Part of the IATEFL Manchester Conference 2015 online experience included interviews with many delegates and presenters. In a previous post, I reviewed an interview with David Crystal. I would like to briefly comment on the 6-minute conversation a British Council presenter held with Luke Meddings this time. As usual, my own input, in a different colour.
Being 12,000 km away, I did not get to see Meddings' talk, which I was told was hilarious, but I would be happy to hear or read about it online, if anyone out there wants to report on it! (There's a brief reference to his talk and other pron talks in Mark Hancock's blog, BTW)
The interview with Luke Meddings, available here, begins with some points of reflection about the way we feel when we speak another language, the idea of being "frozen up", filled with anxiety, fearful of making mistakes. As the interviewer points out, at times it is this fear or anxiety that may lead us to focus on form, and forget meaning. This is something I generally notice with my advanced students at College: they are so concerned with sounds, or even with their own intonation patterns, that it just sounds as if they are reading "patterns" (as one of my colleagues says), reading a set of marks on the page, totally devoid of meaning. I was just thinking of David Brazil's (1980, 1997) notion of oblique orientation here. And not because my students, necessarily, use many level tones, but because their approach is oblique, even when using fall-rises, or rises! Their concern with form and accuracy is stronger than the expression of meaning and the need to address an audience. Moreover, I generally notice many learners making appropriate choices of tone and nucleus in their reading aloud experiences who fail to get the message across! And this, again, is connected to some features that I sometimes fear we may neglect when teaching pronunciation, and even when teaching speaking skills in general: the contribution of paralinguistic features to the overall meaning, and mood, of a text.
The approach that Meddings suggests appears to address some of these paralinguistic concerns, as he takes up the idea of "impersonation" through body language and gesture, as well as breath and volume control, as a "key" to pronunciation. From what the interview shows, Meddings appears to have got the "hang" of voice quality and articulatory setting features of different people, like the Queen, or John Lennon, and even makes use of chewing gum to aid his impersonation. I remember students talking about impersonation techniques for English learning used in some English institutes in Buenos Aires. Students were asked to pick a celebrity they liked on their very first day, and they adopted this "second personality" throughout their studies. So one of my students was "Ginger Rogers", and that is what she was called by her teachers during her lessons, for six good years! In spite of the fact that this student did not entirely approve of the method, she said that this approach made her feel safe, as it was "Ginger" who was making mistakes, and not herself. Interesting.
Part of Meddings' premise is that we should learn to "let go", as pronunciation is physical and feedback can get on our skin. Once again, there is an invitation for learners to "find their own way of speaking English their own way". I have been thinking about these issues for quite some time, issues related to the "ownership of your interlanguage accent", to the challenge of "finding your own voice", and I have decided to put some of these ideas into a podcast-like post, coming soon, called "Your Accent, Your Patronus" (Yes, another Harry Potter reference! <3).
All in all, the interview gives us a taste of Luke Meddings' style, and it is always enriching to see other ways of doing pronunciation work in the classroom.