Thursday, January 31, 2008

Getting worked up about how to teach pronunciation

There has been a rather heated discussion on the teaching of pronunciation on the TTEdSIG list in which Scott Thornbury took me to task for a couple of statements I made. I'm off to the doctor for a prescription - not against Scott - but I'll copy some of the discussion here when I come back. It's quite fun.

A simple conversation in English

I've mentioned the last lesson was with Nina alone. We worked intensively on the dialogue about the concert and about 15 minutes from the end of the session - I'm as punctilious about a prompt ending as therapists are, I think it is ritualistically important - I had a moment of sheer panic: "What on earth are we going to do now? It was only a couple of seconds, but I could feel my temperature rising. As I've reported, I asked her about her family and although that involved giving her uncle, aunt etc. what I was really trying to do was have a normal conversation, asking the sort of questions one does. With a lot of support from me, including the odd word of Russian that can back to me from the remote past, she managed quite well. I hope as she walked home she might have been thinking: "I've just had a simple conversation in English."

Reception before production

I was "chatting" to my old friend Simon on Skype yesterday who contacted me to send a very useful handout on phonology and pronunciation he uses with his students in the Czech Republic. Simon said that he always starts with work on recognising sounds - reception and then production. I agree that this made sense. Later I was thinking that in one to one (121)situation, though,when you give the instruction: "Say after me" there is reception before production.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Wnat did you think of the concert last night?

Nina was alone today. We bumped into Nina and Anton at a fantastic concert last night, given by a young South Korean violinist, born in Germany. That seemed to good a coincidence not to exploit , so I produced the following simple dialogue.

A: What did you think of the concert last night?

B: I thought it was fantastic. /marvellous

A: I agree. The violinist was extraordinary. I don’t mind admitting that at the end of the third piece there was water in my eyes. Her playing was very, very moving.

B: The pianist was outstanding, too.

First though, I checked with Nina that she wants to work on her pronunciation Yes. So, after a couple of words about how important it is to get vowel sounds correct (conforming to the norm) for the sake of comprehensibility (This in German, course) we worked on:

/i:/ /i/ /e/ /ae/ (Pardon my rough phonetic symbols).

Predictably, /i/ causes a problem.

I made sure she understood, first (German. Don't tell anyone I'm using German) and she had the text, and then, to her initial dismay I made her turn the paper over and we went through the dialogue and I concentrated on getting her to repeat after me, paying attention to everything going i.e. intonation and stress as well as sounds. Then, not wanting to bully, I let her have the text and we took turns, reading out the lines of the dialogue. She asked if we could swap roles and do it a final time.

With 10 - 15 minutes to go I switched to "Free conversation" !!!

Having drilled her in a fake conversation, I wanted to see if we could have a real conversation. "With a little help....." It is amazing how far we got.

We talked about the concert. "What did you think about the concert last night, Nina.
What about the pianist.
I asked her if she played an instrument - no, but Anton plays the violin.
Where was the violinist born?
Where was she born?
Where was Anton born?
I knew she had a son. Where was your son born?
Has Anton got a son? Ho. He has two daughters.
Have you any brothers or sister?
Two sister.
z z z z z

Two sisters.

I also managed to bring in uncle, aunt and mother-in-law because they are off to visit Anton's first wife's mother.

We worked hard but Nina said again that I make her believe she can learn some English. And she liked the fact I correct her, but sparingly: "Anton corrects everything that I get wrong and that makes me angry.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Email exchange with Anon

I wrote asking Anon to expand on his/her statement - Less Dennis more dogme. This is what (s)he wrote:

Let's go back to the first blog entry:

"In the first week *I got them* counting, days of the week, months of the
year etc. and saying after me and then delivering the lines of a simple
monologue and a short dialogue for them to repeat as they drove home"

It was my gloss of that entry that led me to believe you were not letting
the people in the room direct the lessons, and that the language was not
emerging but being derived by one Dennis Newson. I think I could find
other examples if I had time to search. What do you think?

I replied:

How the !!!! can language emerge from a learner who does not know a single word of English?
"Emerge" in such a context sounds insider jargon. I found out what Nina wants - they are really Nina's lessons but Anton asked to sit in - by talking to her at some length. My professionality and experience come into play into assessing what language might suit her needs.


Being visual : Anton and Nina

One or two people have suggested I should not forget to take into account visual learners. Since Nina is one of these, here is a visual: Nina and Anton.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Less Dennis, more dogme

Had lesson 2 today, and I think I'm going to retain my two learners a little longer than in

Learning English from Zero

As they were leaving Nina said:

"Very interesting. You have given me courage. I think perhaps it is possible after all to learn something new at the age of 60."


Just ran into a friend on Skype chat, let's call him or her Anon, who said he or she had visited this blog and had wanted to write as a comment - "Less Dennis and more dogme." :-) Friends.

I believe, though, that that remark is based on a misunderstanding of the dogme message:

From the dogme site at:


.....a belief that language learning is both socially motivated and socially constructed, and to this end we are seeking alternatives to models of instruction that are mediated primarily through materials and whose objective is the delivery of "grammar mcnuggets". We are looking for ways of exploiting the learning opportunities offered by the raw material of the classroom,

that is
the language that emerges from the needs, interests, concerns and desires of the people in the room.

Socially motivated= Anton and Nina want to go and mix with people in the Seychelles. Nina explained that recently when they were on holiday in a country where a lot of English was spoken they met some very nice people and she was very frustrated that she could not say a word to them or understand what they were saying to her.

Socially constructed = Language is a product of the urge to communicate with others and you have to conform to social norms otherwise you will not be understood.

needs, interests, concerns, desires = They want English for the Seychelles and that is what I'm trying to deliver - more precisely, trying to help them to be able to deliver it.

So, where am I going wrong Anon?

I followed my planned compromise and let them have the text of the dialogue from the beginning. They both demonstrated immediately what I already know - the text can tyrannize and embed wrong pronunciation.

Anton: headache toothache /hedeitchi: / /tu:theitchi:/ ( Excuse home-made phonetic representation).

They began to see my point. If they allow me to rehearse the pronunciation of words so that the pronunciation is secure enough to withstand the tyranny of the written word, such errors would be minimised.

Nina closely watches my mouth when I am demonstrating the pronunciation of words and moves her pronunciation quickly in the direction of mine.

Shortly, I'll publish (in the Blogger sense) the dialogues I create for them.

Someone suggested we sing together. Well, I've prepaared the way. We practised the words of "One, two, three, four, five." On Monday, we'll sing it.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Feeling what it is like to produce English sounds

It's worth noting that I really do take people's remarks very seriously, though whether I am capable of implementing all the advice given is another matter. Gladys, whose remarks I hope you will shortly see, comments that she herself would have so frozen up if she had been required to repeat words she could not see, that she would not have remembered a thing! I hope I don't sound on the defensive if I mention that, in this very first hour, my aim wasn't primarily to get Nina to remember a short list of words, but to give her the experience of saying them out loud, to feel what it was like to use her breath, tongue, lips to create English sounds. Nina is worried, actually scared, she says, that she is not going to be able to make English sounds. She is very concerned about pronunciation and I have already had to start saying that I am not training her to be a spy, I want her, and Anton, to be able to speak English so that others can comfortably understand them. In the first lesson, and probably to be a prolonged emphasis, I'm giving instrumental lessons (as in - a music instrument). I'm getting them to practice playing their voices.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Possible compromise

I've been thinking, perhaps I could let Nina and Anton have copies of the text from the beginning, and I can read it to them (no point at all in getting them to read a new, meaningless text) , get across the meaning, and then get them to turn the texts over, face down, and we can go oral and do some productive practice.

English from Zero Take 2

A year or two ago I started a blog called: "English from zero" in which I planned to track how I taught English to a young Russian university student in Germany. It was hilarious, really. I discussed and logged the forthcoming venture on this list and elsewhere. Together we generated hundreds and thousands of words. And in the event, after experiencing my 'You are going to talk English for 60 minutes, young man and there is no text book and there won't be any homework" approach", just once, he returned the second week to explain that he was going to put off learning English until he had finished his thesis.

This week I started a new attempt: "English from zero take 2". This time the potential learners are Nina, a friend and colleague of my wife's, and her German partner, Anton. Nina comes from Kazakhstan, trained as an Astrophysicist, she is now a teacher of and teacher trainer in German as a second language. Anton is a retired business man and has a few words of English. Nina claims she does not know a single word. They are both between 50 and 60ish.

In the first week I got them counting, days of the week, months of the year etc. and saying after me and then delivering the lines of a simple monologue and a short dialogue for them to repeat as they drove home:

Anton: What do you think of Dennis's study, Nina?

Nina: What do you think, Anton?
Anton: No comment.

And now for the pedagogy....

I think of myself as liberal, but late in the day it strikes me that when it comes to teaching I'm so convinced of certain things that I am positively dictatorial.

In a one-to-two situation where the learners want to learn enough English to cope on a forthcoming visit to the Seychelles, I've set my sights on giving them practice in speaking English - and understanding it - in likely situations - asking the way, taking taxis, ordering meals, talking to Reception at the hotel, and so on.

Half an hour in to Hour 1, I was still holding on to a simple script I'd written for them when Nina said: "Actually. I'm a visual learner. I need to have the text so that I can see whether it is one word or five."

Well, I believe so strongly that, ultimately,she will make better progress if she suffers at first without the text, that I note I'm a bit unwilling to budge.

What would you do?

Watch this space - or visit the new blog, when I have set it up.


PS I'm in a situation where it would be perverse not to use German, our common language, though the amount of German will decrease as their English increases. I don't translate, but I give a quick gloss in German to ensure they understand what they are saying, and then switch off the German channel. I make a point of not giving the German for contextually obvious instructions - Now you, Nina. No, not you, Anton. Repeat after me. Again etc. etc.