Thursday, December 20, 2012

Good to great pronunciation: the "happiness" model

One of the most challenging aspects of pronunciation work is the "meta-communicative" function of appropriately identifying change and then predicting what is next. I was struck by the analogy between that process and aspects of this 2012 study by Sheldon of University of Missouri-Columbia (Summarized by Science Daily) that suggests that sustaining happiness involves two main factors: " . . .   the need to keep having new and positive life-changing experiences and the need to keep appreciating what you already have and not want more too soon." (The validity of the study may, of course, be compromised by the fact that it involved 481 subjects living in the Riverside, California area . . . )

The criteria underlying that definition of "happiness" are wonderfully revealing, culturally "Californian" and near debilitating. Evolving pronunciation may not be correlated with many positive "life-changing" experiences, but the question of instructor and learner awareness of what the process is and how it is going is often crucial, especially at points such as the move from "good to great." (Collins' 2005 book, Good to Great, a business classic, describes that general threshold well.) In other words, it is often not the target that is the problem, but the surreal expectations involved. Western teaching methodology in general too easily relies on motivation to finish the job--or take responsibility for failure.  

There was a time, of course, when the bar of native speaker-like pronunciation was set impossibly high--for any number of reasons-- but at least it did give one a scale to work with.  But now that at least some (informed theorists and teachers) have accepted the target of "intelligible" speech, it has become easier to "appreciate what you have and not want more . . . " 
Clip art: Clker

Until there is considerably more change in societal attitudes and human nature, however, problematic pronunciation may still interfere with the need for positive, life-changing experiences, like going from a good job to a great one--or from English class to any job. You and your students happy with that? If not, what do you expect? More importantly, what do you expect them to expect? 

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