Sunday, August 16, 2015

Triggering pronunciation and accent change, safely: the drama, not the "trauma"

Clip Art:
A recent article in the Economist has a great cartoon up top with a sign posted at the front door of a campus: CAUTION: LEARNING MAY CAUSE TRAUMA! Avoiding emotional discomfort, especially events or micro-agressions that might trigger it (See earlier blogpost on that!) is apparently becoming a priority, a growth industry on campuses in North America (according to this recent piece in the Atlantic)--and pronunciation teaching as well.

I had two related conversations about a week ago, one with an instructor who did not do pronunciation, in part because it could make students uncomfortable. One further response to the question why (no pronunciation work) by the part-time instructor was something to the effect that: If students complain of hurt feelings, I'm out of work!

And a second, with a student who had recently completed an "awesome course that had totally transformed my thinking."  Even though the student reported that it had been an extraordinary "growth" experience--and the course, itself, was rated very highly--he had, nonetheless, severely taken the instructor to task on the final course evaluation for "inflicting" temporary, but undue pain and emotional distress along the way.

For decades many in the field have been focused on avoiding discomfort in language teaching, the theory being that learning is always best facilitated in relatively "stress-free" classrooms. (I realize that perspective may still be very much limited to North America, Europe and other pockets of excessively "consumer-sensitive" educational culture.) Research has long since established that some degree of stress is fundamental to learning of all kinds. Inescapable. Unresolved stress is another issue, of course.

From the "traumatized" student's perspective, the process trumped the product. In many ways, the institution's system of course evaluation, focusing on feelings and global judgements, is biased in that direction as well. In effect, his point was that there simply had to be a less emotionally "unsettling" way to achieve the same degree of understanding and "enlightenment". So, how do we construct "safe" challenges for today's students that at least momentarily move them just far enough out of their comfort zones long enough for the requisite learning experience without offending them?

Think back. How many of your "great" teachers could use the same tactics today and still keep their jobs? Two of my all time favourites are the "Rassias Method" founder, John Rassias, who, for calculated, dramatic effect in one famous demonstration, breaks eggs over the heads of select students, and, second, the "theatre of the absurd" approach to French, something like this at Amherst, that I survived as an undergraduate back in the 1970s!

One of the key elements of the earlier attention to culture shock, for example, was attributing emotional ups and downs of the adjustment process to the encounter with the new worldview and cultural norms--not just the teaching style of instructors. There was a time, too, when instructors were  not as vulnerable. As evident in the Atlantic article, even the tenured are no longer "safe" from the consequences of injured student egos and feelings, regardless of source or justification.

Most of the cross-cultural research on culture shock, including my own, was done during the more structural/behaviourist era in the field, where the role and authority of the instructor were quite different from where we are now. Although we have since found any number of ways to mediate the social and cultural dimensions of the cultural adjustment process, something like "pronunciation change shock", often a most personal and unsettling experience, often remains to be consistently and safely overcome or integrated. Can it, too, be made relatively "stressless"? To the extent that relative judgment as to speech "accuracy" is a public, interactional phenomenon, probably not.

A better approach has to be informed instruction that fully recognizes, manages and realistically embodies the essential, natural psychological processes of new identity formation that are especially evident in pronunciation and accent change (focussing on the broader, inherent DRAMA, not the inevitable--but passing--emotions that are being targeted, and consequently exaggerated and triggered much more readily, today).

Again, how do we do that? The "simple" answer is explicit use of drama, both as a metacognitive construct to understand the process and a classroom activity. (My favourite "go-to" or at least place to begin for newcomers to the idea is Gary Carkin's website.)

I have had a book project on the back burner for sometime now, one that, essentially, is composed of videos and annotated transcripts of classes from colleagues in the field that illustrate how that transformative "drama" safely and creatively plays out in the classroom.  I'll talk more about how I, personally, approach that shortly, here (and in v4.0 of the EHIEP system and the accompanying "Best of the HICPR Blog" book, available later this fall.)

In the meantime, I'd welcome your perspectives.

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