Thursday, February 13, 2014

Correct pronunciation by talking about it: Think or swim . . .

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Ever notice how students often will not notice well enough to "get it"  when you point out a pronunciation issue for them and skillfully provide them with a preferred form on the spot?

A recent study of noticing by Hanna, Mullainathan and Scwartzstein (2012) suggests something of why from a different perspective. When their subjects, seaweed farmers, were presented with data that was potentially very valuable for them in improving their work and problem solving, they didn't "uptake" much either--unless the relevance of the key elements was also explicitly linked back to why they were critical or relevant.

In other words, the new data had to be immediately linked (somehow) to acknowledged and perceived (or felt) relevance, what we (following Gendlin, 1972) refer to as "felt sense." In pronunciation teaching with adults, that at least means "getting back in touch with" earlier explicit explanation and guided practice. The problem is often, without sufficient physical experience and practice of the sound change in the first place or in the referring "teachable moment," there is little chance for most that merely pointing out or covertly throwing in correct models is going to work.

And taking valuable class time in the middle of a content-based discussion, for example, to go into an impromptu explanation right there as to why that particular sound issue is important to intelligibility for some subset of learners will probably not be productive either. So what should you do?

What does work, in our experience, in EHIEP/AHEPS, is haptic anchoring (gesture + touch on stressed words or syllables), that is much more strongly body-based initial experience of the sound or word. Having intensely experienced the physical properties of the sound early on, learners then have better access to that anchor when it is activated in a meaningful context. (The basic trick involved in hypnotic suggestion.) The primary contribution of haptic engagement in pronunciation learning or any learning system is integrating the senses, providing the link back to the experience and sound later.

That way, in spontaneous conversation or classroom talk, after a problematic word or stress pattern occurs, with a quick "haptic-anchored noticing" as the word is repeated by the instructor, often w/out even saying the word out loud, the connection is made. The same principle holds if the instructor, aware of a feature that a student or students are working on, haptically anchors some element as he or she produces it in doing an explanation or providing a comment: the visual gesture accompanying the spoken word is often enough for students to "feel" and register that token.

How well that works consistently is, of course, an empirical question, one that can and will be researched in time. In the meantime, take it from the seaweed farmers. The only way to experience this level of somatic, whole-body, experiential learning . . . is to jump in the (haptic teaching) water .  .  . and notice what happens. As we say, "Think or swim . . . take your pick!

Keep in touch.

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