Pronunciation Camp 4 – Habits: Revealing, Correcting, Practising and Linking

I’m getting towards the end of the blogging marathon that is writing up my pronunciation camp from the university’s summer program. If you want to read what went before this, check out my other posts: Models & Vowels, Consonants, and Intonational Chunks & Fluency.

In my view, pronunciation is something that, most of the time, happens unconsciously in first and second language production. Especially in one’s second language, the cognitive load of meaning making, accuracy and fluency mean that concentrating on the physical act of making sounds is impossible. And so it should be. Pronunciation in many ways can be seen as analagous to sport. This fascinating article on the science of “choking” also has implications for pronunciation – the idea that there is an implicit and explicit memory suggests that, for the most part, people who have been speaking English for a while (such as my students) are largely using the implicit system, as using the explicit one would cause too much strain on their brains, and begin to affect the other consumers of cognitive resources listed previously.

To further this analogy (helpfully, with something that few of you will be familiar with), I grew up playing cricket. Batting in cricket requires a complex range of physical and mental tasks: different styles of shot, risk management, physical endurance, anticipation. However, most of the physical performance is done using implicit memory, and that’s when you invariably bat the best, as the shot-making comes naturally and worry-free and leaves you to concentrate on higher-level thinking about strategy or what kind of sandwich to have at tea-time. Of course, actions don’t start out in the implicit memory – they get there through repetition. As a batsman in cricket, you only have one innings in which to bat, and so playing games is often not the best way to build automaticity, as often you are not performing for a long time before you’re out. This is where ‘the nets’ come in. The nets are roughly equivalent to a batting cage in baseball – somewhere where you are free to practice new skills without risk or to analyse what you already do and take steps to put it right. “The nets” is very much how I see a pronunciation classroom.

In the first few posts of this series I concentrated more on developing new(ish) skills. This time I want to focus on the second function of “the nets”, habit breaking and remodelling. This is something that developed over the course of the camp, and that I wish I had had more time to concentrate on from the start. Much of my students pronunciation contains what I would refer to as “bad habits” (I realize that I could work on my terminology a bit here); either things that creep in over time, or more likely, things that were never taught right (or even likelier never taught) in the first place. These are very much part of the implicit memory of my learners, and so are performed unconsciously.

The problem for a pronunciation teacher is that a lot of the work that you do is in a space already marked out for pronunciation, and so students are explicitly focusing on it, meaning that some of their implicit errors go undetected.  This also explains why students sometimes seem to “backslide” and make mistakes that seemed to have been corrected previously, as after explicit practice they then revert to using their implicit memory when not focusing on pronunciation. Thus a part of any pronunciation class should be trying to generate and record any bad habits, and work on solutions for breaking them. However, getting students to focus on something other than their pronunciation and getting at the implicit errors is not always easy.

Fortunately, these days the pronunciation teacher (at least the Korean one) has a huge advantage in that almost every student has a smartphone, and hence a personal, digital recording device in the palm of their hand. This means that students can much better evaluate their own, or someone else’s, pronunciation after the event. This has several advantages: the student can hear words as they actually say them, not as they think they do; a listener has more than one chance to pick out errors; finally, the recording can be played, or sent to the teacher for confirmation. So we can record errors as they are generated, but how can we go about generating them? I used two techniques: emotion and time pressure. The first was slightly geekily inspired by Labov’s sociolinguistic research on phoneme variation in New York accents, where he had subjects describe a time that they were in danger in order to distract them from the real aim of the experiment. I did very similar, in asking students to describe frightening or joyous experiences. I also often combined this with time pressure, using the 4-3-2 technique (explained here by Paul Nation). All of this was recorded, and then examined by the students for any errors.

So, once you have generated your errors, what can you do? Well, the first thing to say is that each student will have different errors, and these will exist at the phoneme and the word level, and will sometimes vary between the two (for example, f will be pronounced correctly in ‘finish’, but not in “fight”). Whatever the error, it needs to be recorded, corrected and practised. This approach is something that I developed over the course of the camp, and my recording system needs to be better next time, but due to time constraints this time, I used this pre-made (and not by any means bad) recording system that I found online.

Next, correction can take place. At a phonemic level, I tried to cover as much as possible in class (see the first two posts in this series). At word level, I aimed for a more student-reliant approach. Over the course we learnt about the IPA system so that students could find pronunciations in dictionaries, and we also looked at for getting models, especially of different varieties of English. Then, of course, comes practice, and building good habits. If a particular phoneme is a problem, then I advised students to concentrate on it for a week or two any time they were speaking English. It’s best just to concentrate on a single phoneme at a time though, so as not to overload the student. Hopefully, after a couple of weeks of concentration, the correct pronunciation of the phoneme should become habit.

At word level, especially where there is variation from an otherwise correctly pronounced phoneme, the variation is likely cased either by the word being incorrectly learned in the first place, or by interference from the first language. In the case of my earlier flower/fight example, “Fighting!” is a Korean term of encouragement, but with no /f/ in Korean, it’s often transliterated as “Pie-ghting!”, hence the interference here. The trouble with words is that they don’t always appear in conversation that often (unlike phonemes), and so a more systematic practice is required. for this, I suggested the flashcard program Anki, with the correct pronunciation transcribed or recorded. This means that correct pronunciations of words can be practised much more regularly, and hopefully also become good habits.

The final piece in the pronunciation class puzzle has to be linking what you do in class back into more “real life” stuff. Too much focus on making sounds can lead to the class losing a bit of context – it’s a good idea to show your students that what you are doing actually has some application in the real world. Fortunately, during the camp students were required to produce both a speech and a play for the final week, so we had plenty of chance to apply what we’d learned to real things.  I was able to tie my class in with my colleague’s speech class, so that every Thursday was “speech clinic”, where we’d work in large and small groups to analyse students’ speech pronunciation, apply anything we had learned so far, and generate more errors to work on the following week. Towards the end, we also dedicated a lot of time to play rehearsals, where there are some great opportunities to teach the value of intonation in making students speech more interesting, but that’s for another day perhaps.

And that is about the shape of my pronunciation camp habit theory. If you found this helpful, please consider leaving me a  comment below, or following me through WordPress or on Twitter (@breathyvowel).




2 responses to “Pronunciation Camp 4 – Habits: Revealing, Correcting, Practising and Linking

  1. Pingback: The 31st ESL Blog Carnival | One Year

  2. Pingback: Some advice on teaching the pronunciation of past tense endings | The Breathy Vowel

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