Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Easy pronunciation change? You'd better believe it!

One of the most striking findings of research on teacher cognition about pronunciation teaching is that, especially those newer to field often believe it to be REALLY hard, difficult and intimidating (e.g., Burri 2017). There is less (much less) research on why that should be the case--or on how that can be best moderated, or prevented to any extent. We are talking here primarily about expectations.

As usual, my "go to" source for understanding how to affect pronunciation change is . . . sport. Pronunciation change is a physical business, one that from my perspective is best approached from that perspective, at least initially. But here is a case where the right "metacognitive set" can be enormously important, such as in the case of a new study by Mothes, Leukel, Seelig and Fuchs titled, "Do placebo expectations influence perceived exertion during physical exercise?" summarized by

On the surface of it, the research confirmed the common sense notion that expectations can dramatically influence performance. One feature of the study, for example, was that wearing great looking compression tights, and believing that they "work" makes exercise less strenuous or at least one's perception of effort. Being an enthusiastic wearing of that athletic placebo, I have been all in and a believer for years . . .

But how can this make pronunciation teaching and change easier?  Easy. What students pick up from you about pronunciation change impacts more than just their perception of how difficult it is. In other words, it is at least as much the fault of the method and the instructor's personal, professional presence as it is the learner's ability and L1 meddling. To paraphrase the great Pogo observation: We have met the enemy (of pronunciation change) and it is . . . us!

I'd recommend that you begin with some kind of compression top that gets the right message across, of course . . . probably not something like the message conveyed in the following from the forward to Orion, 1989 (quoted in Acton, 1992):

"Acquiring good pronunciation is the most difficult part of learning a new language. As you improve your articulation you have to learn to listen and imitate all over again. As with any activity you wish to do well, you have to practice, practice, practice, and then practice some more . Remember that you cannot accomplish good pronunciation overnight; improvement takes time. Some students may find it more difficult than others and will need more time than others to improve ( pp. xxiii-iv)."

It is "easier" from a haptic perspective, depending on the extent to which you Train the body first! (Lessac, 1967) in pronunciation teaching and project the right message both verbally and non-verbally. The key element here is the physical basis of change, not just pronunciation itself, the significance of the research to in our work. Conceptually, it is important that that distinction is kept in mind (and body)!

So, what do your class expectations for ongoing pronunciation improvement feel like? How do you create and sustain that? I'm expecting some great comments/insights to follow here!

You'd better believe it!

Hendrik Mothes, Christian Leukel, Harald Seelig, Reinhard Fuchs. Do placebo expectations influence perceived exertion during physical exercise? PLOS ONE, 2017; 12 (6): e0180434 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0180434

University of Freiburg. (2017, June 30). Sport feels less strenuous if you believe it's doing you good. ScienceDaily. Retrieved July 4, 2017 from

1 comment:

Bill Acton said...

Have had some delightful responses to this post, offline. Note: I did not say that pronunciation change is easy necessarily, even for the best instructors and most motivated students. How the process is represented, however, is often a very different matter entirely. Just because a sound is difficult for the uninformed learner initially does not mean that with good instruction, "fixing" it must be all that painful or require extraordinary effort. As irrelevant as it probably is, after 45 years in the field, I find very few pronunciation problems that are not readily amenable to efficient, effective "repair", particularly under the conditions described above!

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