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.
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!