lunes, 11 de mayo de 2015

Pronunciation, Phonesthesia and Realia: The case of the STRUT vowel (Part 2)

In my latest post, I compared General British STRUT and its variants to Riverplate Spanish /a/. I reviewed some articulatory and also acoustic features, and I also went over some basic notions of Speech Perception theories. I established that many of my Riverplate Spanish learners may associate English /ʌ/ with their Spanish /a/ "magnets" and may, thus, find the differentiation between both vowels challenging, both for perception and production.

(BTW, apparently, the differentiation between English /ʌ/ and other vowels appears to be quite an issue for many speakers of English as an L1 or L2, as Ettien Coffi (2014) reveals in this paper from the Proceedings of the 5th Pronunciation in Second Language Learning and Teaching Conferencepage 11 onwards)

In this post, I would like to present some of the tips & tricks I have collected over the years (and I will try to acknowledge my colleagues' contributions whenever I can!). My claim will be that many "tips" do the job when they help create an image of the L2 sound which may help the learner steer away from their L1 quality, and that this may not necessarily just be reliant on making the right articulatory movements.

This is why some of my suggestions will draw on creating "mental images" through the contributions of Phonesthesia, and Realia; images which should appeal not only to visual aspects, but also auditory, and emotional resources.
A few definitions first:

Realia refers to the introduction of real-life objects in the classroom, to make the learning experience of certain concepts and routines more vivid. This technique also enables students to engage all their senses and learning styles. We can introduce actual objects, or we can create virtual situations that may allow students to experience similar emotions and actions as those recreated in the real situations.
(You can get some teaching ideas on using teaching aids in the TEFLSurvival blog, and the BusyTeacher website.)

Phonesthesia refers to the analysis of "sound symbolism". It basically studies how clusters of sounds may center around lexical sets that express similar meanings. So for example, in the Dictionary of Sound by Margaret Magnus, you can find a number of STRUT words that could be related to "puffy things":  plush, fuzz, fluff, cuff, muff, ruff.

This reminds me of a poem by Tony Mitton, called "Fluff"

What's this here?
A piece of fluff.
I don't know where I get this stuff.
I'll blow it away
with just one puff.
There. That's enough.

So the combination of vowel /ʌ/ and the /f/ quality, reminiscent of blowing, creates this "puffy" effect of fluff and makes the poem lovely for oral performance, and effective! 

As a College student, I had a hard time fine-tuning my STRUT away from my Spanish /a/. I was given instructions, I  knew I had to drop my jaw, but still, it sounded pretty much like my own Spanish /a/. (Mind you, my friend and colleague Prof. Francisco Zabala has found that the STRUT quality as an allophone is present in many Spanish combinations of "a" + sound /x/, as in "caja".)  And I see my students at Teacher Training College producing a similar type of Spanish /a/ sound. So after a few tries, after watching native speakers of English produce their STRUT sounds, analysing the way this jaw-dropping takes place for this sound, I came up with the first articulatory tip that worked for some of my students:

"Keep to the railings of the mouth". I asked my students to imagine that each of the two sides of their lips, or the corner of their mouths, had a vertical railing, and that there should not be any smiling, as it would defy the railings of the mouth, and that the articulatory movement should be downwards, not sidewards. I could not help thinking of these special types of puppets ventriloquists use:

Celebrity puppet
Image credit: David Noah. Flickr:

With this idea in mind, in one of my lessons, students were asked to place their fingers in the corners of their mouths in the puppet-like manner above, and look at themselves in a mirror/front facing camera of their mobile phones while producing STRUT words, trying to avoid a smile (which was tough, as they were having fun!).Therefore, this sound became the "puppet" sound (and for older Argentinians, this was the "Chirolita" sound, after a well-known ventriloquist in Argentina).
This articulatory tip did the trick for many students, but yet, not all of them really got to acquire a close quality; many students still produced a much fronter, or sometimes, opener vowel.

So I resorted to phonesthesia, and I thought of a few words I associated with the STRUT quality. By repeating the STRUT vowel to myself in isolation, I came up with these words (and a few others, after trying the marvellous Sound Search tool in the Cambridge Pronouncing Dictionary CD-Rom!)

  • Things falling and making noise: thud, plunge  
  • Unpredictable, shocking: abrupt, blunt, rough
  • Pushing, stabbing(?): thrust, chuck, cut, nudge, punch, butt

(BTW (deviation alert!), as a Miranda Hart fan, I could help laughing at myself while repeating these words!)

So with some groups of students, I tried playing around with the words above, getting into the mood of things "falling" or happening "abruptely", which acts in much the same way the downward movement of the jaws does, like a small "bite", even.

Encouraged by the success of this tip for some students, I started thinking about the realia of "emotions", the "tone" that this sound evoked in me, and I could not help feeling "dull", "disgusted" or "miserable", as with these words:
  • love
  • money
  • you suck!
  • duh!
  • yuck!
  • f*#k
And I said to myself (and forgive the vulgarity of it all!), "what makes you suffer? Love, or money?". So I asked my students to think about their most "miserable" feeling, place themselves in that "sad place" (a bit like many actors do), "pull a miserable face" and go for /ʌ/ . 

(I have a confession to make: I sometimes ask my students to produce the f-word. It works! Perfect STRUT qualities EVERY time!)

When using this strategy a few years ago, a student came up with the memory of losing a match as a kid, and remembering his father's disappointed reaction (a very sad place to go to, if you ask me!). So we worked on that emotion, and we created a situation in which a very stern father or mother would push their son or daughter to win a race. And I came up with this terrible (!) poem/song, with a "run, run, run" chorus to the melody of Pink Floyd's "Run like Hell". It does sound like a bitter and very dark poem, but as a dramatic technique, it did the trick!

In one of the lessons where I tried the poem, students worked in two teams, with one group acting as an audience, singing the "run, run" Pink Floyd chorus, and a second group "mumbling" the words of the poem as they all pictured the race and their son running. The "little play" that resulted of this poem reminded me of Hermione in the audience uttering the Confundus charm and Harry saying "Come on, Ron" in a sort of low murmur (Deviation alert #2!):

Somehow this idea of a "miserable" STRUT sound has been the most effective tip to help my students provide a version of /ʌ/ that drove them closer to a quality different from their Spanish /a/, and also from the "Happy, cheerful, /æ/" and the "Relaxed, cute, awwww-like, /ɑ:/":

As with everything, you can find your own way of adapting these tricks for your own lessons, taking into consideration the "classroom management" factor, because let's face it, pronunciation work may create a bit of a mess in the classroom!

And of course, as Adrian Underhill claims, multisensory pronunciation learning is the key. Building one's own proprioception, and supplementing this with mental, auditory and emotional images should, in some way or other, contribute to the uniqueness of our learners' styles and processes. As I always say, what may work for one student may not necessarily work for the other! (Another piece of evidence for the "messy" nature of pronunciation work, sorry to say!)


Final thought: It is funny that many of the nice things of life may also take STRUT, and they don't seem to "fit" with with sound. What shall we do about 
love, fun, feeling chuffed, abundance, bubbles ...and maybe, money?
I leave that to you!

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