Tuesday, August 20, 2013

No native-speaker models for pronunciation teaching allowed? Rats!

Clip art: Clker
For a number of reasons, the native speaker as model (or target) for L2 pronunciation or accent has been displaced by most contemporary theorists and methodologists--but probably not by most classroom instructors and learners. At least not yet. The reality that one will not "get there," along with the cultural-political-psychological-pedagogical-historical baggage the native speaker model carries has become sufficient grounds to dismiss it.

Research by by Graybiel and Turney at MIT and Sandburg at Washington University of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research on the neurophysiological basis of persistence toward goal (by rats) suggests both just how critical a clear target is but also the importance of benchmarks on the way. One surprising finding of the research was the way brain dopamine levels reflected not just reaching a goal but the continuing awareness of being on the right course.

What does that mean for effective pronunciation teaching today? Creating good nonnative speaker and "near peer" models has turned out to be problematic at best. Although instructors may use recorded models that work, including themselves, there is still little agreement in the field on how to do that effectively. At least not yet!

The potential problem for the learner, of course, is not having a clearly discernible goal or model, irregardless of how unrealistic or culturally "incorrect" that endpoint may be. Both the general absence of workable targets and models, clear trajectories and achievable benchmarks--in most cases for theoretically valid pedagogical reasons--can easily leave learners not only without a plan but--short on dopamine, and consequently the motivation to stay at it.

So what to do? Haptic pronunciation instruction is a step in the right direction. In the interim, at least just keep in touch!

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