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

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