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 

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