Saturday, October 15, 2011

Correcting pronunciation: Widdowson's error

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Recall Widdowson's famous dictum "Learners should communicate to learn, not learn to communicate." It doesn't take a great deal of reading or research to come to the conclusion that "error correction" in pronunciation work is both essential--and probably not a very useful concept. The relationship between what comes out of the learner's mouth and the appropriate target form is, of course, very much context dependent. For example, I have often used Hammerly's 1991 article as an example of structuralist error correction that probably worked. In week 4 of a tightly controlled, audiolingual method-based foreign language program for college freshman, his framework for providing appropriate feedback seems both workable and potentially very effective. (I know that it was, in fact.) However, once you step outside of that type of setting and into today's post communicative methodology, it gets very messy.

In previous posts we have explored many of the factors that can override or at least undermine haptic-based integration of sound change, effective "uptake" of modified forms--most recently visual field distractions. Ironically, the most powerful distractor of all may be genuine, fluent communication, as strange as that might sound at first. Pulling learners away in the middle of good communication and then struggling to get them back on course can often be pointless, at best.  For that to work in HICP both the engaging nature of the ongoing communication and the strong, anchored felt sense of the focus of the brief haptic aside must be in balance.

In spontaneous, efficient haptic integration and anchoring in the classroom, it is as if learner and instructor momentarily are able to "drop out" of the flow of communication to attend to formal feedback and then step back in, returning to the "higher level" work of the lesson naturally, seamlessly--as long as the lesson, itself, is inherently coherent and attention-grabbing as well. The seed of change is well planted and the learner's immediate conscious point of reference and interaction is seemingly unaffected.

Widdowson was actually right--as long as we understand "communication" in our work to also involve "talking directly to the body," in a sense, by passing the frontal "executive" part of the brain during some pronunciation feedback and adjustment. In fact, what I just described, the effective cutaway to attend to form and then return to the narrative, is the basic stuff of hypnotherapy. If that doesn't make sense now, it will later . . . "These are not the Druids you are looking for . . . "

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