Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Lying with verbal working memory: the truth about foreign language pronunciation training

“No man has a good enough memory to be a successful liar!” (according to  Abraham Lincoln), but according to a recent study by Alloway, et al of University of North Florida, summarized by Sciencedaily.com, 7 year old kids with better verbal working memory (as opposed to stronger visuo-spatial working memory) CAN be--and not only that, but they will probably be better at multitasking and social media and networking and more intelligent as adults!

Wow! Got all that? Sorry. I can't afford the 4-Starbucks-vente-carmel-frappacinno-equivalent to pay for the original article at the expensive Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, title, also courtesy of our friends at ScienceDaily.com (full citation below): Liar, liar, working memory on fire: Investigating the role of working memory in childhood verbal deception. 

Do high VWMs have an unfair advantage in other things, such as learning language and pronunciation as well? Any number of studies certainly suggests that. But can anything be done to level the playing field? Maybe . . .

Reminds me of a note on a back page of an accent reduction website some time ago that said, in effect that if you were happened to be a highly visual learner, as opposed to auditory, it might take you a little longer to fix your accent and cost you a little more money . . . In practice, the company would often turn down extremely "visual" students, based on their simple, online cognitive style questionnaire alone. Actually, my earlier experience in pronunciation and accent work might tend to confirm that, at least in the case of some of the most fossilized among my former students, except for recent fascinating developments in our understanding of both brain plasticity and the "myth" of cognitive or learning style preferences.

Bottom line: learners and their brains can be trained, with less pain than you might imagine, to develop more productive, integrated use of  their "less-preferred" ways or styles of learning. If you doubt that, go to Luminosity.com. Of course the irony here is that just studying language in school, with a few exceptions (cf. the Pimsleur method), requires a relatively higher level of visuo-spatial operating (and seat work) to survive, along with strong verbal (more auditory) working memory. And we wonder why girls are better language learners than boys?

So what does the study suggest for language and pronunciation learning in general? Basically, two things: First, use of visuo-spatial techniques, such as video and graphics--and even simple written text, without rich, integrated verbal practice is potentially more counterproductive than often thought. (No lie!) In other words, just reading explanations and a bit of "disembodied" practice "silently" done half-heartedly may be more than just a waste of time. It can, by taking an easier, more dis-integrated path, even further disconnect the two modalities, (verbal-auditory) sound from (verbal-visual) meaning.

Second, as noted above, because it is now very much possible to train learners to be more effective in modalities other than their favourite(s)--and counter to a number of other recent studies on the problems with multi-tasking--enhanced meta-cognitive, multi-tasking in verbal working memory is still critical to most forms of language learning, but especially pronunciation. How to integrate those key modalities efficiently or at least better has always been the important question.

I realize that is a lot to think about, but, to tell the truth . . . there is, as always here, at least a haptic answer to that question! Haptic pronunciation work, although definitely more visuo-spatial in practice also adds potent tactile anchoring to the mix, which serves to integrate the other two more effectively. One way, but not the only way, of course.

Keep in touch!

ScienceDaily.com page: University of North Florida. "Good working memory can make you a better liar." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 20 June 2015. .

Friday, June 26, 2015

P(fff)FT! Bubble Up Theory! Improve your accent by not thinking about (it)?

According to Passive Frame Theory, (or as I like to call it: Bubble Up Theory) the answer to the question "What was I thinking?" is probably: "I wasn't!"--literally. (Spoiler alert: Some slightly "fishy" metaphors follow.)

Occasionally you stumble onto an idea or model that seems just a great fit for some aspect of your work but, unfortunately, doesn't have quite enough empirical or popular support . . . yet. "Passive Frame Theory," proposed by Morsella of San Francisco State University, attempts a very different characterization of how everyday consciousness works.

For example, as you read this any reaction you have to this post such as "This is really goofy!" is just a brief, near random, unconsciously generated image bubbling up from someplace "in there" that is not much related to what we might have earlier referred to as conscious, logical thinking. About all your consciousness is really capable of, apparently, is something like navigating you into Starbucks safely and deciding on a tall or grande.

There are two recent reviews of that model, one by Science Daily and another more "colourful," readable and entertaining version by the Daily Mail. (Full citation of the original research report below.) Do a quick read of the latter! Citing the Science Daily version:

"According to Morsella's framework, the "free will" that people typically attribute to their conscious mind -- the idea that our consciousness, as a "decider," guides us to a course of action -- does not exist. Instead, consciousness only relays information to control "voluntary" action, or goal-oriented movement involving the skeletal muscle system."

That would certainly help explain a lot the conversation I hear around the office every day--but more importantly, it may also suggest why changing pronunciation can be so challenging--and how to do it more effectively. Without spending too much time thinking about "Passive Frame Theory" (which would be counter to the theory anyway), what "tools" would it provide us in pronunciation teaching Very simply put, it would argue that asking learners to "self-monitor" their speech to avoid pronunciation problems is not only futile; it is counterproductive. (That basic position has been around for decades, of course.) That is not what our fleeting consciousness is for after all. But how do you set up your brain's subconscious circuitry with models to be bubbled up from effectively?

As many "older" models had recommended, especially those in public speaking methodology, rapid improvement must be based on serious previous, focused practice on the specific problematic sounds or processes for the learner--prior to going "live" in conversation. Production "issues" (physical actions and the sounds they create) will then be recognized when one is uttered and the response "from below has bubbled up." In other words, we should allow--in fact encourage--recognition to be noted but only in passing, and then left to be integrated and "re-bubbled" as necessary, trusting the "team" in the bubble factory downstairs to handle it--or perhaps practiced later explicitly in isolation.

The term we in haptic pronunciation teaching use for that is "post hoc monitoring", just acknowledging or quickly noting bubbled up messaging--based on targeted earlier preparation. And we are also, understandably, on board with the idea that consciousness can at least manage " . . .  goal-oriented movement involving the skeletal muscle system . . ." which is the essence of Essential Haptic-integrated English Pronunciation approach (EHIEP) methodology.

And what is the roll of classroom explanation and explicit correction in that model? At least to persuade students with insight and rationales for practice (and drill) and provide them with some opportunities to do so in class or as homework.

Bottom line: physical, experienced practice counts.

An interesting, potentially useful model and metaphor. Certainly worth thinking about!

Full citation:
Morsella, E., Godwin, C., Jantz, T., Krieger, S., Gazzaley, A. (2015). Homing in on consciousness in the nervous system: An action-based synthesis. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 2015; 1 DOI: 10.1017/S0140525X15000643

Monday, June 15, 2015

Micro-aggression in (pronunciation) teaching

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One of the common responses in research as to why contemporary instructors don't deal much with pronunciation or attempt to correct it is what might be characterized as (fear of) committing a "micro-aggression." New term for you?

In a recent workshop, one of the participants stated his reason for being hesitant about correcting pronunciation (paraphrasing slightly): I'm just afraid that I might hurt their feelings or mess with their identity. He had a good point. How do you avoid that?

The topic of micro-aggression is in the news currently after comments by University of California President, Napolitano, claiming that attention to micro-aggression as an essential way to " . .  . build and nurture a productive academic climate." It is defined, according to the UC Tool: Recognizing Microaggressions and the Messages They Send)  as:

" . . . brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmenral indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, (emphasis, mine) that communicate hostile, de­rogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of colour. Perpetrators of micro-aggressions are often unaware that they engage in such communications when they interact with racial/ethnlc minorities."

Noting that "The context of the relationship is critical," the Tool, nonetheless, lists about two dozen statements and "attitudes" (and interpretations) to be avoided such as these four language-related, examples:
  • Asking: "Where are you from or where were you born?” 
  • Attempting a compliment: "You speak English very well." 
  • Inquiring of a Latino: "Why do you have to be so loud/animated? . . . " 
  • Telling an Asian: "We want to know what you think. . . . Speak up more."
There are at least four general types of micro-aggressions, according to the original formulation by Wing, et al. (2007) of Teachers College of Columbia University: (a) micro-assaults, (b) micro-invalidations, (c) micro-insults, and (d) environmental micro-aggressions. 

We could easily add some more potentially micro-aggressive statements of the b, c and d varieties that could "hurt," related to pronunciation instruction: 

"I don't understand what you just said." 
"I have no trouble understanding you." 
"X is a good model for your pronunciation." 
"X isn't a good model for your pronunciation." 
"There is no need for you to sound like Tom or Penelope Cruise." 
"There were several pronunciation problems that came up during the discussion . . . " 
"That's a "th" at the beginning, not "d" . . .  
"Listen to your partner's pronunciation. Write down any mistakes you hear."
"You need to improve your pronunciation a little."
"You have a delightful accent."
"Stick out your tongue . . . "
"That's pronounced X, not Y."
"Repeat that after me, please."
(Nonverbal) Grimace but didn't say anything.
(Nonverbal) Smile, despite unintelligibility. 

All of those could, according to Wing, et al.'s framework,  convey the message that there is something seriously "wrong" with the learner's pronunciation--or identity. How do you insure that the target is only the former, not the latter? Or can you? Or is it better not to take the risk of "micro-agressing in the first place? Look forward to your comments. (No micro- or macro- aggression, please!) 

Full citations:
Sue, D., (2010). Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Race, Gender and Sexual Orientation, New York: Wiley & Sons.
Wing, S., Capodilupo, A., Toprlno, D., Bucceri,J., Holder, A., Nadlll, K. and Esquilin, M. (2007). Racial Micro-aggressions in Everyday Life: implications for clinical practice, American Psychologist 62:4, 271-286 

Sunday, June 7, 2015

High intensity training: Mind, body--and pronunciation!

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It is no coincidence that many, if not most, "hapticians"(those who teach pronunciation with a focus on systematic gesture and touch) tend to be avid "exercisers"--or at least try to workout regularly.  If you are not already into "high intensity training" (HIT), you should be! Here is a good article on merola.com website that lays out the case well, especially for those of us who spend more than 15 minutes at a time at a keyboard.

It is possible to get and stay very fit in about 3, 30-minute sessions a week--without equipment (a Spartacus body-weight workout, one of my favourites!) The same goes for efficient (haptic) pronunciation practice (with 3 or 4 good practice sessions a week.)

One of the main problems today with pronunciation teaching is that it often lacks the intensity, disciplined practice and focus that it had decades ago when the drill and practice model was in vogue.  We have the solution, at least for that! The parallels between HIT and HIPT (haptic-integrated pronunciation teaching) should be no surprise either. Four in particular are worth noting, especially the last one:

  • Both require intense effort and near total, undivided attention for relatively short periods of time.
  • Both depend upon strict attention to correct form. 
  • Progress requires consistent practice with good form. 
  • "Corrections" or refinements depend critically upon direct reference back to earlier training

  • HIT seems to work incredibly well, as long as you start slowly, getting the fundamentals down. From there you can exponentially crank up the intensity without injury, constantly monitoring form. 

    HIPT works equally well--as long as the basic (pedagogical movement) patterns are developed early on so that they can then be used in the classroom for modelling, feedback and correction. 

    v4.0 of the haptic pronunciation system (coming out this fall) will have some HIT features, especially for core and cardio enhancement. But you don't have to be in great condition yet to do HIPT--just go here!