jueves, 12 de noviembre de 2015

Book Review #3: Pronunciation Myths, edited by Linda Grant - Part 1

I am now back on my "commuting reading" mode, since by November my whole body hurts and I don't engage in those usual 45-minute long walks to work. I decided to make the journeys productive, so I got hold of the Kindle version of the book "Pronunciation Myths: Applying Second Language Research to Classroom Teching", edited by Linda Grant, and wtih conributions from Donna Brinton, Tracey Derwing and Murray Muro, John Field, Judy Gilbert, John Murphy, Ron Thomson and Beth Zielinsky and Lynda Yates.

The book is structured around seven myths related to pronunciation teaching and learning, some of which sound all too familiar for my Argentinian context. The discussion of each myth is carried out through an adequate balance of personal anecdotes that illustrate the points in question, and what the research has found. Each chapter also presents a number of practical tasks or advice to deal with the matters described.

In this review, I would like to briefly comment on each myth/chapter, and add my own humble take on what is said, and how it relates to my context.

As usual, I will piece this review into parts for your (and my!) sake!

A few comments: this volume is mostly written by researchers who have done a lot of work in English in an L2 environment, that is, many of the experiences shared refer to students who learn English in instructional settings and have to use English outside the classroom. At times, there are explicit references to non-L2 environments, but I think it is important to keep this in mind when reading the book. 

Prologue, by Linda Grant

Grant discusses four interesting aspects of pronunciation teaching and learning as part of the prologue. The first part discusses the last four decades of pronunciation teaching, reviewing some of the tenets identifying different movements, such as audiolingualism, and communicative language teaching, all ascribing different roles and goals to pronunciation teaching in L2. Grant claims that current approaches draw from both traditions mentioned in terms of techniques and goals, and discusses the need for integration of pronunciation work to other areas of the curriculum.  The author describes a shift from concern with native-likeness to intelligibility, and the separation of ideas of accentedness from those of intelligibility, as two different phenomena, also separated from degrees of comprehensibility, based on the research by Derwing and Munro. A very interesting addition to this discussion is the explicit acknowledgement of the listener in this process of interaction.

The second aspect that Grant reviews in her prologue includes the definition and scope of pronunciation, based on Fraser's (2001) contribution, which establishes three categories: peripheral and global features, suprasegmentals and segmentals. The review of these features includes references to research and published materials that describe the complexity of these categories, and the difficulties in language teaching when it comes to the selection of features to teach. 

I particularly enjoyed the "bulls-eye" analogy: 

"in the circle or ring around the eye are all of the acceptable variants of the target sound as they occur in spoken English. So variants diverge from the target more than others, but all of the sounds falling within that first circle are acceptable pronunciations" (Grant, 2014)

Through this comparison, I think many things can be encompassed, and I celebrate Grant's mention of allophonic variants, since these appear to be neglected in pronunciation books, and after all, it is the production of allophones which in fact allows learners to leave the "ideal", "isolated" phoneme and place it around others, to ease co-articulation and thus, together with phonemic processes of connected speech, to produce fluent speech. The comparison with the bulls-eye also goes beyond segment into the production of words, and the variations from "citation forms" to other forms in real speech (in the "jungle", as Cauldwell, 2013 rightly claims!). 

The next feature described in Grant's prologue is related to the levels of pronunciation teaching: motor or physical, perceptual, cognitive and psycho-social. I found this classification so neat and so true, and I can't help thinking that it is the psycho-social that really defines what my students end up reaching. So much to think about!

Myth 1, debunked by Tracey Derwing and Murray Munro: "Once you have been speaking a second language for years, it's too late to change your pronunciation"

This chapter discusses issues of fossilization. Some interesting remarks that the authors make include the fact that this phenonmenon is not only restricted to L2, as it can happen in L1 with a few specific linguistic forms. 

Munro and Derwing begin by analysing some of the reasons pronunciation work is not (effectively) addressed in the lesson: a) the belief that explicit instruction cannot possibly be effective; b) the influence of communicative language teaching tenets, that leave learners to their own devices when it comes to pronunciation; c) lack of training in pronunciation teaching. 

Regarding the first reason, the authors quote research findings that prove that explicit instruction does make a difference in learners' performance. These studies appear as a response to the claim that most pronunciation changes are to be made during the first year of residency in the foreign country (remember that this is an English as L2 context), as this is the period where fossilization could become decisive.

A very interesting study reported is that of Derwing, Munro and Wiebe (1998), in which three groups of learners received differentiated instruction: 1) suprasegmental; 2) segmental; 3) no training. The first group rated higher in fluency and comprehensibility, but got no improvement in accent ratings. The chart below by Derwing and Munro (in Grant, 2014) discusses the dimensions for L2 evaluation that they propose:
Derwing & Munro (in Grant, 2014)
One of the most interesting features, I believe, that these authors address is the interdependence of these variables. In my context I struggle with advanced students who could rate perhaps high in accentedness and still render unintelligible speech. I also see fluency problems in advanced students, even when their control over segments appears to be pretty native-like. As a pronunciation instructor, I do wonder at times whether I may be overlooking some of these aspects in my teaching of pronunciation for speaking and reading...especially since my teaching context values accentedness as a goal over perhaps other variables....

Another interesting question that the authors address is related to what makes pronunciation instruction effective.  Apart from the usual perception-production relation already reported in the research, the authors highlight the proper selection of features to teach, following an intelligibility criterion, and they also make a very important point of corrective feedback. This may not come as a surprise to those of us who have been doing this for years, but it is clear to me that correction may be seen as many teachers as an "intrusion" into learner space. This is, I guess, because of the physical nature of pronunciation, whereas all other skills that can be corrected "on paper" do not seem to suffer the same fate. Most teachers would not object to picking a red pen or pencil and giving corrective feedback on the page. This opens up a whole new debate, of course, when it comes to feedback on something which is so physical and so personal as one's accent (worth a million blog posts!)...

Another study included in this chapter was related to student success in de-fossilising speech towards better comprehensibility and intelligibility, even after a long time of residence (10 years, even) in the foreign country.

This chapter finishes with a few suggestions. I would like to quote a very interesting point made by the authors to shed light on what they propose to solve this issue:

"years of input from their (L2) own speech patterns contributes to fossilization because the learners come to establish their own perceptual categories for segments and for prosodic phenomena. These deeply engrained representations make it difficult to change pronunciation patterns" (Derwing & Munro in Grant, 2014)

The first thing these researchers believe should be done in the classroom is, precisely, draw students' attention of their own version versus other more intelligible forms, and train their perception. This is a key aspect of what we do in Lab 1 at College, as we need to teach students to "de-automatise", "de-fossilize", and "un-learn" past habits and targets towards new perceptual and also motor habits. It's indeed a "painful" process, and at times tinted by psycho-social aspects as well. Quite a challenge, methinks!

The second invitation the authors make is, of course, give explicit corrective feedback, not only from teachers, but also from peers. Another suggestion in the conclusion includes choosing the right focus, deciding on pronunciation priorities based on the course and students being taught (which I have addressed in these posts on pronunciation goals: part 1, part 2). One way of approaching this includes considering the relative functional load of pronunciation features, based on the list of criteria drawn by Catford (1987). The next tip for effective pronunciation instruction relates to the use of authentic language over focus on citation forms, and working both on shadowing and mirroring techniques. The use of technology is also put forward, though the presence of the teacher as a judicious guide and feedback-provider needs to be highlighted whenever technological resources appear. The last piece of advice by Derwing and Munro warns teachers against the presence of early fossilization, that is, teachers need to act before fossilization has a chance to seize our students!


Hope you have found these comments useful, and interesting.
The next posts will review the chapters that follow. Stay tuned!

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