Should I Just Let It Go?

 

This week during the second session of #ELTChat we discussed whether there were advantages to being a non-native-speaking teacher. It was a great discussion  as usual – lots of insights from all the participating teachers. During the chat the issue of pronunciation was brought up as expected. It had also come up at another #ELTChat, about what is fluency. Much was said about it on both chats, but it seems to be believed by many teachers that the aim of working with pronunciation should be on making the students’ speaking intelligible - not on making them a replica of a native speaker’s pronunciation (I’ll refrain from getting into the whole what is a native speaker’s pronunciation – we can have a whole post on that alone).

 

 

And that discussion triggered some reflection on my part (ok, maybe it was going around my mind already…), on how I approach pronunciation in my classes, what I expect from students and especially if I am letting my experience as a learner/speaker influence my teaching. That’s what this post is about.

 

 

photo by (cup)cake_eater - CC

Is it time I let go?

 

Let me explain better… I learned English here, in Recife (Brazil), through the audiolingual method. Most of the teachers I had were Brazilian, and I believe few of them had had an experience abroad. I think it’s relevant for me to mention this here because we are talking about life and language learning prior to the technology revolution we have gone through and now live in. Resources of authentic language were scarce, traveling was expensive and hard… Bottom line: in my opinion it wasn’t as easy at that time to become a fluent English speaker, with a so-called native-like pronunciation.

 

So, when I was taught the past, I learned the pronunciation of the -ED ending of regular verbs in the simple past with lots of drilling. And there were no different pronunciations of said -ED ending. You just pronounced the verb followed by an (equally thoroughly pronounced) -ED ending. When I went to live as an exchange student in northwestern Kansas (Yes, I spoke with a southern drawl… It – I hope – got lost after the many years of teaching and being exposed to more neutral pronunciation) that ending caused one of the biggest traumas I have of that time (the biggest involves my absolute inability to play basketball).

 

I had two advanced classes in my schedule:  Advanced Chemistry and Advanced Math. And let me just say that after the first day, when another student (an American one) asked me about my schedule, after hearing me mention those two classes, I spent the next 11 months being mocked about my AdvancED classes. I even have a message on my yearbook to prove it! If bullying was discussed at that time, I’m sure that was bullying. Of course I changed my pronunciation to the appropriate /t/ sound right away. No use… that ED haunted me for the duration of my year in Kansas. And I hated that! Who likes being mocked and get that kind of attention?

 

I share this story to justify my great care and attention to teaching, reviewing, drilling, endless practicing and correcting I do of that specific pronunciation bit with my students. For me it is essential that my students nail the three different pronunciations of that -ED ending. And I know I’m in part (Really? Am I being too kind with myself?) doing that because it’s something that left a mark in me. A scar maybe?

 

There’s no way we can leave our experiences as learners of a language behind us when we become teachers. Our experiences are what shape us, and there are wonderful things we can draw from them, strategies we developed that we can teach our students, the predicting of problems, the understanding of insecurities the students have… But we have to be careful not to let these experiences – especially the negative ones – take over our teaching, prevent us from being reasonable and rational about how to do things, how far to take things, how much to enforce something.

 

That’s the reflection I’ve made this week. Maybe it’s time I forgot that year of -ED bullying and started demanding a less perfect pronunciation of regular verbs in the past from my students. After all, they just need to be understood, right?

 

I’d love to hear your stories of how your experiences as a learner have shaped or interfered in your teaching! :-)

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27 comments on “Should I Just Let It Go?

  1. Elizabeth says:

    Thanks for you very quick and eloquent response to yesterday’s ELTchat ! I give my students a small number of points to beware of at the level of pronunciation – apart from which my arguments to decomplex them at the level of pronunciation are twofold:
    a) you don’t like to hear a French accent when someone is speaking English? It’s the same for me when I hear an English accent when someone is speaking French. Now … what is your reaction to someone speaking French with an English accent (it’s very sweet and sexy) and the same thing goes for an English speaker who hears English with a French accent. I try to convince them that, as difficult as it is for them to believe it, it sounds great :-)
    and
    b) In this day and age when regional accents have become totally acceptable it’s perfectly OK for your accent to reflect your origins, I remind them of the regional accents in their own language. Well in these days of ELF, regional accents are absolutely fine. Someone from Scotland has a Scottish accent. That’s fine – you don’t have to be embarrased by your accent. You have a French accent – that’s fine, you come from France.

    • Thanks Elizabeth! It was very reassuring reading how you deal with the issue and approach it with your students… Personally I have to admit I’m still (slowly) trying to convince myself it’s ok for me to have an accent – I guess I’m still too hung up on the notion that to be a fluent speaker you have to be accentless. I wish I had had a teacher like you ;-) But do you think regional accents have been totally accepted? I don’t know… maybe they have and what I keep seeing as prejudice against accents is not about it being in a foreign language, but rather about geographic prejudice really. What you said about it reminded me of the many different accents we have in Brazil alone (being the big country it is), and the prejudice you can find in some people when talking about people from different regions of the country and the way they speak, their regional vocabulary, etc… Lots of mocking, derogatory comments…Perhaps not as much about language. Interesting reflection you provoked on me :-)

  2. Hi Cecilia!

    I understand where you are coming from – being mocked for your pronunciation is one the worst situations in which you can find yourself as a language learner, as pronunciation is something that can be very difficult to change. It must have been horrible! I remember having trouble with Spanish RR (strong rolled R) when I started learning it (this was at elementary level and I was about 17) and the Venezuelan conversation assistant gave me a tongue twister full of the sounds. Well, you can imagine why I felt like crying when he insisted on correcting and correcting me even though I told him that I didn’t know how to make the sound. He never showed me how to physically make the sound, which is what I do with my students who are having problems.

    However, as an English teacher I do not demand an anywhere near perfect pronunciation from my students. As long as what they are saying is understandable and not confusing, it goes with me. The main reason is that the majority of my students will never use English in Britain or USA or any other native speakers. They will be using it with other non-native speakers who can perfectly understand them with their Spanish accent.
    I particularly spend very little time on ED past simple endings, firstly because I don’t think using the wrong one can impede communication, and secondly because in many varieties of English there is no distinction. The only reason I do some work on this is so that they will recognise the past tense when they hear it.

    I’m sure many people will have a different opinion from mine, though! I think it probably depends on the country you are living in and your teaching sitautiobn too. Let’s hear your opinions, and of course, your traumatic pronunciation stories!

    • David Warr says:

      Hi Michelle, so can you now roll your “r”s? If so, how did you learn?

      • Trying to get some help with your Rs David? Fantastic! I hope Michelle can give you a hand with that ;-)!

      • Hi David,

        I wish I could tell you how but I can’t! Basically, through lots and lots of practice. But not drilling or anything like that, just after living in Spain for a time and speaking lots the sound began to emerge! It is a big problem for most English speakers, and I am fortunate enough to have a “good ear” – I pick up accents easily both in English and other languages. All I can say is keep trying and don’t worry if you can’t make the sound, as long as you are being understood (the main point of my comment above about our ELLs!).

    • Hi Michelle!

      I know the exact sound you’re talking about when you say you had difficulty with (the RR) :-) I struggled with it a bit as well when I was studying Spanish – though I believe I had an easier time than you had, for the sound exists in the way Portuguese is spoken in some regions in Brazil.

      Thank you for sharing your view on the issue, and I think you’re right in approaching pronunciation as you do in class. I noticed that I’ve consciously started relaxing more about students’ pronunciation ever since I wrote this post, holding back on some of the correcting if it didn’t hinder communication. I do however still think it important to practice and work with the ED pronunciation in class, for the different counds might make it more difficult for students to understand it being spoken if they’re not fully aware of them. But I think that’s why you do it as well :-)

      But our all in all I think our “traumatic” experiences as language larners are part of what make us even better language teachers, more understanding of what our students (may) go through. :-)

  3. David Warr says:

    I can’t roll my “r”s when I speak Italian. I’d love to be able to. Count yourself lucky that you were able to change, I’m sure it’s genetic ;-) It does sound like bullying though.

    • Hi David… rolling “R”s seem to be a recurrent difficulty among native English speakers when speaking the latin languages :-) I dare say it’s not genetic, as much as sounds we’re not used to in our L1s.

      And despite the bullying and the impact it had in me, I’m good friends with the original bully today. I guess we all (thankfully) outgrow our differences :-)

    • As Cecilia said, I don’t think it’s genetic as such, it’s because we have never had to move our facial muscles and speech organs in the way you have to to roll your “r”s. This means we need to learn how to physically produce the sound and keep practising, kind of like making a high note that you can’t get to when singing! For the same reason, Spanish students have problems pronoucing a “b” or an “h” – they need showing what to do with their tongue, teeth etc.

      • Agreed Michelle! Showing how the sound is produced (and many times being a bit exaggerated when reproducing it) are great help in getting our student to do it properly :-)

  4. “Maybe it’s time I forgot that year of -ED bullying…”

    But that’s one of the great advantages that non-native teachers have…the ability to say, “I’ve been there, and trust me, you definitely want to get THIS right!!” They don’t have to be able to speak like Kenneth Branagh, but…

    • Hi Dawn :-)

      I agree with you that’s one of the great advantages a non-native teacher has. But when I say maybe it’s time I forgot that -ED bullying I meant maybe I should relax about it with my students, not be so relentless on my teaching (and demanding) of the “perfect” -ED pronunciation… I think I’ve already started. Let’s wait and see what happens next semester!

      And just on a final note, I think the great advantage applies to native English speakers as well, at least those who have been language learners themselves. Of course NNESTs have a better, firsthand, idea of the obstacles and difficulties of learning English. But eveything counts! Which language gave you the hardest time to learn? ;-) thanks for the support!

  5. Tara Benwell says:

    This is such a great reflection. I love real life stories like this. You have given us another great reason why English learners can benefit from NNEST. I’m going to share this with the advanced English learners and NNEST teachers on MyEC because I think they will appreciate the story. You’ve really given me something to think about here and next time I share this page I’ll share your page too! Thank you!

  6. David says:

    Yes, I agree with Dawn – look at it as a strength and be proud! communication/meaning is the core and all the rest just add ons.

    That said, imagine being a Vietnamese speaker! In the past I’ve worked extensively with many Vietnamese who just can’t hit the hard consonant endings on any words, let alone “ed”. “Hard heart” sounds like “har har”.

    Pronunciation is such a personal thing but you just have to take the right attitude about it. For NNESTs, it is about “being there, done that” and just letting go. But also for NESTs – I have found there is a moment in all our teaching careers (or several) when we just “let go” and stop “playing/being THE teacher” and just concern ourselves with the learning, not the teaching.

    We all need to be reminded to let go of being a teacher and allow ourselves to get carried away with the learning. Keep letting go!

    David

  7. Really enjoyed reading this post. Should you let it go and do the rational thing? Good question! Well, maybe these days, yes… but why not explain what happened to you in Kansas as well? In purely native-speaker contexts where people aren’t used to accommodating to other Englishes (or simply can’t be bothered) this teasing could, of course, still go on. Whereas, in international contexts – as we know – this pron. error is likely to go unnoticed. But telling your learners about your experience could well inspire them to get it right, at least during the class ;-)

    The -ed ending is a fascinating one as well from a materials writer’s point of view. It’s clear that English’s status as a lingua franca has had a great influence on the way this pronunciation element is presented in published material these days. Even five years ago, this -ed focus was an absolute ‘must have’ in elementary coursbooks as part of the presentation of past simple regular verbs. If you didn’t have it, external reviewers and editors would be up in arms. Then the distinction between ‘loved’ and ‘smoked’ was dropped, and now in one of the latest adult coursebooks there is no mention of it all (only in the grammar reference at the back). Rather, students are just told to listen and work it out for themselves – a kind of guided discovery approach. Probably the path to follow in the future…

  8. Dear Cecilia

    yes, a joy to read your post: genuine, personal and at the same time really relevant to a teaching and life situations most of us can relate to. The thing I like most about it, perhaps, is how you turned a quite unpleasant personal experience into a valuable, and entertaining!, lesson. Personal experience indeed plays a very important part in decision-making.

    Thank you for sharing this!

    Marian

  9. Lucas Pires says:

    Gosh! If somwhere in the past you had pronunciation issues, I feel there is still hope for me to become a each day better NNEST. Thanks!

    @piresslucas

  10. seburnt says:

    It was very insightful to read the first-hand account of your pronunciation experience when abroad. It certainly enforces a reflection on how we treat student challenges.

    • Thank you Tyson :-) I think the experience has made me understand and be more sympathetic towards my students as far as pronunciation goes. I’m just afraid sometimes I may be a bit overbearing, afraid that my students go through the same I went. I just have to come to terms that everyone has a different experience, and that our experiences shape ourselves. So if they have to go through something similar, hopefully they’ll have something positive out of it – like I did. :-)

  11. I believe the only aspect of pronounciation that should be made an issue of are those sounds that do not exist in a certain speaker’s language. For instance, Hebrew speakers have difficulty pronouncing the non-existant “th” sound. For Arabic speakers its the “p” sound and for Japanese speakers it would be the “r” sound, etc. Your tale certainly shows how over-emphasis is a mistake!

    • Hi Naomi :-)

      Brazilian students also struggle with the “th” sound, and I think it should be looked over thoroughly by their teachers, because the incorrect pronunciation of that sound may cause misunderstandings or hinder effective communication. But I think all in all, pronunciation should be considered important as a means for comprehesion, not expecting the much talked-about “native-like”fluency. Over-emphasis sure is a mistake – and not only regarding pronunciation! Thanks for the insight on the difficulties of speakers of other languages! :-)

  12. Ranu says:

    Cecillia,
    how many times did you practice the ED? I’m struggling with it too. And for the native person who mocked you, he/she thought that it was funny..wait until he/she learns my national language or your native language. I think he/she couldn’t do it as better as we learn English.

    I have people like that…and never hope to meet any of them…

    • I can’t tell you how many times I practiced Ranu… just that after that comment I became very aware of t and made an extra effort to make my “ED’s more native-like… Never heard that kind of comment again… :-) Keep practicing Ranu :-) And never be afraid of speaking!

  13. jose torres. says:

    Hi Cecilia this is jose torres from mexico and i want to thank you for sharing your English information about your activities as teacher , look i am trying to be a teacher of English language but i can see that is a though career, now i am althe last lavel of my course, hoping achieve succesfuly but it’s a little hard because i am not a native english speaker, but anyway i am going to do my effort in order to teach someone else, best regards from mexico see you soon, bye.

    • Stick to it Jose!!! I’m not a native speaker either, but being an English teacher has made me study more and become a very proficient user of English. So don’t give up! I’m happy you like the blog – and hope you keep come back to check anything new! :-)

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