Quite often teachers of English as a Foreign Language find themselves between a rock and a hard place concerning teaching pronunciation. If they’re native speakers they hesitate in constantly correcting their students fearing they’ll pass an overbearing image and many times thinking … “well… I can understand them … whatever”. If the teacher is a nonnative speaker of English they might feel insecure about their own pronunciation or even worse… they might not be aware of the proper pronunciation of specific sounds in English which are different from their mother tongue.
So… why bother teaching pronunciation?
Students want and need to speak clearly.
Their phonological awareness has an impact on all areas of their language learning besides speaking: reading, writing, vocabulary, etc
But what’s the right pronunciation? What’s a standard accent? British RP? Only 3% of Brits actually speak it. American Midwestern? What about Mississippi or Alabama? How about global English?
That’s why it’s important to know why your students are learning English.
The teacher must then focus on speech comprehension rather on the student’s accent being good, bad or proper.
How to do it? Teaching pronunciation works best a little during every lesson instead of once a week or whatever frequency students have.
“The teacher must”, as Richard Cauldwell wrote, ‘focus on:
the greenhouse: isolated words.
the garden: mixing and growing words together, linking words.
The jungle: where everything is mixed”
The best way will be to integrate pronunciation with other skills and lots of repetition (practice).
In conclusion, our insecurity about the way we speak can be managed by raising our awareness and practicing to the student’s heart’s content.
N.B – Many thanks to Laura Patsko with her great YouTube videos on the subject of pronunciation – https://youtu.be/yyga6vIAroE
This past week a student of mine was in New York City and told me he’s discovered the joys of eavesdropping. He said he’s enjoying the musicality of the natives minding their own business while he listens in.
A few weeks ago the same happened to me in Portuguese. I was enjoying my coffee and slice of orange Chocottone at Casa Bauducco when I overheard two men talking about the use of English for travel and for business.
They were saying: “when you’re traveling on holiday you use English just to ask ‘how much?’ ‘Where?’ Etc your needs and objectives are different from professional or academic purposes.”
But when you have to use English to transmit and explain your work, or the challenges of attending a conference or just keeping the language alive.
They went on to say: “When you want to take a course in English you need to be able not only to understand a lecture but to take notes, to write your own reports and to express your own points of view.”
Now English as a second language has reached almost the same requirements of the mother tongue. It’s not enough to understand what someone is saying, you must also be able to explain what that person said. Not enough to understand a word in the midst of a shower of words… at the end you won’t have the essence of what was said.
so the role of the teacher and the students’ expectations must be constantly revisited so that delivery of what students want and need really takes place.
Assessoria em Idiomas
Language Lessons and Coaching, Translations, Interpreting
I guess the question “does technology belong in the classroom?” has been amply discussed and satisfactorily answered with a resounding YES! (kept some reservations). Both teachers and students have already grasped the idea that they can use technology as a learning tool. Not just the cool new thing.
So why have publishers been so resistant and slow to adopting e-textbooks? Yesterday a student of mine called my attention again to the outdated status of English coursebooks – which in my humble opinion are the most advanced in terms of volume of sales and global reach. Eduardo has finished his New Headway Elementary 15th edition (just kidding) and is ready to start the Pre-intermediate level. So I volunteered to buy him the book because as a teacher I get a 10% discount from the book distributor here in Brazil, SBS. Well, the coursebook and workbook (16th edition) come with CDs for the student’s home study. Fine. But the first thing Eduardo said was: “Teacher, today’s computer notebooks not even include a Cd drive. Why can’t I just access it online or at least use a memory stick?”
An e-textbook is weightless, has multiple functionalities, can be read anytime, anywhere, allows for interactivity, can bring enhanced tools in audio, video, sound effects, games, quizzes, tests, etc.
So why are e-textbooks so unappealing?
First, the cost. Secondly the quality of the content must be improved. Another huge downside is compatibility. The same e-textbook would have to work perfectly well across a broad range of devices and operating systems. Let’s not forget the DRM – Digital Rights Management which tries to combat piracy.
The publishers allege that there still is an enormous digital divide in the world – broadband and wifi may be restricted or simply nonexistent in many places. Or the power supply may be simply unreliable and sporadic to keep the electronic devices charged. Software updates also can compromise functionality. Also, an ebook requires at least a computer. The same way that in the past language learners had to use a record/cassette/cd player to take advantage of the resources accompanying their textbooks.
Another contributor to the digital divide is that there are still teachers and students (especially those over 30) who lack the expertise on how to use the technology present in e-textbooks.
I would love to see giant publishers like Oxford University Press, Macmillan, Pearson and others to start introducing e-textbooks at a fair price and high quality which would undoubtedly be great incentives for teachers and students to adopt them.
Don’t hold your breath.
Earlier this month, my 14-year old niece, Duda, showed me her English textbook – given for free to all students at her state public school.
The textbook is beautifully designed with lots of reading and listening activities plus speaking activities. I would say it is on a par with any coursebook available on the international market (including the fact that there is no e-book available – but that’s a theme for another post).
One thing that intrigued me is that Duda told me her English teacher does not use the book. The teacher gives some extra book activities.
Could students use the books for self-study? Yes, but the fact that the books are 100% in English it can be discouraging especially when they have to resort to the dictionary just to understand the instructions.
A good thing (contrary to the previous edition) is that the book includes the transcript of the audio CD.
Why does the teacher avoid using the textbook? Many reasons can arise:
- She doesn’t like the way the book presents the themes.
- She lacks the necessary training to use the book in large classrooms
- The book brings irrelevant material for the students.
- The book brings way too difficult material for the students.
In an ideal world and school the English teacher could perfectly coordinate with the other teachers to define points to be incorporated in her lesson.
For example – history – students are learning about the independence of nations in Latin America
Or geography or science and biology…
English would then stop being one more subject they have to study and would become a tool for the students to learn the other subjects.
But in any different way or situation, the students could have a notebook where they would create their own textbook along the year.
Drawing pictures, pasting photos, taking dictation, reading short articles, grammar drills and exercises that they had been given by the teacher or copied from the board.
- The words and expressions will be tailored to suit YOUR own needs.
- Reduce clutter. You don’t waste time on useless topics.
- You can keep track of your progress.
- Your textbook serves as a reference of everything you’ve learned so far. Whenever you forget something, you can look it up easily.
- You are learning as you’re writing the textbook.
- It’s free.
- You need to create the content yourself. You have to look for the material.
- You are in charge of keeping it organized.
- Your textbook won’t be 100% error-free
Source: Self-Learner – Teach it to yourself http://self-learner.com/write-your-own-language-textbook/
This afternoon, my 8th grade niece came home saying that she had received her English coursebook which included an audio CD but she couldn’t understand the instructions or how to use that material.
I said, “Come on, don’t be lazy, that can’t be that hard. Didn’t you pay attention to your teacher explaining how to use it?” But I must confess: it is difficult. The coursebook assumes that students have had 3-4 years of continuous English instruction so they can understand text and oral instructions. Nothing could be further from the truth. The students can’t simply make heads or tails of what they’re supposed to do. To add insult to injury the text is monolingual and just leaves the students hanging in there – sink or swim.
I’m not just blaming the teachers, who have 30-40 students in a classroom to work with, but I do know many of them are not qualified to teach English as a Foreign Language at all. Some of them not even know how to use the coursebook and no one bothers to explain to their students how to use the CD or to self-study. In some other cases (not just a few – the teacher says to the students: “I’m a teacher of Portuguese and now I’m required to also teach this …. (fill in the blanks) English language”.
Consequence – year after year students finish elementary school and secondary school having learned – hopefully – the verb to be and nothing else.
The government’s initiative to provide quality textbooks is praiseworthy but training on how to use the material is equally essential. That’s the least they can do. I remember my first formal school contact with English was in 6th grade back in 1976. By teacher, very wisely I must say, rejected the use of any textbooks – she developed her own curriculum and used dictations and the blackboard to teach us reading and speaking. I’m telling you this: I learned much more during those 9 months of class than in the next 2 years with another teacher who made us buy the coursebook – which was not bad – we used the same book in the 7th and 8th grade and not even then did we manage to complete the syllabus for the book that was geared to 5th graders.
The problem with the teaching of foreign languages in schools won’t be solved until it ceases being an academic subject and becomes a tool for the teaching of other subjects. My suggestion would be to require more user-friendly textbooks (clear bilingual instructions, transcript of the audio activities) which could be used for self-studying.
Meanwhile, the educational system will continue sending to private language teachers, tutors and language institutes hundreds of thousands of frustrated and scarred students.
My apologies to you, Maria Eduarda – Since I’m sure she can’t understand this in English (Peço-te perdão, Maria Eduarda).
Whenever I’m talking to a prospective student, he or she says:
“My listening is not as good as it should be”, or “I just can’t understand what’s being said”. “Give me the text of what’s being said and I’ll understand everything.”
Well … life doesn’t come with subtitles so, … what should you do if you want to improve your listening skills in the language you’re trying to learn?
Here are 3 simple steps – which if followed will most certainly help you out:
- Listen everyday – and I mean it. It’s way easier said than done. Especially if you’re not living in the country where your second language is spoken, you will have to go an extra mile to listen to it. A little and often will work wonders. You may ask how much is a little – well it will depend on your time availability. But I’d say that anyone can squeeze 15 minutes of their BUSY day to listen to some of the language their learning.
- How to listen – podcasts are a great idea – available anytime, anywhere. You do not necessarily need to use podcasts on learning Spanish or French or English but podcasts produced in that language. Of course, if your L2 level is below intermediate you will have to choose podcasts where the audio quality is good and the content is appropriate to your level. Moreover, if the speakers are way too fast you can slow down their speech by just pressing a button. Isn’t technology something wonderful? It is my own experience listening to podcasts for nearly 10 years that when you have 2 people chatting the listening becomes more entertaining and pleasant. Monologues tend to be sooooo boring. More than 2 people can get confusing on identifying all the speakers especially if some don’t have a clear voice.
- Read and listen – many audio / video broadcasts have a transcript choice. For example, CNN and NPR provide tons of transcripts of different shows and you can listen to them whenever / wherever you wish and read the transcript to check the parts you didn’t get. Also, many kindle e-books have an additional feature that is the professional recorded audio version available – on Audible or equivalent. So you can listen and read the text – alternating. Or read first and then listen. And then go to another section and first listen and then read.
He who has ears listen to what the teacher has to say to the learner.
Get rid of your foreign accent? Quite often students approach me with that question.
First, you’ve got to be aware of your limitations and set “realistic” goals.
We can talk here about accent elimination – when you will be talking exactly like a native speaker as long you stick to that corner of the world forever – or we can be talking about accent reduction – ranging from communicating clearly with the people around you knowing you’re not from their village but not being able to figure out which village you come from.
Some people (a few I’d dare say) have a special gift for impersonating another language as if they were acting before an audience (channeling another accent). But most mortals can be content with being clearly understood and focusing on something else.
I honestly think that the second path is more realistic. A language learner’s goal must be to be able to communicate clearly and accurately (within certain parameters).
How can you achieve that? First, start exposing yourself – no, not to children on a playground – don’t be a pervert! Expose yourself to different accents – listen, repeat, shadow others. Record yourself and play it back. Compare. Evaluate.
See that not only isolated words sound ok but practice linking words. Make clear sentences. Follow the rhythm and intonation of the language. There is a musicality to the language that will make life much easier for you if you start “singing” to the right tune.
I know, I know, some people can’t even hum “Happy Birthday to you.” I’m not saying it’s going to be easy but remember that sometimes we’re making progress but we don’t feel like it. But other people can tell.
I remember when I started dabbing my feet in Teaching English as a Foreign Language here in Brazil – the owners of a little language school near Paulista Avenue told me during a hiring interview: “Your accent is hard to pinpoint. Some words sound more British other times more American”.
And that was who I was at that time. My only international experience had been to America, the music was American but the radio was BBC shortwave. And after I started working with them, I started using the textbook American Streamline series and every week they’d say – ” oh, your English has improved a lot.” Even though I couldn’t think of anything I’d done to improve except teaching a few classes the past week.
And even today, after spending a few months in Ireland, people in America will say – “oh some words sound Irish”, but the moment I arrive at the immigration point at Shannon Airport the officer tells me – “you’ve got an American accent”. There! Don’t try to please everybody. Just be happy with what you’ve accomplished. You’ve come a long way and enjoy being a citizen of the world.
So, get those lazy ears of yours working and make that tongue positively productive.
With the ubiquitous presence of the internet there are tons of resources online for people willing to learn a foreign language to study for free. So why would anyone be willing to pay a teacher for lessons?
There are some people who can really learn on their own – I am one of them. Regarding how I learned English, I never paid a private teacher or language school. A big factor was money and lack thereof – there simply wasn’t any funding to hire a teacher no matter how low his or her fee. I compensated that with lots of passion for the language being daily in contact with it by listening to the radio and reading books and magazines. Moreover, some people find it easier to learn a language than others.
But as I developed my career as a teacher I had to attend teaching training courses and programs where I could identify and fix many of my faults and lack of knowledge which had been preventing my full development.
Here are some reasons why professional help can make the difference in your learning:
- A teacher will help you identify your language level and develop strategies to make progress to the next level;
- A good teacher (emphasis on good) will equip you with relevant up-to-date material appropriate to your level. A teacher will provide you with quality material and practice. Many online videos and materials are outdated and with a very low quality;
- A teacher will highlight some important points you must correct and avoid some mistakes. The teacher will provide a reference for the student on his language intelligibly, pronunciation, vocabulary collocation, etc;
- You will be able to find answers to your questions;
- Even if you’re dating or married to a native speaker of the language you’re learning quite often they will not be very patient with your learning process. They won’t know how to correct you and even worse they may end up mocking you and dismissing you as a “silly Brazilian“. (Of course, it’s a whole new story if you’re dating your English teacher 😜)
To sum it all up, to have a private instructor will be an invaluable tool, but it will not discard your active role in the learning process.
Every new year many people make a resolution to learn a foreign language moved by guilt for not succeeding at that in the previous year or just in search for the cure of their hangover (or other more respectable reasons). You, dear reader, may fill in the blanks.
Many go to the language-learning sections at their local bookstore (yes, there are still some of those left around) in search for the book with a mixture of miraculous and magical strategies to enable them to speak English, French, Spanish or Mandarin overnight.
By the following week many will realize that no matter how many books and language courses they buy on CD, DVD or online they will sit around gathering dust in a darker corner of their homes and offices before the end of the month.
Those failed attempts can be fixed or prevented, though.
How? Speaking and listening is the key
Surround yourself with LIVING language material: Listening resources play a major part of learning – be they videos, or radio, or podcasts.
Even without understanding – it’s passive learning – it will help you identify the “music” of your target language. But it will take time.
Let me tell you the example of my “niece-in-law”, Ingrid. As many Brazilians she basically knows the verb to be (present tense) in English. However, after her first child was born 2 months ago she decided that she would help her boy learn English and she would do whatever necessary in the process. I’d advised her to play children’s stories in English for the baby to get familiar with the sounds of the English language and she started listening to them as well. I believe that exclusive audio sources would be better than the TV with so many visual distractions. Conclusion: 2 months later she’s speaking some English with great fluency and her ears have become better trained to identify the sounds and reproduce them. And her 2-month-old baby, João Paulo, is already crying in English – no more “buááá” but “waaaahhhhh” – Just kidding, sort of).
Another strong point is that Ingrid is not afraid of trying to speak and now she is moving towards a pre-intermediate level, without having opened a “language course book”.
So to get your feet wet in your target language remembers:
1. When listening – echo practice – repeat phrases and words you hear, mimic them / parrot them. Be a “fool” on purpose.
2. Establish a regular time to practice – Saturday morning when making coffee and preparing your breakfast, laundry, or whatever. If you have to go shopping make your shopping list in English / play with language / mess around in a creative way. Explore the language. Try to listen to authentic material at least 5 times a week.
Different folks different strokes
3. How would you answer to the questions / interact / comment to what you’re listening whether a podcast, or radio, or YouTube? Talk to yourself in your target language – create an inner monologue
Other people learn best when they’re reading, but that’s a theme for another blog post.
Special thanks to Luke’s English Podcast – episode 407 – Reflections on Language Learning http://teacherluke.co.uk/2016/12/07/407-reflections-on-language-learning-working-as-a-translator-interview-with-kristina-from-russia-winner-of-the-lep-anecdote-competition-2016/
Happy New Year and Happy Language Learning in 2017