Monday, December 26, 2016

Passionate about teaching pronunciation? Amygdala for your thoughts . . .

Tigger warning*: The following contains neuro-science-related material that may be perceived by some as being mildly political . . . This research by Kaplan, Gimbel and Harris of USC, summarized by SciencDaily, is just too "target rich" a piece to pass up.

The research question was something like: Why is it so difficult to get people to change their opinions on things like religion and politics? (The same problem is evident in changing attitudes toward pronunciation--and in many ways, perhaps, for the same reasons, I think.) In essence, here is what they did:
  • Found 40 self-identified, political liberals and then  . . .
  • Had them respond to statements that seemed to contradict either their political beliefs or their beliefs about non-political things such as who is smartest guy who ever lived, etc. 
  • Connected them up to fMRI technology to observe how their brains lit up in each condition
What they found was that:
  • On nonpolitical challenges, most expressed some change in position, however slight--and the brain response was relatively unemotional.
  • On the political issues, however, there was virtually no change in position, accompanied, however, by a stronger emotional response in their collective amygdalas. 
  • And their conclusion (get ready): " . . . when we feel threatened, anxious or emotional, then we are less likely to change our minds." (In part because our core identity and "deep" thinking responses have been threatened or intruded upon.)
Caveat emptor: The subjects were all political liberals, self-professed, no less--from Southern California. Why so? Why was it not a "balanced" design, say with political conservatives from the Napa Valley of California, or . . . Texas? Was it that that group tended to be more emotional in reacting to challenges to their beliefs? (Liberals, more reactive or conservatives, less, in general? Nah!) Was it that it was impossible to find 40 conservatives in Southern California? The researchers do not comment on that . . (I will leave that rabbit trail to the interested reader . . . ) But see earlier research on this topic!

As research on teacher cognition has repeatedly demonstrated, beliefs about pronunciation tend also to be emotionally charged. Based on this research, I may have to go back and review the subject pools of that earlier research to check for political orientation of the teachers/subjects/researchers, too! Who knew?

The study may, however, as the researchers suggest, give us some additional insight into how (carefully and circumspectively) we might go about persuading others to do more pronunciation work in class.

But by allowing teachers to avoid pronunciation entirely for fear of triggering emotional reactions and violating safe identities, have we just been too "conservative" on this issue--or not conservative enough in interpreting the research in the first place?  As is evident now in most contemporary stress reduction systems, inoculation and gradual introduction of problematic stressors has been proven to be far more effective than either avoidance or relaxation/coping methods.

So, Just do it, eh!

Tigger warning (used on this blog in lieu of "trigger" warnings)
Translation of "Amygdala for your thoughts . . ." in the title.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Tired of just "horsing around" with pronunciation? Key principles of equestrian training applied to pronunciation teaching
If you have followed this blog for a bit, you know that some of my favorite models for understanding key aspects of body-biased/haptic pronunciation teaching come from golf (Hank Haney) and horse training (Griffin, University of Kentucky), two disciplines where "training the body first" (Lessac) are a given. Recently I spent a pleasant evening with trainers of "cutting" quarter horses.

The commonality of effective training concepts was striking. One reason for that is that both disciplines require at least understanding of how to train the body, relatively independent of language and meta-cognitive involvement. Here are some of the principles from Griffin's list, along with my informal extrapolation to pronunciation teaching (in italics):

  • "Research has shown that horses work harder and maintain higher response rates when reinforcements are not on a predictable schedule. You should avoid becoming routine when reinforcing responses." Question: How do you reinforce appropriate pronunciation? My guess is that you have a very limited repertoire of responses, at best. Record yourself or have a colleague observe you in action . . . weep!
  • "Long, concentrated learning sessions are an inefficient method of training horses. A more effective training method is to have more training sessions per week of shorter duration. Work on different maneuvers each day. Refrain from repetitive drilling on a maneuver after the horse has learned it well." This is the gold standard of integrated instruction, especially with multi-level classes, requiring consistent preparation and follow up. That last note is especially revealing, what is known as the "delearning effect." (In haptic instruction that is particularly relevant.)
  • "Inherent emotionality is a horse's (general) psychological state.  . . . A good trainer quickly recognizes the emotional state of the horse and adjusts training regimens accordingly." Pronunciation teaching/learning is perhaps the most emotionally problematic aspect of language learning. Research (e.g. Baker, 2012) has established that a surprising number of instructors avoid pronunciation for that reason alone.
  • "  . . . An older horse may have a decreased learning performance, most likely because it has learned to ignore the type of stimuli often utilized in learning." This actually goes back to the first point: balance between variety and consistency. Pronunciation techniques have the (probably deserved) reputation of being boring in the extreme, with drill and meaningless "speaking" or oral reading. There are, of course, other ways to anchor new patterns and sounds. (See the right hand column, for instance . . . )
  • "Horses have very good memory . . . Recent research in this area has shown that horses learn to learn. The learn-to-learn phenomenon is simple: The more tasks a horse learns to perform, the easier it will be for that horse to learn new tasks. These new tasks may be tasks that the horse will never use, but they will aid in learning ability." This one is critical for pronunciation instruction: It is not absolutely essential that everything presented is recognized by learners as being immediately applicable or "relevant" to their use of the language. Learning, itself, enhances ability to learn, in effect. Recent research on "simple" memorization, for example,  has demonstrated that the very practice itself helps learners develop better memories and aptitude for learning in general--and memory for longer lists of procedural "steps" as well.
The parallel is remarkable. With the advent of more and more web-based instruction, learners are by default being forced to learn more by reading text and listening, along with often exceedingly "disembodied" speaking in response. Haptic pronunciation teaching, of course, is one approach, as are several others, requiring more or less instructor explicit management of body movement and presentation/control.

Saddle up!

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Pronunciation teaching not your cup of tea? It may be your metaphor or M-Cat!

Neuroscientist, Glaser, of King's College, as reported in the Guardian, may just have the "answer": adjust your metaphors! For example, if your students are not as friendly or malleable as they should be, have them all hold a cup of warm tea for a bit. (Caveat emptor: The following is serious fun!) In one study:

"Those holding hot drinks were also more likely to be generous, and less likely to display behaviour thought of as selfish. This is due to the strong linguistic and metaphorical links created in the brain by repeatedly using the words ‘warm’ or ‘cold’ to describe personalities."

"This is due . . . " Wow. That is a bit of a stretch, of course, but he is getting warm . . . Pretty strong claim there, that it is the specific use of such adjectives alone that generates the visceral, affective response. Without digging too deeply into the evidence (which he doesn't, in fact), just hold your warm latte in both hands and read on. 

I've reported earlier on the blog similar research "linking" the metaphorical and somatic/tactile link between words such as "rough" or "coarse", for example, and how the brain seems to interpret those in a way very similar to when one actually touches a surface possessing that tactile quality.

Similar studies connect language and olfaction (smell/aroma therapy), e.g. That argument stinks! Likewise, beginning with work such as Metaphors we live by,  Lakoff and Johnson (2003), and continuing more recently in language teaching, e.g.,  Holme (2004) Mind, Metaphor and Language Teaching, in a very real sense, anything in the classroom is in principle, amenable to intentional (metaphorical) design and adjustment.

In the past, asking students to hold something random to affect their perception of something else was seen as pretty far out--objectionable to the point of unconscious manipulation. But today, with both research on the impact of placibos and pop-neuroscience that encourages a wide range of conscious adjustment of perception, it is a different "ball game"! (I make extensive use of balls in pronunciation teaching.) But first we need to ferret out all the classroom behaviors that are potentially working against us!

What we might term "meta-cup-a-tea" (M-Cat), that is the sensation evoked by touch or physical contact and presence is a variable in all instruction, including pronunciation. In general pronunciation instruction M-Cat may rarely be attended to consciously, but in haptic pronunciation instruction (HaPT) it can be critical, since it can divert awareness away from pronunciation-focused touch-based techniques. (For more on that see this!) In L2 work, however, cultural "misinterpretation" of in-class touching can of course go almost anyplace imaginable.

So let's just look at a few traditional pronunciation teaching "tactile experiences" (other than what goes on in the mouth or what is involved in HaPT) for their potential "Meta-cup-a-tea" contribution (or lack of contribution) to instruction. Listed below are some of my students' best M-Cats. On the face of it many of these are done to reinforce or correlate with a targeted sound or pattern. In practice, it is not at all clear what if any connectedness is realized, nonetheless. In many cases the "contact" or pressure can be counterproductive, interfering or distracting attention--but still fun:
  • blowing air on tissue paper or hands: X is mostly hot air, germ dispersing 
  • touching the face: X is untrained; has not taken course in public speaking
  • clapping or tapping hands: X is attention-deprived
  • stretching rubber bands: X is all thumbs, overextended
  • snapping fingers: X impulsive, too much math, phonetics or syntax
  • overly precise hand writing: X is scary or boring or compulsive
  • hands holding things that are not warm: X is cold, unfeeling
  • spinning pencils: X is neurotic, not from this culture, not a native speaker!
  • fingers on smart phones, especially when multi-tasking: X is "situ-phrenic"
  • hands excessively on books, notebooks: X is bookish, introvert, anachronist, dead-tree-ite
  • hands excessively on body parts: X has pronounced problem
  • hand or marker moving on iPad or white/smart board: X is hip, maybe even creative
  • going through practice cards: X is a dealer
  • caressing keyboard or mouse: X is geek-ish, L2-a-phobe, possibly closet rat
  • glutes on chair: X is sedentary, butt stable
  • sitting on chair in language lab: X is antisocial, isolationist
  • full body on bed: X is seriously sedentary, probable "sound-nambulant"
  • earphones on/in ears: X is audio-phont, "ear-y" at best
  • chewing, eating, drinking: X is hypoglycemic or language hungry
  • continually wiping finger prints off iPhone screen: dys-Appled, but possibly good follower
  • head scratching: lice, itching to learn, excessive meta-cognition in process
Got any more good M-Cats? Post'em and I'll add them to the list.