lunes, 20 de abril de 2015

#IATEFL2015 Online Coverage #2: Interview to Luke Meddings

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.

jueves, 16 de abril de 2015

Happy Birthday, Pronunciation Bites!

This month marks the first anniversary of this blog, Pronunciation Bites.

A year ago I came up with this idea and this name, referring to the fact that even though for some teachers pronunciation appears to "bite" -and so decide to stay away from it-, it does and should not!I wanted to prove the opposite by offering teachers the possibility of "grabbing a bite" from the myriad resources I have collected, and a few thoughts inspired in my teaching practices and misadventures.

C3 Estudio designed the logo for me, based on an original PacMan-eating-phonetics-symbols idea, and off I went into the online jungle.
My own version, made with the Windows programme Paint.
C3 Estudio's design after 7 different versions! Looking pretty!

A year later, Pronunciation Bites is a whole virtual experience, with this blog, a Facebook page and a Twitter account where more daily findings and remarks are posted, a ScoopIt! collection of lots of articles, ideas, videos, tutorials I have found on the Web organized through tags, and a small Pinterest collection of clippings that teachers may find of use.

My readers, as far as I can see, are based all over the world, and they are teachers, speech therapists, phonetics enthusiasts, publishers, and some of my own students, with ages ranging from 19 to 85. And the greatest thing is that not everyone agrees with everything I say, and that is, by far, the most enriching aspect of what the Internet allows us to do: debate.

I have had, and still have, many misgivings during the process. In spite of the fact that I have been a teacher for only 15 years, and a Phonetics lecturer for almost 9 years -not a long time in comparison with other bloggers and experts on the Internetsphere-, I feel I have a lot to say about Phonetics and pronunciation teaching and I believe that I know quite a lot about it, more than I have been able to write. I believe that putting those thoughts "out there" is truly worth it, but I am aware that as I write, each word and thought is squeezed through a number of filters, because I still fear what people may think or say. And it is this fear that probably leads me to keep writing. I know this is part of the learning process that I will need to make as an inexperienced and confidence-seeking blogger and teacher.

Another thing I struggle with is, in fact, a product of this competitive academic environment we live and work in. I really admire those people who so freely share their own handouts and games on the web, like Annie McDonald and Mark Hancock, and many other brave teachers out there (see a list on the Facebook page: Free and Fair ELT). I have received well-meaning warnings of the kind "someone will steal that idea from you", "I would not voice that thought if I were you", "you are giving away information that can make you vulnerable", "what will your students say?". Much as I keep these thoughts in the back of my mind, I have become what I have become because of people who have shared their knowledge, expertise, criticism, and bookshelves with me. If these tutors and mentors had simply kept their worlds of knowledge to themselves, I would not have learned so much. So I will try to pay my debt to them by sharing. As much as I can. All the time.

They say that "a candle loses nothing by lighting another candle" and I firmly believe that Pronunciation Bites is a space of light for me, a place that has allowed me to have a voice, an outlet, and an opportunity to share my passion for phonetics & phonology in general, and pronunciation teaching, which is what I do for a living (and not just for money, mind you, this really keeps me and my enthusiasm alive!).

This year, apart from more introspection/reflections, book reviews, webinar/conference reports, I intend to introduce teaching ideas and materials designed by me. I would also like to allow myself to show some of my knowledge of phonetics, and especially, of prosody and pragmatics. And I will probably come up  with some other initiative, as by now you should know I can't stay still!

A HUGE Thank You to all readers and followers out there, and I hope my Pronunciation Bites space provides you with inspiration, ideas, materials and courage to make pronunciation part of your daily lessons. Thanks a million for your support!

lunes, 13 de abril de 2015

#IATEFL2015 online coverage #1: Interview with David Crystal

As a Manchester, IATEFL 2015 registered blogger, I have to admit I have not had the time to catch up the way I would have liked to, but here I am, with my first report.

This time, I'll be talking about an interview with David Crystal (available here), which of course, was the obvious choice for me to start!

As usual, a bit of a report of what was said, and my own input, in a different colour.


The Crystals have been pretty active in this 450th celebration of Shakespeare's wonders, and they have been busy publishing materials for all our enjoyment. The illustrated Shakespearian dictionary is mentioned by David, with a few interesting tips and tricks regarding our approach to Shakespeare in the classroom:

  • Shakespearean language has to be learned in context, and we need to have the pictures in our head of what these words represent in order to make sense of the images Shakespeare so very skillfully presents!
  • Before approaching the play on paper with your students, see it on stage or watch a DVD! I looooved this bit of advice. Watching "a book" on DVD/YouTube/stage should not be a "sin" or a form of "cheating", it is yet another interpretation of the book in print through the eyes of the semiotic systems of image, sound, motion, and I agree entirely that this is a valid way of going about it!
  • Act a bit of Shakespeare in the classroom. Nothing more exciting, methinks!

Now off to my personal favourite bit: Original Pronunciation. I've written about this in my review post of the latest Crystals' book here, but I would like to write down some of the points David raises in this interview.

David reminds us that the powerful resource of rhyme in Shakespeare's sonnets (because if I remember correctly blank verse does not rhyme except in the last verses of each scene?! Do I remember my Shakespeare?!) does "not appear to work in Modern English". We all remember the lovely Sonnet 116, and the supposed rhyming pair "loved"-"proved" [lʌvpru:vd], which in OP would be something like [lɤvd - prɤvd]. You can hear more about it here:

Crystal invites us to experience Original Pronunciation (OP) here:

The last part of the interview leads us back to the "You Say Potato" book. Apart from retelling some bits from the book, David mentions the fact that the accent issue is complex, and that in order to faithfully represent the idea of how accents change, there had to be more than one person in the book, a "young person, and a slightly less young person". He mentions the fact that there will be an audiobook version later in the year (looking forward to it!)

There is an interesting discussion in the interview regarding the notion of accents. As we have heard countless times, accents are "all over the English speaking world" and they are "mixed". We are no longer speaking about RP as the norm, but as a "mixed or modified RP", what other authors called General British, which Crystal defines as "educated, understandable". This is a complex issue as well, in my opinion. Clearly, if you read the news, what the media sees as RP is the "Queen's English" or the "Public School English" which Cruttenden (2008) called "Refined RP" and is now termed "Conspicuous General British". I think this RP they may be talking about, spoken by 2% of the population, is not necessarily what we may call "General British" and of course, "Regional General British", which I associate more with universities and the media.  So when we say "RP", what are we really talking about? I would also question the use of the term "understandable", as my students would claim that it is General American that sounds "intelligible" to them, and not really British varieties, but it may be a problem of exposure. Worth another post!

Crystal then addresses learners of English by urging them to embrace the idea of keeping traces of their native language in the accent of English, except for "spies, who are the only ones who need to be anonymous" (LOL!). He sees English as a "garden of flowers", with each individual accent making a different variety and bringing colour to it (<3). David tells teachers that the priority should be students' clarity, and an approach to flexibility, that is, not focussing on teaching every single feature of an accent to students. He mentions, for example, the features of glottalisation (as in [hɒt -hɒʔ] and GOOSE-fronting (as in [ku:l - kʉ:l]), clear examples of the changes to General British, that ought to be accepted in the English classroom. Exposure to different accents as early as possible is key. Crystal does make a point as well of "knowing how to do it", that is, having the necessary tools to teach pronunciation of the accent(s) of choice. (Worth another post! #2)

As an answer to a question on the importance of stress and connected speech over the segmentals, David believes there is more an issue of complementarity. David also mentions the fact that if we look at the different Englishes around the world, 3/4 of the speakers actually employ syllable-timed versions of their accent, which is why, in his opinion, stress-timing as a teaching priority is actually outdated. The challenges to the "stress-timing" hypothesis have been going round since the early 1980s, including some papers by Peter Roach and Cauldwell, among many others. Very very interesting topic, by the way.

To conclude, Crystal presents some pieces of advice for teachers to "keep up with the times" by "listening, listening, listening" to English, to young speakers of English in the media, especially social media, in the understanding that the young speakers of the language are the ones pushing the language forward, the future parents of the future generations. He reminds us that we should not underestimate the power of Internet, as these generations take "screens as central, books as marginal".

All in all, a short, yet enjoyable interview, with that lovely accent of Crystals' (IMO) and his smooth, "surfable" intonation patterns (really worth teaching!), but first and foremost, with a very engaging discussion of hot topics which may at times be a bit "thorny" for teachers.

I expect to be able to report more on the online coverage of IATEFL 2015 soon!