Language Practice into Teaching Practice

A colleague and I were recently discussing the issue of which aspects of our professional practice as language instructors are informed by our formal training, which by our classroom teaching experience and which by our own personal experience as learners and users of additional languages. The topic came up in regards to the issue of the acquisition of metaphorical competence. For both of us, our own experiences of the process of becoming aware of the metaphorical schemata we hold in our L1, and then overcoming those to fully acquire metaphorical competence in other languages greatly informs how we approach teaching from the most basic structures to collocations, phrasal verbs, and idioms.

Anyway, I’ve been doing a lot of travel and work in one of my additional languages lately, doing a lot of meetings and presentations in Spanish across Latin America. This has also made me reflect on how much of my teaching is informed by my own experiences in learning and using additional languages. Very practical strategies for learning and communication are another area that I draw on, sharing my own strategies with my students. There are the things we always advise our students to do—we all have our old chestnuts—but it’s good to have a reminder every so often of some of the real-life challenges that may come up and some practical advice on how to cope.

Here is what has stood out for me lately:

Predict and Prepare

One mantra I always emphasize when working with advanced users of academic English preparing for academic presentations, conferences or their thesis defence is predict and prepare. In advance of any particular event or context where they will have to talk about their research or discuss ideas in their field, they should think hard to predict what they have to talk about, and questions they may be asked or the responses they may have to give. Then, I advise them to actually sit down and prepare a list of the key words, concepts, terminology, expressions they will need to draw on in doing all of the above. They should not just make a simple list, but include common synonyms or collocations and related word forms, as well as pronunciation. Most people are used to the concept of rehearsing presentations, but I encourage students to also practice smaller-scale or more informal sections of these communicative events, such as Q and A responses, answers to certain predicted interview questions, and rebuttals to criticisms of one’s research.

I’ve certainly had to practice what I preach in this respect with regards to my recent work in Spanish. When presenting in English, I don’t tend to script things too closely; I’ll prepare notes or points on a Powerpoint and then speak off of them rather extemporaneously. But in Spanish I’ve been speaking about an area with a lot of specialized terminology, which I’ve really had to research and prepare for. Thankfully, a lot of the questions I receive are easily predictable, so that has helped me focus my preparation.

Regional variation and register

I’ve done work in 5 different Latin America countries in the last two months, each with its own patterns of second person pronoun use (tu, usted, vos, etc.) and variation in register. I’ll try to read up on the use of pronouns in each country before I get there, but there’s only so much an article can tell you. I try to be very sensitive and observant around patterns of use and how they vary in service encounters, meetings and when speaking to and advising  youth and prospective students, where the age factor comes into play. But it’s tricky! I try to err on the side of formality if in doubt.

This has inspired me to put more emphasis on register in my classes. Sometimes there can be a tendency to view English as simple in this respect, as there is only one second person singular pronoun. But I am feeling inspired about spending more time on examining the other ways register, hierarchy, respect, distance, etc. are expressed in English in interpersonal encounters, and encouraging learners to be observant and sensitive to these phenomena. I used to spend a lot of time approaching register in this way when I taught a lot of business English, but in an EAP context I find the focus tends to be on informal vs. academic writing and speech. I think the regional variation in register in Anglophone countries is also important, but as is usual in many ELT materials, the discussion tends to stop at British vs. American differences. Those trying to figure out register in Canada are left to figure it out for themselves! Observation of patterns and sensitivity become all the more important.

Informal Recasts

Awareness of the fact that even recasts in formal classroom settings go ignored most of the time has left me determined to try to listen for them and incorporate them to improve my accuracy, especially of vocabulary. For example, in a conversation with a student, I had used the term biología marítima to refer to marine biology, but he replied using the term biología marina. “Whoops!”, I said to myself, and took note to correct that term in my internal dictionary.

Does awareness of the research around recasts and the fact that they often lead to very little uptake make learners more likely to listen for them, take them in, and therefore make them more likely to be effective? I think it does, and always bring this up in class, especially in speaking and pronunciation classes.

Paraphrasing

Finally, not that there as any doubt, but these experiences have driven home the importance of fluency and confidence (over accuracy) in asserting yourself and being accepted as a user of a particular language. Many people, whether subconsciously or consciously, hold the idea that fluency (interplaying with pronunciation here) in a language reflects your cognitive state. So in real-life professional communicative situations it’s best to just employ any strategies necessary to get on with things, rather than getting hung up on grammatical mistakes or blanking on a particular piece of vocab. Finding time in class not just to discuss these strategies, but to practice them via role plays or other activities is very important.

 

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Talking Accents in The Coast

This one’s from the hometown files. Halifax’s alt-weekly, The Coast, published an article last week entitled Dalhousie’s Accent Clinic Sending Mixed Messages. The sub-heading of the article sums up the piece well: “Improving” a person’s speech by making them sound more like a local assumes a lot about class, power and nationality”. It contains commentary from international students from Kuwait and Nigeria studying in Halifax, along with a Dalhousie University social anthropology prof and a Saint Mary’s University linguistic anthropology prof, along with the director of the Accent Clinic, about several massive and intertwining issues around language and power, race, imperialism, and opportunity.

Overall, I thought it was a good article, and I agree with everything everyone in the article had to say. However, this is such a massive issue, and I think the article showed some gaps that could have been filled in by talking to a few more select people. One major point of view missing from the article is that of choice, opportunity and access to social capital (which I’ll talk about below).

(Full disclosure: in my professional role in the English language programs at Dalhousie we collaborate with the Accent Clinic, giving their info to students who may show speaking and pronunciation issues in English that stem from more serious cognitive, fluency, articulatory or speech problems that are best addressed by a speech-language pathologist. Similarly, if they get someone coming to their clinic wanting to improve their pronunciation, but that person would benefit from simply more instruction and comprehensible input and output in English language in general, they will let them know about the English language and academic English courses and workshops we offer.)

Anyway, so first, yes, all the people interviewed in the article identify the fact that in Canadian society (and other Anglophone societies) there is all kinds of discrimination that happens via language: discrimination against users of different regional and social varieties of English, or users of non-standard English or those whose English proficiency is developing. There is blatant racism against racialized first-language/proficient users of English from countries such as Nigeria that white first-language/proficiency users of English from countries such as England do not face.  Judgements around someone’s English ability and variety plays a well-documented role in employment and educational opportunities. In academia, “linguistic bigotry is among the last publicly expressible prejudices left to members of the Western intelligentsia”, according to linguist Deborah Cameron,; this bigotry doesn’t even seem to be hidden in many cases, and is often veiled in discussions about language standards or aesthetics.

There is a sorry lack of public visibility (audibility?) of different regional and social varieties of English in the media, and this is one contributing factor in a widespread lack of ability of some people in man parts of the country to deal with any other English than their local variety. As one of the folks quoted in the article says, “Haligonians should be more patient with people who may not speak English as a first language. Instead of an accent modification clinic, she says, we need an “accent listening clinic.” I wholeheartedly agree.

There are lots of measures that need to be taken taken to counter discriminatory linguistic attitudes in society, and to increase the general population’s intercultural and multilingual/plurilingual competence; on other words, their ability to deal with different accents and Englishes. The media is one place to start, and articles like this one do a a great job of opening the conversation. Another example from the Coast is their featuring journalist Raja Salim, who seems to be a proficient user of English as an additional language, whose perspective and voice adds a lot to the paper. I think the CBC could do a WAY better job in this area. Linguistic discrimination needs to be addressed in school, in the workplace, and in society in general. And monolingual English speakers in all parts of the world should just learn more languages, in my opinion; that would do wonders for improving attitudes.

Thankfully, there are lots of educators, linguists, academics and activists across Canada and around the world working on these issues (too many to link to here!), doing the hard work to change attitudes and behaviours. This is good work, but it’s hard work and it’s slow work. It’s good to want to change the world, but what about the meantime?

In the meantime, while attitudes and behaviours are being influenced and changed for the better, as long as certain linguistic varieties or elements carry more social prestige and allow access to more social and economic power, people have to be given the choice to access this social capital if they so desire. So if in the current context of 2017 Halifax a certain accent will help you get a better job, or more dates, or get better marks on their in-class presentations, for example, someone should have the opportunity to choose to access this economic and social capital via the Accent Clinic if they want to. Not be forced to, but to be able to choose it if they would like. An English speaker doesn’t just speak one English, they have a repertoire of different styles, dialects and varieties and they can pull out, put on, and play up in different context depending on their goals. I use one variety of English in an academic lecture and a completely different one down at the pub. A user of English as an additional language is no exception; if they want to acquire the particular variety of English they will at the Accent Clinic and employ it in different contexts, why shouldn’t they?

And this was an aspect of the issue missed by the Coast article. Why not talk to an actual student who had chosen to use the Clinic’s services and talk about why they did so? Why not talk to someone at ISANS to comment on the link between accent/pronunciation and the job market in Nova Scotia? ISANS and others are doing great work locally to try to change attitudes, but once again, we’re not there yet, so people have to be given choice and agency in the matter.

There were other aspects of the issue that were missed by the Coast article. One was the distinction between language proficiency, fluency, pronunciation and accent, all of which came up in the article and all of which come into play in terms of social attitudes and potential discrimination, but not all of which are dealt with by the Accent Clinic. The other was the assumption by both the author and several of the people interviewed, that the Accent Clinic uses an approach based on Canadian native-speaker models of English. I don’t know what approach the Clinic uses, but there are many approaches to pronunciation that aren’t based on emulating native speakers, such as English as a Lingua Franca (ELF), or approaches that centre around concepts of mutual intelligibility and functional load. 

Reading Activity: Refugees

Hat tip to my colleague Tony Rusinak, who posted this great poem on his social media today: Refugees, by Brian Bilsten.

REFUGEES

They have no need of our help
So do not tell me
These haggard faces could belong to you or me
Should life have dealt a different hand
We need to see them for who they really are
Chancers and scroungers
Layabouts and loungers
With bombs up their sleeves
Cut-throats and thieves
They are not
Welcome here
We should make them
Go back to where they came from
They cannot
Share our food
Share our homes
Share our countries
Instead let us
Build a wall to keep them out
It is not okay to say
These are people just like us
A place should only belong to those who are born there
Do not be so stupid to think that
The world can be looked at another way

(now read from bottom to top)

Over and above the discussions that it would bring about on the topic of refugees, and the vocabulary work, this poem would make for a wonderful lesson.

  • You could print out two copies, one the way it’s written here, then another with the sentences in bottom-to-top order, and have students punctuate and adjust the capitalization on both, justifying their choices.
  • A follow up, once it were re-punctuated, would be to do some pronunciation work on thought groups, focus words and intonation. Then both versions could be read and compared not just in how the punctuation and capitalization differs, but also in how this affects aspects of pronunciation.
  • With more advanced groups, you could then try to have students write reverse poems. Or maybe palindrome poems.

Brian Bilsten has a ton of other fun and creative poetry on his website; I bet there’s lots more in there to use in the English classroom!

 

Teaching Idea: Phoneme Prevalence Chart

Capture

 I came across this fascinating chart on Twitter a few days ago of the prevalence of phonemes amongst the world’s languages. Though it could come off as intimidating for someone who doesn’t know IPA, I think that it could be interesting to draw upon in the classroom. It could spark conversation around the fact that some sounds that are common and fundamental in English might actually be rare cross-linguistically, and therefore difficult for some.  It could be a confidence booster for someone who is struggling with a certain sound to know that there is a reason why they find it difficult, and that they’re not the only one.

I think it could also be interesting to get students to think of the phonemic inventory of their L1 and think about overlap with English (though as this chart shows phonemic inventory and not phonetic, there could be sounds in English which also appear in students’ L1s which are not phonemes but exist in allophonic distribution). Here is an amazing resource on phonemic inventories of different languages (along with other cultural and linguistic info). Although these resources have been made for speech-language pathologists and audiologists, they could definitely prove handy for an English teacher focusing on pronunciation.

ELF Pronunciation in Brazil

Most of my pronunciation teaching has taken place in inner circle contexts; mainly, Canada. Standard Canadian English is quite present in terms of models of pronunciation and goals for comprehension on behalf of many students in this context, as much of their interaction is with local native speakers.

Soon I’m going to be doing some speaking and pronunciation teaching in Brazil, an expanding circle context that’s new to me, and so I thought I’d do a bit of research on the Lingua Franca Core, Jenkins’ (2000) proposal for the core set of phonological features that are most crucial for intelligibility.

I plan to cross reference list of ELF core features with the list of features of  Brazilian Portuguese that tend to be most salient in Brazilians’ learner English and focus on these in the course.

What I’ve come up with so far is the following. This list of summaries of the LF Core features is from this amazing blog, and I’ve added my comments in bold below each of their  summaries.

1. Consonant sounds

‘Dark /l/’ (also written as [ɫ]) is not necessary.  Speakers can substitute ‘clear /l/’ (possibly preceded by a schwa if the /l/ is syllabic, like at the end of ‘bottle’).  

In particular, I plan to focus on the substitution of /w/ for /l/ that often occurs word finally, and try to encourage a clear /l/ in this context.

• /r/ should be pronounced as in General American pronunciation (technically called a “rhotic retroflex approximant” and written as [ɻ].  It should also be pronounced everywhere it occurs in spelling, as in American English.

Brazilian Portuguese (BP) has two ‘r’:  /ʁ/ and /ɾ/, and while the latter does not impede comprehension, substitution of  /ʁ/ for /ɻ/ in most contexts in English, especially word-initially, can really affect comprehension.  I plan to work on raising awareness of the patterns of ‘r’ in BP and trying to get students to work on producing some kind of rhotic something word-initially and in the coda position.

 

2. Consonant clusters

• If learners have trouble producing consonant clusters, it’s usually OK to insert a very short schwa vowel between consonants, providing they don’t then stress this syllable (e.g. ‘product’ could be pronounced more like [pә’rɒdʌkәtә] by Japanese speakers without damaging intelligibility).

• Similarly, learners can add a short schwa at the end of a word ending with a consonant, provided this does not create another word which it might be confused with (e.g. ‘hard’ sounding like ‘harder’).

Speakers of BP often epenthesize schwas into consonant clusters or on the end of words ending in voiced fricatives or affricates such as /dʒ/, etc. I’ll tryt o focus here on making that schwa as short and unstressed as possible. 

3. Vowels

• Length contrasts must be preserved, e.g. ‘pill’ versus ‘peel.  However, the actual quality of vowels is less important, providing it’s consistent (e.g. don’t keep switching between different pronunciations of the vowel in ‘hat’ so sometimes it sounds like RP [hæt] and sometimes it sounds like New Zealand [het]).

• The length of diphthongs must be preserved but, again, the actual quality of the vowels is less important, providing it’s consistent.

• When a vowel occurs before an unvoiced consonant, it should sound slightly shorter than when it occurs before a voiced consonant.  For example, the vowel in ‘right’ is slightly shorter than the vowel in ‘ride’, and the vowel in ‘kit’ is slightly shorter than the vowel in ‘kid’.

• The /ɜː/ vowel, as in ‘girl’ or ‘first’, must be pronounced accurately.

YES to all these. Vowel length is so important and many learners of English are not aware of it. 

4. Word groups and nuclear stress

• The stream of speech should be divided into meaningful tone units (also known as ‘tone groups’, ‘word groups’ or ‘thought groups’).

• Nuclear stress (i.e. which word is stressed within a ‘tone group’) must placed appropriately, especially for contrast/emphasis.  This means the difference in meaning should be clear between, for example, ‘Let’s meet NEXT Saturday’ and ‘Let’s meet next SATURDAY’.

This aspect of pronunciation was the focus of Jane Setter’s great plenary at IATEFL 2017. It’s relatively straightforward to teach and raise awareness about and I plan to do so with this group. 

I have my work cut out for me!

Now, I know that word stress is not part of the LF Core! But I have observed that a tendency of speakers of BT to carry out schwa reduction on syllables that in stress-timed varieties of English are not reduced (in other words, syllables that are stressed or unstressed but not reduced to schwa), and I have seen it cause misunderstandings in interactions with native speakers and non-native speakers. This makes me inclined to bring it up in class.

Any of you ELF enthusiasts out there have more recommendations for me?