V is for Voice

This post is inspired by Scott Thornbury’s recent P = pronunciation  post.  As always it’s great, thought-provoking stuff, and the comments make fascinating reading. 

What I wanted to pick up on and think through a bit more was Scott’s “t” anecdote:

I remember being told by a well-intentioned Spanish teacher: “Your problem is that you use the English ‘t’ sound instead of the Spanish one”. To which I replied, “No, the ‘t’ sound is the very least of my problems! My problem is that I don’t know the endings of the verbs, that I don’t have an extensive vocabulary, that I can’t produce more than two words at a time. … and so on”. That is to say, in the greater scheme of things, the phonetic rendering of a single consonant sound was not going to help me become a proficient speaker of Spanish.

This struck a deep chord – as no doubt it will with most adult language learners, no matter what language they’re learning – but it also made me think of an example where the correction of one phoneme did make a huge difference.  Although in that case it was a question of eliminating a native phoneme that did not exist in the target language, rather than trying to acquire a new one.

 I was working in Italy at the time.  A colleague was miffed at being told repeatedly how “cute” her English accent was.   She took it to mean that her Italian was poor and wanted to do something about it.  We identified one sound in particular as being the main culprit –  the /ƏƲ/ of no and go and so.  It isn’t a sound that exists in Italian (though it is used as an exclamation in Roman dialect or slang). The letter “o” is pronounced as /o/  as in not, got, shot  or / Ɔ:/ as in four, door, more, but never as / ƏƲ /.    

Eliminating the  / ƏƲ /  from her Italian worked wonders. The stock English accent disappeared.  Listeners’ perceptions changed. Her language output was taken more seriously, she got more compliments on her efforts to learn Italian and less on her “cute” accent.  Her L2 self-image improved dramatically, her confidence soared.  

Turning the tables on the experiment,  I reversed the process with my students.  Italy, as you will no doubt know, has a great tradition in dubbing English language films.  They do it very well, at times adding extra value and a new layer of meaning.  One of my favourites is  Stanlio I Ollio – Laurel and Hardy in Italian. They have stock English accents peppered with “ohs”.  It definitely adds to the comedy.  (See an example here on youtube – even if you don’t speak Italian I think you can still probably pick up the accent).   

I confessed my love of Stanlio i Ollio to my students and got an enthusiastic response.  They could all imitate the accent in Italian – and sound pretty convincing.  We worked on some international Italian words – the usual suspects, pizza, spaghetti, Ferrari, fiasco, pronto – the students said them in Italian and again in “Stanlio i Ollio”.  We looked at the offending “oh” sound and fact that consonant sounds aren’t doubled.   We tried some stock phrases, and then a short role play. In the role play one was Italian and the other either Stanlio or Ollio.  

 I’m not going to claim that this had lasting – or even, in some cases, temporary – results, but it did raise awareness of “voice” –  and it helped some students feel more confident in their ability to cope with what they perceived as a pronunciation “issue”.    

And I’m certainly not claiming that this approach is in any way new or original. Studying the contrasting pronunciation of borrowed words is a standard exercise in language classes.  It’s fun, it’s simple  – and it’s often effective.

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8 Responses to V is for Voice

  1. Vicky Loras says:

    Hi Ceri!

    Thanks for this interesting post. I have been thinking a lot about the issue of pronunciation lately, for many reasons.

    First of all, because of the fact that for the past year I have been living in Switzerland. I am learning German but I cannot say that my pronunciation in the language is amazing. The first thing people ask me when they hear me is “American?” and they immediately switch to English, which is very kind of them, but I want them to continue the conversation in German – how am I going to practise? And I do tell them this.

    Second, an adult student of mine expressed her wish last week that we do more of “pronunciation practice”, as she thinks her own accent interfers in her English and hinders her from getting understood. Actually, she is near proficient in the language and can speak very well, with only a small trace of her wn accent in there.

    I thought and thought about this: Can it be taught? Some aspects of it, yes.

    The activity you describe is fantastic, I really liked it and I think it helps a lot. Plus, it helps students realize where everything is coming from and make a realization of the language itself.

    I believe that pronunciation just needs a lot of practice and that it is not such a big of a problem if someone manages to get their messages across.

    Thank you very much again for this post – it came at the right moment for me!

    Kindest regards,

    • Ceri Jones says:

      Hi Vicky,
      Thanks for calling by! It’s good to know it struck a chord. I think there’s so much to explore here. And for those students who are receptive and do prioritise work on pronunciation there are a lot of noticing activities like this that can raise awareness and trigger shifts. I like working with brand names too. Even really proficient speakers can struggle with this. It took me ages to get the names of makes of cars right in Italian for example, until a friend pointed out that the French makes kept their French stress patterns (Citroen, Peugeot) – which of course, they don’t in English. Might not sound like a big deal but was really important when I was trying to phone the breakdown service. The same thing happened again in Spain. English brand names in Spanish are a whole new language! And great fun to explore in class. I’m sure the same must be true of German too.

      Let me know if you use any of these in class – or with your proficient Swiss student. It’d be interesting to see what response you get.

  2. Mark says:

    Would a language lab help to practise and hear the results?

    • Ceri Jones says:

      Hi Mark, yes I’m sure a variation of this idea could work well in a language lab – or with any kind of online or mobile phone app that lets you record and play back your own voice.
      Thanks for calling by!

  3. Rick says:

    Hi Ceri,

    I’m all in favour of the consciousness-raising idea and I do believe it makes a difference. If we haven’t learned how to produce a certain sound, we won’t be able to make such sound unless we’re taught how to do it.

    I totally agree with you when you say that it plays a major role in boosting learners confidence and it might even change the way they see their learning. I’ve noticed that many learners who think learning English is boring actually have difficulties learning it. Once they are successful in any one aspect of it, things change perspective entirely!

    What I’d say is that teachers sometimes forget they also need to keep calling their learners’ attention to pronunciation mistakes and what’s already been taught just like they do with grammar and vocabulary. But pronunciation always seems to be overlooked due to time constraints…

    Congrats on the blog! I’ve already added it to my Google Reader! 😉

    • Ceri Jones says:

      Hi Rick, thanks for calling by.

      I like the point you make about success in one area having an effect in other areas too. This is so true (interestingly it’s seomthing that’s come up a lot in the comments on another of Scott’s posts C is for Communicative in the area of writing http://scottthornbury.wordpress.com/2010/08/15/c-is-for-communicative/ ) And I think pronunciation can be quite an emotive area, often tied in with very deep – often subconcious – levels of identity and self-image, and as such a potentially powerful motivator.

      I agree too that it’s important to integrate work on pronunciation into the day-to-day, minute-by-minute workings of our classes, not letting it get squeezed out by time constraints, but including it as an important aspect of the language and its use for communication. And, of course, pronunciation activities can also be used to aid automatisation and help students acquire confidence and fluidity, albeit in small chunks of the language, but the experience of fluency in one area, can, as you point out change perspectives in the “bigger picture” as well.

      thanks for pushing my thinking further on this one! there may be the seeds for a follow-on post there 🙂

  4. Dan says:

    I’m sure you’ll remember the Spanish TV equivalent of the UK’s Spitting Image – what was it called? I got my students in Barcelona to do the tonguetwister “erre con erre cigarro…” as the George Bush puppet from the show. That helped with their pron of “r”.

    And we’re back to accent and identity again! In this case donning masks to be someone else. Pronunciation issues cut to the heart of our feelings about the target culture and language, our ‘ego boundaries’ and all that. There’s plenty more to explore here, I reckon…

    • Ceri Jones says:

      hi again, Dan, yes, los guiñoles! loved ’em 🙂
      and as you say, back again worrying at the same bone of culture, identity and self
      one no doubt that’ll raise its head again – a bit of a hobby horse at the moment – maybe I should watch out for that!

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