Sunday, July 31, 2016

Becoming an "expert" at English pronunciation: practice may not make perfect!

The recent (and welcome) debunking of the "10,000 hours of required practice to become an expert" myth by several studies, including that by Macnamara, Moreau, and Hambrick, summarized by, has interesting implications for pronunciation learning and teaching. Gladwell's popular theory was that the only path to true expertise was by practicing for years until you reached the 10,000 hour threshold. That, of course, did not guarantee "master" status, but there seemed few "masters" who did not appear to have similarly paid their "hourly" dues, so to speak.

What the Macnamara et al. research focused on was the variability associated with excellence in various disciplines or arts. Results varied widely. In a report on a meta-analysis described in "Psychological Science", Macnamara and colleagues note the following:

However, the domain itself seemed to make a difference. Practice accounted for about 26% of individual differences in performance for games, about 21% of individual differences in music, and about 18% of individual differences in sports. But it only accounted for about 4% of individual differences in education and less than 1% of individual differences in performance in professions.

There is obviously a lot going on there, but of particular interest for us is the overall range of "skill areas" sampled. In a very real sense, ALL of those relate to pronunciation proficiency, in part due to the relative degree of physical and cognitive involvement required, especially for adult-age learners. My guess is that pronunciation probably falls somewhere in the middle, around 10 to 15%.

So, if that is the case, what would that mean for instruction? One obvious question is how much practice is effective at different stages of the acquisition process. A new study getting underway here, which will be reported on in a Panel presentation on the role of homework in pronunciation teaching, at the TESOL convention in Seattle next March 27th, will address that question.

Some preliminary interview work with a broad slice of learners about their pronunciation practice  suggests that something like the 26-21-18-4-1 ratios may actually map on to beginning through highly advanced L2 phonological proficiency and "accent retention".

In other words, as learners improve, the demand for pronunciation practice diminishes accordingly. That, of course, makes perfect sense--as long as the "bottom" is addressed. Without the 26-21-18 in the early stages--which entails significant degree of body or physical engagement--learning the sound system to "intelligibility" level can be seriously compromised for many learners.

When the "education" approach is taken from the outset, with its resulting 4% variance--and its generally strong cognitive vs physical practice approach to pronunciation--little wonder some conclude that practice (primarily insight, plus aural comprehension and oral drills) often does not appear to make much difference.

Reminds me of Tom Scovel's wonderful tongue-in-cheek definition of an "expert": "ex-" (former, "has been" out of touch) plus "spurt" (gush out forcefully but be gone quickly)

See you in Seattle, if not before!

Original source reference:
B. N. Macnamara, D. Moreau, D. Z. Hambrick. The Relationship Between Deliberate Practice and Performance in Sports: A Meta-Analysis. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 2016; 11 (3): 333 DOI: 10.1177/174569

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Pronunciation "workabouts": brain train or drain?
There are decades of research on the potential effects of exercise of various kinds on the brain, from cognitive training (such as Luminosity) to physical training such as jogging or working out in the gym.  Interesting recent study (Summarized by by Chapman, Aslan, Spence, Keebler, DeFina, Didehbani, Perez, Lu, and D'Esposito of the University of Texas explores the relationship between exercise (mental and physical), decision making and memory"Distinct Brain and Behavioral Benefits from Cognitive vs. Physical Training: A Randomized Trial in Aging Adults."

 A key finding was how the two complement each other: "Aerobic activity and reasoning training are both valuable tools that give your brain a boost in different ways." In essence what they found, not surprisingly, was that mental training/exercise, like Luminosity, improves executive functions (planning and decision making); whereas physical exercise enhances memory.

So, how might enhancing general cognitive and physical conditioning improve learning pronunciation? As opposed to other dimensions of language learning, pronunciation involves a unique degree of physical engagement. In adults, that must generally be balanced with effective conscious, cognitive involvement (explanation, insight, discovery, planning, communicative practice, etc.) What the research suggests is that although cognitive training and engagement should be good for the brain (and pronunciation), without sufficient, "body engagement and training" learners, especially adults, may not be able to remember well what they have been taught.

My guess is that before long we will be doing much more specifically non-language related cognitive and (and even aerobic) physical training in preparing students and maintaining optimal brain conditioning for learning. Many programs and methods do that now randomly or intuitively, but the research points toward much more systematic and targeted training approaches.

For example, Marsha Chan's entertaining "Pronunciation workout" videos attempt to use high energy, highly kinaesthetic exercises to get the body and motivation activated in learning sounds and selected prosodics (e.g., rhythm and stress). What the cognitive/physical training study suggests is that "fun" may motivate and present aspects of pronunciation well, but the critical connection to that sound pattern may be weak, at best, in part because kinesthetic/body experience is remembered more as a whole--not just isolated pieces of the "moving" event. As Willingham (2005) puts it: "What is critical is that the child is taught in the content's modality." (not simply in her preferred or isolated modality such audio or visual or kinesthetic.)
What cognitive science has taught us is that children do differ in their abilities with different modalities, but teaching the child in his best modality doesn't affect his educational achievement. What does matter is whether the child is taught in the content's best modality. - See more at:
What cognitive science has taught us is that children do differ in their abilities with different modalities, but teaching the child in his best modality doesn't affect his educational achievement. What does matter is whether the child is taught in the content's best modality. - See more at:
And what is the "content modality" of pronunciation in teaching? A delicate balance of cognitive and kinesthetic engagement. In practical terms, one implication of the research is that we too often, to paraphrase Damasio (2005), commit "Decartes' error" of separating mind from the body ("I think, therefore, I am learning pronunciation!") For most learners, understanding and insight (at least in pronunciation teaching) must be well-integrated with physical, experiential learning and practice if new sound is to be efficiently remembered and available later in spontaneous speaking and listening.

A complementary approach balanced with Nike's nonsequitur--"Just do it!, is essential. If you are not sure about how to make that happen in your classroom, one way is to "Just ask (your neighborhood haptician)!" 

Center for BrainHealth. "Mental, physical exercises produce distinct brain benefits." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 18 July 2016.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Why your avatar (could/will) make a better pronunciation teacher than your are!
Since the emergence of Second Life in 2003, I have been fascinated with the prospect of avatars teaching language. At the time, for technical reasons, I could not get my avatars to respond quickly enough with good audio to do much and gave up. (From recent reviews, it appears that most of those issues, including monitoring of offensive content, have been resolved and I may give it another look.)

A 2016 study of avatars teaching math to kids by Cook, Friedman, Duggan, Cui and Popescu provides an interesting perspective. The focus of the study was to attempt to isolate the effect of gesture, independent of facial expression, body motion and other features of the presenter's persona. As the researchers note, one of the problems with identifying the impact of gesture (from the abstract) is that it is "known to co-vary with other non-verbal behaviors, including eye gaze and prosody along with face, lip, and body movements . . . "

The avatars presented a fixed background such that only the hand movement varied. (The voice used and various graphic figures remained constant.) The effect was "pronounced". The subjects who viewed the gesturing avatar not only learned the concepts more successfully but also were later able to apply the material better. (That is not really surprising since a number of studies have established that students just learn better when teachers gesture more.) But avatars bring something more to the party--or less!

In principle, how much of pronunciation could an avatar teach (either with or without gesture assist)? Probably most of it. (And I predict that that day is not far off.) One reason for that, mentioned above by Cook et al. is the fact that gesture tends to co-vary with other "non-verbal behaviors" such as . . . prosody? (Prosody is nonverbal? Really?)The basis of effective gesture use in instruction often depends critically on the learners' attention being "locked" on the cuing or anchoring motion; the gesture in tern is also strongly associated with a sound or process.

As reported in several previous posts, loss of attention or distraction is a most important variable in haptic (gesture plus touch) pronunciation teaching as well. The video models that we use now are for the most part black and white, with black background and no subtitles on screen, designed to focus learner attention on the movement and positioning basically of my hands, not the model's face or body. Addition of color, extraneous movement, or additional graphics will always pull at least some learners away from the focus of the lesson embodied in the pedagogical gestures. (Research on competition between visual, auditory and kinaesthetic or haptic, has demonstrated consistently that visual displays almost always trump the others, even in combination.)

For gesture-based pronunciation or other kinds of instruction for that matter, interactive "thinking" and responding Avatars offer real promise. The technology has been around for over a decade, in fact. Advantages of avatars include:
  • Individualized, more affordable computer-based instruction 
  • Systematic application of gesture in instruction, especially providing consistent placement of gesture in the visual field.
  • More effective attention management, neutralizing potential visual distractions
  • Emotionally "comfortable" instruction for a wider range learner personalities
  • Avoids unconscious transmission of:
    • Instructor "bad day" images and attitudes
    • Typical "hyperactive" pronunciation teacher behavior
    • Overreactions, positive or negative, to student miscues or "victories"
    • Instructor bias toward "teacher pets" or gaze avoidance in eye contact patterning during instruction
 Time to reactivate my Avatar. Will upload a demo later this summer.  

 Cook, S. W., Friedman, H. S., Duggan, K. A., Cui, J. and Popescu, V. (2016), Hand Gesture and Mathematics Learning: Lessons From an Avatar. Cognitive Science. doi: 10.1111/cogs.12344

Sunday, July 10, 2016

A "reptilian brain" approach to pronunciation teaching (What Haskel says neuroscience says!)
Fun, superficial, slightly funky 2015 blogpost by Haskel at on marketing, appealing to the "Reptilian brain". "Appeal to neuroscience" (what was formally called "brain research") has now become one of the favorite foils of both educators and comedians. A recently discovered "bug" in the use of fMRIs may cast some additional, welcome doubt on that, in fact.  No matter what you want to "sell" . . . there seems to be some neuroscientist's often pseudo-scientific research study to back you up.

Haskel identifies 7 findings of neuroscience that suggest how to market anything (even your pronunciation teaching, I assume!) as long as you aim your pitch right at your students' "reptilian brains": pain, selfishness, contrast, tangibility, beginning and endings, visual metaphors, and "strike an emotional chord".
A. Pain - "All native speakers hate you because of your pronunciation or accent! Shed it!"
B. Selfishness - "Your accent is your identity, your inner Komodo. Next time somebody criticizes it, just tell them to be more multicultural and get over it!"
C. Contrast - "Have a good snake as a model: Justin Trudeau, David Cameron, Vladimir Putin or Barack Obama--take your pick."
D. Tangibility - "You do these tongue twisters long enough, they'll fix anything--including your lizard-like sun-tanned appearance."
E. Beginning and end - "Imagine your pronunciation now and how it will sound at the end of this course. Fill your mind with new sounds . . . Channel your inner cameleon (See C!)"
F. Visual metaphor - "Watch this CT-scan of me pronouncing 'th' several times tonight, especially my darting tongue." 
G. Strike an emotional chord - "All those notes in the book and in research about how hard it is to change your pronunciation are just a crock! You can do this!"

Coming soon: A pre-frontal (brain) peon to Teacher Cognition research in pronunciation teaching.