficient in English?

Immersion in the language is crucial, but clearly learners do not need to relocate to an English-speaking country to be “flooded” with English. Equally important is that the exposure is exploited in the name of English language internalization and proficiency. Attentive, devoted, motivated, and active learners take advantage of much of the input they receive.

Some years ago, a Polish friend of mine who had never taken any formal English classes, but who had “devoured” textbooks, listened to tapes and to BBC radio, watched BBC TV channels and movies, surrounded himself with reference books, and often spoke to himself in English, passed intensely competitive university entrance exams (both oral and written) with scores which were among the very hig
hest registered by that (large, Polish) university that year (and native-speakers were on those exam panels.) The scores of the only two candidates who had actually lived in an English-speaking country (England) were nowhere near as high as his scores. Was he an exception?
I have also known more than a few fellow-teachers who learned English as a foreign language in Poland and who are often mistaken for native speakers by their British or American colleagues. Are they also exceptions? Perhaps not. Are there plentiful examples of proficient non-native English speaker-writers who are from Germany, Holland, Denmark, Sweden, Switzerland, and elsewhere and who have briefly or never lived in an English-speaking country?
Quite likely.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Another Perspective on Dorothy Zemach’s “Advice to a Young Iranian English Teacher”

By Richard Firsten 

Retired ESOL Teacher, Teacher-Trainer, Columnist, Author

I enjoyed reading Dorothy’s article written in response to some questions posed to by an Iranian English teacher who she’s named “Ibrahim.” You can’t help but feel the nurturing and supportive tone that Dorothy has created in it. One of the things I’ve always liked about most of the teachers I’ve met in our field is this caring quality that has led to teachers in other disciplines sometimes labeling us in good fun as “mother hens.” Well, that’s fine; I don’t mind that label at all, and I have a hunch that Dorothy doesn’t mind it either!

While I appreciate many things in Dorothy’s article, I’m afraid I have to take exception with some of them. I’d like to comment, right off, on two points Dorothy makes:
  • “… it absolutely is possible to be an excellent user of English … without ever visiting the US or England or any other native English-speaking country.”
  • “I’ve personally met enthusiastic and talented groups of teachers in countries such as Ukraine, Libya, and Algeria who had excellent English language skills … who had never left their own country before or met a native speaker of English before me.” 
Let’s Define “Excellent English Language Skills” 
It would be helpful to have a definition of what it means to say that somebody is “an excellent user of English” or has “excellent English language skills.” Such phrases are really quite open to interpretation, but I’m going to assume they mean mastery of the language. There may be some very rare individuals out there who can master English without ever living in the US or UK or other English-speaking country, but I would say that the vast majority of people, no matter how much they apply themselves, could not accomplish this for many reasons.  
Stress and Intonation Critical to Mastery
First, mastery of English does not simply deal with memorization of vocabulary and grammar rules. How can a person living in a non-English-speaking country possibly learn the nuances and subtleties of the prosodic or suprasegmental features that English has? I’m talking about the importance of stress and intonation, which can be very influential in what a sentence means. As for stress, say the following out loud and you’ll see what I mean:
  1.  Have you ever seen a catfish?
  2.  Have you ever seen a cat fish?
As for intonation, say the next two out loud:
  1.  (driver talking to passenger) What’s that in the road ahead?
  2.  (same driver talking to same passenger) What’s that in the road, a head?
Forgetting about the written form in which spacing and punctuation play all-important roles, if you’ve applied English stress and intonation properly, I imagine you’ve come up with very different renditions for those utterances! Try learning these subtleties if not surrounded all the time by English speakers. 

What About Cultural Aspects and Register?

 Second, what about all the cultural aspects of a language and the matter of communicative competence? How can a person not living in an English-speaking environment possibly learn the intricacies of register to know which vocabulary or phraseology is appropriate in different situations with different people, and deal with various levels of formality and informality? On top of that, we have the problem of applying current cultural trends to certain lexical items, things that it would be nearly impossible to be exposed to and master when not living in the context in which such things are used:
  1. (student walking into a university administrator’s office) “Hiya, Dean. Wussup?”
  2. (same student entering his dorm room, seeing his roommate) “Hiya, Dean. Wussup?”If you’re aware of communicative competence, you cringe upon hearing the first utterance, but you’re fine with the very same utterance in the second context. I don’t believe such things can be mastered outside of an English-speaking/cultural environment. 
Conrad and Mehta Learned English in English-Speaking Environments
 As for Joseph Conrad and Ved Mehta, some points need clarification. Joseph Conrad, whose native language was Polish, started to learn English when he was around 29 years old, but he didn’t do this in Poland; he did it in an English-speaking environment. He arrived in England while working on a ship and started learning English there and while in the company of completely English-speaking crews on board various vessels. It’s interesting to note, by the way, that even though Conrad mastered written English and became a great novelist in the English language, he never lost his thick Polish accent, and I have serious doubts about how well he ever mastered the prosodics of English.
Ved Mehta was born to an upper-class family in British-controlled India. Because of these two facts, I’m sure he was exposed to English at an early age.
Moreover, he started living in a completely English-speaking environment at the age of 15, so I don’t think we can use Mr. Mehta as a role model for people who want to learn English as fully as possible yet stay within the confines of their own non-English-speaking countries. This is not to say that Joseph Conrad and Ved Mehta didn’t achieve great success in mastering English. They did. But I think their stories support my argument quite well.
Is Language a Window into How People Think? 
Finally, let’s look back at one other point Dorothy makes:
“Would Americans be less afraid of Iranians if more of us studied Farsi in school? I believe so. Language is an essential clue to how people think and experience the world and express their thoughts and emotions. It’s not a question of adapting to another culture, or being overcome by a different system, but of understanding other ways.”
I don’t think Americans, on the whole, are afraid of Iranians; I think they’re afraid of Iranian politicians and their mindset. I can’t agree that learning a language outside of where that language is spoken will allow us to understand “other ways” except, perhaps, on a superficial level. Yes, we might gain insights into how speakers of a particular language think or view the world around them, but not to any meaningful extent. 
I remember when I was deep into learning Spanish. I wanted to know how to say I dropped it. I was told to say Se me cayó, which I found very odd because that basically means “It fell from me.” On another occasion, I wanted to know how to say I forgot and was told to say Se me olvidó, which means something very hard to put into English like “It got forgotten from me.” It dawned on me that in both cases, Spanish isn’t letting the speaker take responsibility for those acts: I didn’t drop it – it fell from me. It did that, not me. And I didn’t forget anything – it got forgotten. This is an interesting psychological observation on the part of an English speaker learning Spanish, but it’s certainly not a way to judge how all Spanish speakers think. No, just learning a language doesn’t necessarily allow us to understand “other ways.”
Advice for Ibrahim

So, Ibrahim, all I can say to you is that I hope one day you’ll be able to live for a decent period of time in an English-speaking country. Perhaps you should consider Canada. I don’t know how tough the Canadians would be on giving you a visa for an extended stay, but you might want to find out from the Canadian embassy. There’s no doubt in my mind that you will become a much more fluent speaker of English (in all aspects that such a description includes) once you’ve had the opportunity to live in a country where you’ll be surrounded night and day by English and be immersed in one of the cultures that influence the language so heavily. 

Good luck to you, Ibrahim. And thank you, Dorothy, for having given Ibrahim such a nurturing and supportive answer.