Saturday, January 23, 2016

Вниманы! Highly emotional L2 pronunciation teaching! (Ah . . . forget it!)
Every language has at least one expression that gets its message across better than most all other languages, emotionally and phonaesthetically. In Russian, for me at least, one is "Вниманы or Vnimanie!" (Attention!) Said with the right emotional "zing," it can "grab" the attention like no expression I have ever experienced.

Optimal holding and systematic management of learner attention and emotion is the foundation of haptic pronunciation work. (See earlier post.) It is often assumed, however, that simply the more emotion involved in language teaching or learning, the better; the better words and meanings are remembered. Turns out, not surprisingly, that is really not the case.

Research by Schirmer, Chen, Ching, Tan, Ryan and Hong (2012), summarized by Science Daily,  investigating the impact of emotion in the spoken voice on memory for words and meanings, confirms what common sense tells us: sometimes strong emotion either "clouds" or "enhances" both understanding and memory. In that study, subjects were wired with fMRIs and shown and heard spoken words with varying degrees and kinds of emotion.

In one condition " . . . participants recognized (the actual) words better when they had previously heard them in the neutral (relatively unemotional) tone compared with the sad tone." However, expressions spoken with more emotion captured subjects' attention better and were recognized more quickly later. In addition, women were better at recognizing emotionally loaded words than men. In effect, emotion seemed to enhance memory for meaning but  downgrade recall of specific words. The brain mapping confirmed the differential processing of the emotion-loaded targets. That makes sense. Emotion is more a discourse function, relating to context and the story.

In the context of language learning this research might suggest that emotion in the voice would enhance listening comprehension, for example--but perhaps not pronunciation or even remembering specific vocabulary. That has always been one of the "conundrums" of using drama in language teaching or highly "gesticular" routines: they do seem to improve general expressiveness, confidence, rhythm, and intonation but not pronunciation of individual words or even memory for them. It is not because attention isn't focused on the target but that the emotion involved simply directs attention elsewhere in the brain.

So what is the bottom line here? It is apparently this: Sometimes drawing learners' attention to pronunciation to be learned and remembered with various emotional overlays and highlights may be fun, stimulating and a good change of pace (and still worth doing, of course, for other reasons) but in the long run  . . . not all that memorable (unlike this post, of course!) That does not mean that the sterile language lab of old or the web-based "drilling machines" are the answer but that pronunciation teaching must generally be embedded in authentic communication where emotion and attention to form occur naturally and systematically--like in your classroom?

Springer Science+Business Media. (2012, December 11). Emotion in voices helps capture listener's attention, but in the long run the words are not remembered as accurately. ScienceDaily. Retrieved January 22, 2016 from

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Can't stand teaching pronunciation? You should reconsider!

When you work with pronunciation, how often do you have students on their feet? In both general education and business the benefits of "thinking on your feet" (literally) is well-established. (I'm doing this blogpost, as usual, standing in the kitchen next to the coffee maker!) A new study by Mehta, Shortz and Benden of Texas A&M University, summarized by Science Daily, seems to establish for the first time the specific "neuro-cognitive" basis of that effect.

Based on students' preferences, they were assigned to use standing desks during the experimental study. According to the authors, quoted by Science Daily:

"Test results indicated that continued use of standing desks was associated with significant improvements in executive function and working memory capabilities," Mehta said. "Changes in corresponding brain activation patterns were also observed."

 Wow! That almost deserves a standing ovation! On the blog in the past I've reported on a number of studies that demonstrate the cognitive benefits of exercise on learning and memory and the corresponding enhancement of attitude and motivation that getting students up and moving around produces.

AMPISys, Inc.
In the classroom application of haptic pronunciation teaching (and STRONGLY recommended for haptic independent study) virtually ALL initial training in the core pedagogical movement patterns is done with students on their feet, typically mirroring the the model on the LCD screen at the front of the room. (To preview those, go here.)

Even if your school is not set up with stand up desks, you can at least get students on their feet occasionally, not just for pronunciation but almost any in-class activity (as I'm sure many of you do already.) One of my all time favorites is the "Talkaboutwalkabout!" in fact.

Full citation:
Texas A&M University. "New study indicates students' cognitive functioning improves when using standing desks." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 14 January 2016. .

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Time to switch back to English Only (in pronunciation teaching)?
There is one counter-argument to use of L1 in the L2 classroom that you don't hear that often today: that L2 pronunciation may be compromised in the process. When I was trained 4 decades ago, that was a given. It may be time for a slight "switch" in perspective.

Goldrick, Runnqvist and Costa (2014), summarized by Psychological, conducted an interesting study where they had bilingual subjects switching back and forth between English and Spanish (their dominant language) nouns. Spanish consistently influenced their pronunciation of English consonants but English did not affect Spanish consonants. Spanish influence was not readily apparent when English terms were articulated consecutively.

The point of the study is that the additional processing load, itself, of switching--not just the differences in articulation of the L1 and L2 consonants--was contributing to the emergence of the more salient Spanish influence.

In an EFL class, where more of the speaking is in the L1 the "switching-processing" effect may be quite "pronounced." Even in an ESL class, where students, themselves, may be using the L1 privately, outside of the flow of the class, the effect on L2 pronunciation could, likewise, be significant. In the structuralist-audio-lingual period, exclusion of L1 in teaching was, indeed, a given.

Now if all the switching effect does is allow in a bit more "accent," then that may not be all that problematic, but that is not what the study seems to be implying: switching causes a generalized processing overload that probably affects much more than just pronunciation. It may be time we reexamine that effect, at least in terms of pronunciation teaching in integrated classroom instruction. The study deserves replication/extension to current methodology--and a closer look at L1 and L2 switching in your class as well?

Full citation:
Goldrick, M., Runnqvist, E., & Costa, A. (2014). Language Switching Makes Pronunciation Less Nativelike. Psychological Science, 25 (4), 1031-1036. DOI: 10.1177/095679761352001

Friday, January 1, 2016

3D pronunciation instruction: Ignore the other 3 quintuplets for the moment!
For a fascinating look at what the field may feel like--from a somewhat unlikely source, a 2015 book, 3D Cinema: Optical illusions and tactile experience, by Ross, provides a (phenomenal) look at how and why contemporary 3D special effects succeeds in conveying the "sensation of touch". In other words, as is so strikingly done in the new Star Wars epic, the technology tricks your brain into thinking that you are not only there flying that star fighter but that you can feel the ride throughout your hands and body as well.

This effect is not just tied in to current gimmicks, such as moving and vibrating theater seats or spray mist blown on you, or various odors and aromas being piped in, although it can be. Your mirror neurons respond more as if it is you who is doing the flying, that you are (literally) "in touch" with the actor. The neurological interconnectedness between the senses (or modalities) provides the bridge to greater and greater sense of the real or a least very "close encounter."

How does the experience in a good 3D movie compare to your best multi-sensory events or teachable moments in the classroom, focusing on pronunciation? 

It is easy to see, in principle, the potential for language teaching, creating one vivid teachable moment after another, "Wowing!" the brain of the learner with multi-sensory, multi-,modal experience. As noted in earlier blogposts on haptic cinema, based in part on Marks (2002), that concept, "the more multi-sensory, the better", by just stimulating more of the learner's (whole) brain virtually anything is teachable, is implicit in much of education and entertainment.

Although earlier euphoria has moderated, one reason it can still sound so convincing is our common experience of remembering the minutest detail from a deeply moving or captivating event or presentation. We all have had the experience of being present at a poetry reading or great speech where it was as if all our senses were alive, on overdrive. We could almost taste the peaches; we could almost smell the gun powder.

Part of the point of 3D cinema is that it becomes SO engaging that our tactile awareness is also heightened enormously. As that happens the associated connections to other modalities are "fired" as well. We experience the event more and more holistically. How that integration happens exactly can probably be described informally as something like: audio-visual-cognitive-affective-kinasethetic-tactile-olfactory and "6th sense!" experienced simultaneously.

At that point, apparently the brain is multitasking at such high speed that everything is perceived as "there" all at once. And that is the key notion. That would seem to imply that if all senses are strongly activated and recording "data" then, what came in on each sensory circuit will later still be equally retrievable. Not necessarily. As extensive research and countless commercially available systems have long established,  for acquisition of vocabulary, pragmatics, reading skills and aural comprehension, the possibilities of rich multi-sensory instruction seem limitless at this point.

Media can provide memorable context and secondary support, but why that often does not work as well for learning of some other skills, including pronunciation is still something of a mystery. (Caveat emptor: I am just completing a month-long "tour of duty" with seven, young grandchildren . . . ) In essence, our sensory modalities are not unlike infant octuplets, competing for our attention and storage space. Although it is "possible" to attend to a few at once, it is simply not efficient. Best case, you can do maybe two at a time, one on each knee.

The analogy is more than apt. In a truly "3D" lesson, consistent with Ross (2015), whether f2f or in media, where, for example, the 5 primary "senses" of pronunciation instruction (visual, auditory, kinaesthetic, tactile and meta-cognitive) are near equally competitive, that is vividly present in the lesson, overwhelmingly so. Tactile/kinaesthetic can be unusually prominent, accessible, in part, as noted in earlier blogposts, because it serves to "bind together" the other senses. In that context, consciously attending to any two or three simultaneously is feasible.

So how can we exploit such vivid, holistically experienced, 3D-like milieu, where movement and touch figure in more prominently? I never thought you'd ask! Because of the essentially physical, somatic experience of pronunciation--and this is critical, from our experience and field testing--two of the three MUST be kinaesthetic and tactile--a basic principle of haptic pronunciation teaching.(Take your pick of the other three!)

Consider "haptic" simply an essential "add on" to your current basic three (visual, auditory and meta-cognitive), and "do haptic" along with one or two of the other three. The standard haptic line-of march:

A. Visual-Meta-cognitive (very brief explanation of what, plus symbol, or key word/phrase)
B. Haptic-metacognitive (movement and touch with spoken symbol name or key word/phrase, typically 3x)
C. Haptic-auditory (movement and touch, plus basic sound, if the target is a vowel or consonant temporarily in isolation, or target word/phrase, typically 3x)
D. Haptic-Visual-Auditory (movement and touch, plus contextualized word or phrase, spoken with strong resonance, typically 3x)
E. Some type of written note made for further reference or practice
F. (Outside of class practice, for a fixed period of up to 2 weeks follows much the same pattern.)

Try to capture the learner's complete (whole body/mind) attention for just 3 seconds per repetition--if possible! Not only can that temporarily let you pull apart the various dimensions of the phonemic target for attention, but it can also serve to create a much more engaging (near 3D) holistic experience out of a potentially "senseless" presentation in the first place--with "haptic" in the mix from the outset.

Happy New Year!

Keep in touch.

Ross, M. (2015). 3D Cinema: Optical Illusions and Tactile Experiences. London: Springer, ISBN: 978-1-349-47833-0 (Print) 978-1-137-37857-6 (Online)