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David Richardson

Pronunciation is Important!

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I'm starting this topic as a spin-off to the discussion in Multimedia books in Education in the E-HELP folder:

http://educationforum.ipbhost.com/index.php?showtopic=3283

I think it'd be better to continue this particular discussion here, rather than there.

I posted this comment in that forum:

"Language teaching in Sweden is generally quite a long way behind the times. The paradigm in schools is still straight grammar-translation (it's like going back to before L.G. Alexander in EFL teaching!), though audio-lingual methods swept in with language labs in the 1960s (because the accompanying materials were mostly produced in the USA) and promptly swept out again, leaving an awful smell behind them, since a lot of money had been invested for very meagre results (does this sound like ICT?).

"One consequence has been that the official experts on language learning here tend to have a huge blind spot when it comes to the teaching and learning of how to pronounce languages. In turn, this means that they tend to have a knee-jerk reaction to anything connected with pronunciation practice, assuming it to be crude behaviourist audio-lingualism."

… and the question for me is: when we know that speaking and listening are much more common than writing and reading, why do language teachers - especially in schools - spend so little time on teaching and practising pronunciation skills?

I'll start giving my answers in later posts, but what do you think?

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YES! Pronunciation is crucial to making oneself understood. I can cite numerous occasions on which I have been stopped by foreign tourists in London asking the way and have had to ask them to repeat the name of the destination several times before I could give them any help. To digest what I have written elsewhere:

CD-ROMs enable pronunciation practice to be achieved more efficiently than the old AAC tape recorder, because you don’t have the problem of rewinding and finding where a recording/playback starts and finishes. As for such a task being descibed as “too behaviouristic”, this is just an ideology. In the early stages of language learning, e.g. in the stage that I am at right now, struggling to get my tongue round unfamiliar sounds in Polish, I need lots and lots of practice, i.e. my behaviour patterns need to be altered. I am happy to accept this.

Automatic Speech Recognition is getting better but it's still no substitute for the human ear.

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Let me start with a few ideas about why pronunciation is so important, and why it needs to be taught systematically (using whatever method you like that works).

1. We take in far more language through our ears than through our eyes (compare the words-per-minute count of a tape, compared with the speed that most people read printed text). We also produce much more through our mouths, than via our fingers on pens or keys. Thus, one trick we use to help students to realise when they've made grammatical errors in their essays is to get them to read them aloud - even if they do this in the bathroom! They always hear the mistakes - but they very seldom see them, because the printed word, courtesy of their computer, has an authority all of its own. If it looks so neat, it can't be wrong!

2. If you don't teach pronunciation systematically, learners will just pick it up as they go along. The problem with this method (which otherwise has a lot going for it) is fossilisation. I.e. learners learn collections of sounds, but they have no idea how the language those sounds represent hangs together. "I gonna" is a case in point. On one level, it sounds as though the foreigner is in command of really idiomatic English … but wait until someone asks a check question: "You gonna come along? Well, are you?" There are lots of problems with fossilised language (which many young Swedes suffer from), but they boil down to the fact that the learner isn't very good at manipulating the language cognitively - only affectively. This means that it's very difficult for them to learn from their mistakes (because they don't know that they might be making them) … which means in turn that their language development stays on a plateau. You can get some hilariously embarrassing consequences as well (hilarious for the listeners, that is, not for the poor perp!). I remember once listening to an American academic trying to persuade a committee to follow his suggestions. The only problem was that he'd learned 'street-Swedish', which just didn't work in the context he was trying to operate in. Imagine sitting in a committee when someone's saying "this is a xxxxing excellent suggestion and if we all just pull our fingers out of our arses we could screw a xxxx-load of money out of those bastards in London". Life would be much more fun … but in the real world, especially when some of the people round the table were 'those bastards', you just end up being marginalised.

3. However, pronunciation is an automatic process, not a cognitive one, so, ultimately, a cognitive understanding of how a particular language is pronounced isn't going to guarantee your automatic performance … which is a shame, because schools and teachers are usually completely at home in the cognitive, but completely at sea with automatic and affective processes. Of which … more another day.

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You might wonder how come Swedes speak reasonably good English anyway. Well, to quote one of the leading lights in language didactics in Sweden (Eie Ericsson, former Gothenburg University) "Swedish pupils learn English despite school, not because of it." I shouldn't complain, really, since it's largely the ineffectiveness of school-based teaching which provides people like me with jobs (since, sooner or later, quite a lot of people need to learn to speak English properly!).

I assume the reason for this concerns the decision to subtitle rather than dub English speaking films and television programmes. Considering the large number of English language media products (including popular music) available in Sweden, I would have thought this has had an important influence on learning the language. One thing that I have noticed from my visits to Sweden is the skill in the way they pronounce English words. I suppose this is one of the advantages of learning a language via the media rather than in the school classroom.

I remember a case of a German girl attending my school in Heathfield who failed her German ‘O’ level. When I asked her why this was (she was for example a good history student) she replied it was because of the teaching she received. In fact, her teacher's German accent was so bad she could not understand what he was saying in lessons.

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I’m just off to Poland for a few days. I’ll let you know if the CD-ROM I have been using to practise pronunciation worked.

A couple of references:

The software advertised at this website, Eyepeak, seems to offer some potential for pronunciation practice:

http://www.eyespeak.info

So does the software at the Sky Software site:

http://www.skysoftwarehouse.com/pronunciation.html

The Encounters series of CD-ROMs (published by Hodder & Stoughton), which we began to work on back in 1993, offered the possibility of role-plays into which students could slot their own recordings. They could make as many attempts as they liked and then save their best effort on to flopy disk, which could then be marked by the teacher:

http://www.camsoftpartners.co.uk/encounters.htm

Feedback from students in an extensive evaluation study indicated that this was one of the most useful aspects of the Encounters series

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I wrote:

I’m just off to Poland for a few days. I’ll let you know if the CD-ROM I have been using to practise pronunciation worked.

Yes, it did! I sued the EuroTalk Talk Now CD-ROM. I was able to understand and pronounce basic courtesies and numbers. A good start!

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Whoops! I meant "I USED the EuroTalk CD-ROM". I have no intention of initiating litigation.

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