Monday, November 30, 2015

The Music of Pronunciation (and language) Teaching

Like many pronunciation and "speaking" specialists, I have long believed that in some way systematic use of music should be "in play" at all times in class. I suspect most in the field feel the same. Up until recently there has not appeared to be much of an academically credible way to justify that or investigate the potential connection to language teaching more empirically.

A recent 2015 study, Music Congruity Effects on Product Memory, Perception, and Choice, by North, Sheridan and Areni, published in the Journal of Retailing (DOI, below), suggests some interesting possibilities. Quoting the summary, the study basically demonstrated that:
  • Ethnic music (e.g., Chinese, Indian) increased the recall of menu items from the same country.
  • Ethnic music increased the likelihood of choosing menu items from the same country.
  • Classical music increased willingness to pay for products related to social identity.
  • Country music increased willingness to pay for utilitarian products.
So, what may that mean for our work, or explain what we have seen in our classrooms?
  • (Recall) For example, we might predict that using English music of some kind with prominent vowels, consonants, intonation and rhythm patterns would enhance memory for them.
  • (Perception) Having listened to "English" music should enable being able to better perceive or recognize appropriate pronunciation models or patterns of English. I suspect that most language teachers believe that intuitively, have seen the indirect effects in how students' engagement with the music of the culture "works". 
  • (Milieu) I, like many, have used classical music for "selling" and relaxing and creating ambiance for decades. There is research from several fields supporting that. Only recently have I been attempting to tie it into specific phonological structures or sounds, especially the expressive, emotional and relational side of work in intonation. 
  • (Function) I frequently use country-like music or rap for working on functional areas, warm ups, rhythm patterns, and specific vowel contrasts.
I am currently experimenting more with different rhythmic, stylistic and genre-based varieties of music. (Specifically, the new, v4.0 version of the haptic pronunciation teaching system, EHIEP - Essential Haptic-integrated English Pronunciation.) Over the years I have used music, from general background or mood setting to highly rhythmic tunes tied directly to the patterns being practiced. I just knew it worked . . .

The "Music congruity" study begins to show in yet another way just how music affects both associative memory and perception, conveying in very real terms broad connections to culture and context. More importantly, however, it gives us more justification for creating a much richer and more "memorable" classroom experience.

If you use music, use more. If not, why not? 

In press (2015) doi:10.1016/j.jretai.2015.06.001

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Keeping the pain in pronunciation teaching (but working it out with synchronized movement and dance)

Three of the staples of pronunciation work, choral repetition, drill and reading have been making something of a comeback--but just waiting for studies like this one to surface. (Or, confirm what any experienced practitioner could tell you without doing a controlled study in the lab.) In essence, the key idea is: choral, doing it together, in sync.

 A 2015 study, Synchrony and exertion during dance independently raise pain threshold and encourage social bonding by Tarr,  Launay, Cohen and Dunbar found " . . . significant independent positive effects on pain threshold (a proxy for endorphin activation) and in-group bonding. This suggests that dance which involves both exertive and synchronized movement may be an effective group bonding activity." (Full disclosure here.) The dance treatment used was a type of synchoronized dancing at 130 beats per minute, which does sound relatively "exertive"--perhaps not a perfect parallel to use of synchronized gesture and body movement in language teaching. It is, I think, still close enough, especially when you review the extensive literature review presented in the article. (And besides, the subjects in the study were high school students who obviously have energy to "burn!")

One of the fascinating "paradoxes" of pronunciation instruction is the way use of gesture and movement can be both energizing and distracting. Appropriate choral speaking activities using synchronized gesture or body movement may work to exploit the benefits of prescribed movement, without the downsides, the "pain", including just the personal or cultural preferences related to the appropriateness of  moving one's body in public. (See several earlier posts on that topic.)

One of the major shifts in pronunciation teaching--and probably one reason for the concurrent lack of both interest in and effectiveness of current methodology, has been the move to "personalized" pronunciation with computers and hand held devices, as putative substitutes for "synchronized" learning in a class . . . of people, with bodies to move with. In essence, we have in many respects, disembodied pronunciation teaching, disconnecting it from both social experience and integrated (including the often relatively hard "exertion" of) learning.

In v4.0 of the EHIEP system, most of the basic training is done using designed pedagogical movement patterns, along with simple, line dancing-like dance steps. (There is also the option of doing the practice patterns without accompaniment, not to a fixed rhythm, although the work is still done with complete synchrony between instructor and student.) In most cases the "step pattern" is just a basic side to side movement with periodic shifts in orientation and direction, done in the 48 to 60 beats per minute range. (A demonstration video will be available later this month and the entire system, early next spring.)

One of our most successful workshops along these lines was titled: So you think you can dance your way to better pronunciation! Turns out, you can, even if that only means that all the bodies in the class are synchronized "naturally" as they mirror each others' movement as the result of their mirror neurons locking into highly engaged f2f communication in general.

Turns out the "pain" is essential to the process, both the physical and social "discomfort" since response to it and exploiting it also enables powerful, multi-sensory learning. Or as Garth Brooks put it: "I could have missed the pain, but I'd had to miss the dance."

Full citation:
Tarr, B., Launay, J., Cohen, E., Dunbar, R. (2015) Synchrony and exertion during dance independently raise pain threshold and encourage social bonding The Royal Society Biology Letter 28: October, 2015.DOI: 10.1098/rsbl.2015.0767

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Drawing on the haptic side of the brain (in edutainment and pronunciation teaching)

How is your current "edutainmental quality of experience" (E-QoE), defined as degree of excitement, enjoyment and "natural feel" (to multimedia applications) by Hamam, Eid and El Saddik of the DISCOVER Lab, University of Ottawa, in a nice 2013 report, "Effect of kinaesthetic and tactile haptic feedback on the quality of experience of edutainment applications"? (Full citation below.) EQoE (pronounced: E-quo, I'd guess) is a great concept. Need to come up with a reliable way of measuring it in our research, something akin to that in Hamam et al. (2013).

In that study, a gaming application configured both with and without haptic or kinaesthetic features (computer mediated movement and touch in various combinations, in this case a haptic stylus)--as opposed to having just visual or auditory engagement, employing just eyes, ears and hands--was examined for relative EQoE. Not surprisingly, the former was significantly higher in EQoE, as indicated in subject self-reports.

I am often asked how "haptic" contributes to pronunciation teaching and what is "haptic" about EHIEP. This piece is not a bad, albeit indirect, Q.E.D. (quod erat demonstrandum)--one of my favorite Latin acronyms learned in high school math! (EHIEP uses movement and touch for anchoring sound patterns but not computer-mediated, guided movement--at least for the time being!)

The potential problems with use of gesture in instruction, the topic of several earlier posts, tend to be (a) inconsistent patterns in the visual field, (b) perception by many instructors and students as being out of their personal and cultural comfort zones, and (c) over-exuberant, random and uncontrolled gesture use in general in teaching, often vaguely related to attempts to motivate or "loosen up" learners--or, more legitimately, to just have fun. EHIEP succeeds in overcoming most of the potential "downside" of body-assisted Teaching (BAT).

In a forthcoming 2016 article on the function of gesture in pronunciation teaching, the EHIEP (Essential, Haptic-integrated English Pronunciation) method is somewhat inaccurately described as just a "kinaesthetic" system for teaching pronunciation using gesture, a common misconception. EHIEP does, indeed, use gesture (pedagogical movement patterns) to teach sound patterns, but the key innovation is use of touch to make application of gesture in teaching controlled, systematic and more effective in providing modeling and feedback--and obviously enhance E-QoE--very much in line with Hamam et al (2013).

The gaming industry has been on to haptic engagement for decades; edutainment is coming on board as well. Now if we can just do the same with something as unexciting, un-enjoyable and "unnatural" as most pronunciation instruction. We have, in fact . . .

Keep in touch!


Hamam, A, Eid, M., and  El Saddik, A. (2013). Effect of kinaesthetic and tactile haptic feedback on the quality of experience of edutainment applications.Multimedia Tools and Applications archive
67:2, 455-472.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Good looking, intelligible English pronunciation: Better seen (than just) heard

One of the less obvious shortcomings of virtually all empirical research in second language pronunciation intelligibility is that is generally done using only audio recordings of learner speech--where the judges cannot see the faces of the subjects. In addition, the more prominent studies were done either in laboratory settings or in specially designed pronunciation modules or courses.

In a fascinating, but common sense 2014 study by Kawase, Hannah and Wang it was found that being able to see the lip configuration of the subjects, as they produced the consonant 'r', for example, had a significant impact on how the perceived intelligibility of the word was rated. (Full citation below.) From a teaching perspective, providing visual support or schema for pronunciation work is a given. Many methods, especially those available on the web, strongly rely on learners mirroring visual models, many of them dynamic and very "colorful." Likewise, many, perhaps most f2f pronunciation teachers are very attentive to using lip configuration, their own or video models, in the classroom.

What is intriguing to me is the contribution of lip configuration and general appearance to f2f intelligibility. There are literally hundreds of studies that have established the impact of facial appearance on perceived speaker credibility and desirability. So why are there none that I can find on perceived intelligibility based on judges viewing of video recordings, as opposed to just audio? In general, the rationale is to isolate speech, not allowing the broader communicative abilities of the subjects to "contaminate" the study. That makes real sense on a theoretical level, bypassing racial and ethnic and "cosmetic" differences, but almost none on a practical, personal level.

There are an infinite number of ways to "fake" a consonant or vowel, coming off quite intelligibly, while at the same time doing something very much different than what a native speaker would do. So why shouldn't there be an established criterion for how mouth and face look as you speak, in addition to how the sounds come out? Turns out that there is, in some sense. In f2f interviews, being influenced by the way the mouth and eyes are "moving" is inescapable.

Should we be attending more to holistic pronunciation, that is what the learner both looks and sounds like as they speak? Indeed. There are a number of methods today that have learners working more from visual models and video self recordings. That is, I believe, the future of pronunciation teaching, with software systems that provide formative feedback on both motion and sound. Some of that is now available in speech pathology and rehabilitation.

There is more to this pronunciation work than what doesn't meet the eye! The key, however, is not just visual or video models, but principled "lip service", focused intervention by the instructor (or software system) to assist the learner in intelligibly "mouthing" the words as well.

This gives new meaning to the idea of "good looking" instruction!

Full citation:
Kawase S, Hannah B, Wang Y. (2014). The influence of visual speech information on the intelligibility of English consonants produced by non-native speakers. J Acoust Soc Am. 2014 Sep;136(3):1352. doi: 10.1121/1.4892770.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Emphatic prosody: Oral reading rides again! (in language teaching)

Two friends have related to me how they conclude interviews. One (a) asks applicants "Napoleon's final question" (that he would supposedly pose to potential officers for his army): "Are you lucky?" and (b) has them do a brief, but challenging oral reading. 'A' provides most of what the first needs to know about their character. 'B', the other says, is the best indicator of their potential as a radio broadcaster--or as language teacher. I occasionally use both, especially in considering candidates for (haptic) pronunciation teaching.

One of the "standard" practices of the radio broadcasters (and, of course, actors) on their way to expertise (which some claim takes around 10,000 hours), I'm told, is to consistently practice what is to be read on air or performed, out loud. Have done a number of posts over the years on "read aloud" techniques in general reading instruction with children and language teaching, including the Lectio Divina tradition. Research continues to affirm the importance of oral work in developing both reading fluency and comprehension.

Recently "discovered" a very helpful paper 2010 paper by Erekson, coming out of research in reading, entitled, Prosody and Interpretation, where he examines the distinction between syntactic (functioning at the phrasal level) prosody and emphatic prosody used for interpretation (at the discourse level.) One of the interesting connections that Erekson examines is that between standard indices of reading fluency and expressiveness, specifically control of emphatic prosody. In other words, getting students to read expressively has myriad benefits. Research from a number of perspectives supports that general position on the use of "expressive oral reading" (Patel and McNab, 2011); "reading aloud with kids"  (De Lay, 2012); "automated assessment of fluency" (Mostow and Duong, 2009); "fluency and subvocalization" (Ferguson, Nielson and Anderson, 2014).

The key distinction here is expressiveness at the structural as opposed to discourse level.  It is one thing to get learners to imitate prosody from an annotated script (like we do in haptic work--see below) and quite another to get them to mirror expressiveness in a drama, whether reading from a script without structural cues, as in Reader's Theatre, or impromptu.

Oral reading figures (or figured) prominently in many teaching methods.  The EHIEP (Essential Haptic-integrated English Pronunciation) system, provides contextualized practice in the form of short dialogues where learners use pedagogical movement patterns (PMPs), gestural patterns to accompany each phrase which culminate with hands touching on designated stressed syllables. That is the most important feature of assigned pronunciation homework. Although that is, of course, primarily structural prosody  (in the Lectio Divina tradition) we see consistent evidence that oral performance leads to enhanced interpretative expressiveness.

I suspect that we are going to see a strong return to systematic oral reading in language teaching as interest in pragmatic and discourse competence increases. So, if expressiveness is such an important key to not only fluency but interpretation in general, then how can you do a better job of fostering that in students?


Read out loud, expressively: "Read out loud expressively and extensively!" 

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Alexander Guiora - Requiescat in pace

Last month the field of language teaching and language sciences lost a great friend, colleague, researcher and theorist, Alexander Guiora, retired Professor Emeritus, University of Michigan. To those of us in English language teaching, his early work into the concepts of empathy, "language ego" and second language identity, the famous "alcohol" study and others, were foundational in keeping mind and the psychological self foregrounded in the field. As Executive Editor of the journal, Language Learning, he was instrumental in elevating it to the place it holds today, the standard for research publication by which all others are to be measured.

Working with him, doing research as a doctoral student was a unique experience. His research group, composed of faculty and graduate students from several disciplines over the years, met every Friday morning. There was always a project underway or on the drawing boards. Several important, seminal publications resulted. Shonny was an extraordinary man. I recently shared the following with his family:

I think the great lesson we learned from him early on was how to be brutally honest--and yet still love and respect our colleagues unconditionally. All of us, recalling when were newbie grad students, "cherish" memories of being jumped all over for making a really stupid mistake-- which we would surely never commit again! And then, minutes later, he could just as well say something genuinely complimentary about an idea or phrasing in a piece that we were responsible for. Talk about cultivating and enhancing "language researcher ego"! He taught us to think and argue persuasively from valid research, how to not take criticism of our work, personally. Few of us did not develop with him a lasting passion for collaborative research.