Saturday, December 23, 2017

Vive la efference! Better pronunciation using your Mind's Ear!

"Efference" . . . our favorite new term and technique: to imagine saying something before you actually say it out loud, creating an "efferent copy" that the brain then uses in efficiently recognizing what is heard or what is said.  Research by Whitford, Jack, Pearson, Griffiths, Luque, Harris, Spencer, and Pelley of University of New South Wales, Neurophysiological evidence of efference copies to inner speech, summarized by, explored the neurological underpinnings of efferent copies, having subjects imagine saying a word before it was heard (or said.)

The difference in the amount of processing required of subsequent occurrences following the efferent copies, as observed by fMRI-like technology, was striking. The idea is that this is one way the brain efficiently deals with speech recognition and variance. By (unconsciously) having "heard" the target or an idealized version of it just previously in the "mind's ear", so to speak, we have more processing  power available to work on other things with . . .

Inner speech has been studied and employed in the second language research and  practice extensively  (e.g., Shigematsu, 2010, dissertation: Second language inner voice and identity) and in different disciplines.  There is no published research on the direct application of efference in our field to date that I’m aware of.

The haptic application of that general idea is to “imagine” saying the word or phrase synchronized with a specifically designed pedagogical gesture before articulating it.  In some cases, especially where the learner is highly visual, that seems to be helpful, but we have done no systematic work on it.  The relationship with video modeling effectiveness may be very relevant as well. Here is a quick thought/talk problem for you to demonstrate how it works:

Imagine yourself speaking a pronunciation-problematic word in one of your other languages before trying to say it out loud. Do NOT subvocalize, move your mouth muscles. (Add a gesture for more punch!) How’d it work?

Imagine your pronunciation work getting better while you are at it!

Friday, December 15, 2017

Object fusion in (pronunciation) teaching for better uptake and recall!

Your students sometimes can't remember what you so ingeniously tried to teach them? New study by D’Angelo, Noly-Gandon, Kacollja, Barense, and Ryan at the Rotman Research Institute in Ontario, Breaking down unitization: Is the whole greater than the sum of its parts?” (reported by suggests an "ingenious" template for helping at least some things "click and stick" better. What you need for starters:
  • 2 objects (real or imagined) (to be fused together)
  • an action linking or involving them, which fuses them
  • a potentially tangible, desirable consequence of that fusion
The example from the research of the "fusing" protocol was to visualize sticking an umbrella in the key hole of your front door to remind yourself to take your umbrella so you won't get soaking wet on the way to work tomorrow. Subjects who used that protocol, rather than just motion or action/consequence, were better at recalling the future task. Full disclosure here: the subjects were adults, age 61 to 88. Being near dead center in the middle of that distribution, myself, it certainly caught my attention! I have been using that strategy for the last two weeks or so with amazing results . . . or at least memories!

So, how might that work in pronunciation teaching? Here's an example

Consonant: th - (voiceless)
Objects: upper teeth, lower teeth, tongue
Fusion: tongue tip positioned between teeth as air blows out (action)
Consequence - better pronunciation of the th sound

Haptic pronunciation adds to the con-fusion

Vowel (low, central 'a'), done haptically (gesture + touch)
Objects: hands touch at waist level, as vowel is articulated, with jaw and tongue lowered in mouth, with strong, focused awareness of vocal resonance in the larynx and bones of the face.
Fusion: tongue and hand movement, sound, vocal resonance and touch
Consequence: better pronunciation of the 'a' sound

Key concept: It is not much of a stretch to say that our sense of touch is really our "fusion" sense, in that it serves as a nexus-agent for the others  (Fredembach, et al, 2009; Legarde and Kelso 2006). Much like the created image of the umbrella in the key hole evokes a memorable "embodied" event, probably even engaged with our tactile processing center(s), the haptic pedagogical movement pattern (PMP) should work in similar manner, either in actual physical practice or visualized.

One very effective technique, in fact, is to have learners visualize the PMP (gesture+sound+touch) without activating the voice. (Actually, when you visualize a PMP it is virtually impossible to NOT experience it, centered in your larynx or voice box.)

If this is all difficult for you to visualize or remember, try first imagining yourself whacking your forehead with your iPhone and shouting "Eureka!"

Baycrest Center for Geriatric Care (2017, August 11). Imagining an Action-Consequence Relationship Can Boost Memory. NeuroscienceNew. Retrieved August 11, 2017 from an Action-Consequence Relationship Can Boost Memory/

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

OLOA! Pronunciation Teaching Lagniappe!
When the "oral reading baby" was for a time tossed out with the structuralist reading and pronunciation teaching "bath", a valuable resource was temporarily mislaid. New research by Forrin and MacLeod of Waterloo University confirms what common sense tells us: that reading a text aloud or even verbalizing something that you need to remember (get ready!) actually may help. Really? In that study the "production effect" was quite significant. From the Science Daily summary:

"The study tested four methods for learning written information, including reading silently, hearing someone else read, listening to a recording of oneself reading, and reading aloud in real time. Results from tests with 95 participants showed that the production effect of reading information aloud to yourself resulted in the best remembering . . . And we know that regular exercise and movement are also strong building blocks for a good memory."

There have been any number of blogposts here advocating the use of oral reading in pronunciation teaching, but this is one argument that I had not encountered or was not all that interested in, in part because I had an Aunt who read and thought aloud constantly and very "irritatingly"! (And who, it appears not incidentally, had a  phenomenal memory for detail.) You may well have an aunt or associate who uses the same often socially dysfunctional memory heuristic.

One often unrecognized source of lagniappe (bonus) from attention to pronunciation, especially in the form of oral reading in class or as personalized homework, is this production effect, which is the actual focus of the study: any number of actions or physical movement may contribute to memory for language material. The text being verbalized still has to be "meaningful" in some sense, according to the study. In haptic work we use the acronym OLOA (out loud oral anchoring), targeted elements of speech accompanied by gesture and touch. 

That can happen any time in instruction, of course, but the precise conditions for it being effective are interesting and worth exploring. One of the procedures I have frequently set up in teaching observations is analyzing the extent and quality of OLOA (In Samoan: one's labor, skill or possessions!) See if you can remember to use more of that intentionally next week in class and observe what happens. (If not, try a little OLOA on this blogpost!)

University of Waterloo. (2017, December 1). Reading information aloud to yourself improves memory of materials. ScienceDaily. Retrieved December 6, 2017 from

Friday, November 24, 2017

NEW book chapter: A haptic pronunciation course for Freshman ESL college students

John Murphy's excellent new book, Teaching the Pronunciation of English: Focus on whole courses, has just been published! It is in many ways a celebration of pronunciation teaching.

Unapologetic haptic disclaimer: Of the 12 chapters, done by 17 contributors, our favorite (understandably) is by Nate Kielstra (with William Acton): "A haptic pronunciation course for Freshman ESL college students!"

From the forward:

"This volume fills a gap by introducing readers to whole courses focused on teaching the pronunciation of English as a second, foreign, or international language. This collection is designed to support more effective pronunciation teaching in as many language classrooms in as many different parts of the world as possible and to serve as a core text in an ESOL teacher development course dedicated to preparing pronunciation teachers."

It certainly delivers on that.

This volume is based on some of the same principles as Murphy and Byrd's earlier (2001) Understanding the courses we teach: Local perspectives on English language teaching. (Which we still use in our graduate program as a template for course development/description.)

One striking feature of the volume which we endorse enthusiastically is the idea that the courses described are more or less "stand alone". Talk about revolutionary (or Back-to-the-future-ish!) In other words, they are seen as effective even without much subsequent follow up by other classroom instructors teaching other skill areas--although all recommend (implicitly or explicitly) application of what is learned elsewhere in the curriculum.

Just imagine what it would be like should the inspired work of one of these "master classes" in your school go spilling off into the rest of program, either in just improved student pronunciation or instructors who take the process and run with it . . .

Murphy's first two chapters do a nice job of laying out the basics of what such courses need to cover or contain. Nate's chapter will give you a good picture of what a haptic-based course can look like.

Required reading!

Sunday, November 12, 2017

OMG! Hand2hand combat in the classroom: Facing problems in (pronunciation) teaching

OMG! (other-managed gesture) is fundamental to effective, systematic use of gesture in any classroom, especially pronunciation teaching. And exactly how you "face" that issue may be critical. Two fascinating new studies may suggest how.

As Sumo fan, haptician (practitioner of haptic pronunciation teaching) and veteran, one of my favorite metaphors for ongoing interaction in the (pronunciation) classroom has always been "H2H" (hand2hand combat.) Research by Mojtahedi, Fu and Santello, of Arizona State University - Tempe highlights an important variable in such engagement, evident in the title: On the role of physical interaction on performance of object manipulation by dyads.
Two of their key findings: (a) those subjects whose solo performance on a "physical" task was initially relatively low benefited from H2H training in dyads. Those of higher skill coming in, did not,  and (b) for those who do benefit, standing side-by-side, enabling dyadic work was superior to working F2F The "assistive" task was manipulating a horse-shoe like object in space, following varied instructions, either together or separately, best done by "coming alongside" the other person.

Granted, there is a difference between two people holding on to a piece of metal and guiding it around together, cooperatively--and an instructor being mirrored in gesturing by students across the room, synchronized with speaking words and phrases. Research in mirror neurons in the brain, however, would suggest that the difference is far less than one might think. In a very real sense, if you are paying close attention, watching something being done is experienced and managed in the brain very much like doing it yourself.

Now hold that thought for a minute while we go on to the next, related study, How spatial navigation correlates with language by Vukovich and Shtyrov at the HSE Centre for Cognition and Decision Making. In this study, subjects were first identified as to whether they were more "egocentric" or "allocentric" in their ability to grasp the perspective of another person, somewhat independent of their own position in space or time. (A concept somewhat analogous to field dependence/independence.)

What they discovered was that subjects who were (spatially) allocentric were also better at understanding oral instructions that required differing responses, depending on whether the subject pronoun of the description was 1st person singular or 3rd person. And more importantly the same areas of the brain were "lighting up", meaning processing the problem, for both language and spatial navigation.

Now juxtapose that with the finding of the other research which demonstrated that side-by-side (SxS) rather than face-to-face (F2F) "help" on the H2H task was more effective. F2F assistive engagement requires, in part the transposing of the movement of the person facing you to the opposite side of your body, an operation that we discovered a decade ago in haptic pronunciation teaching was exceedingly difficult for some instructors and students.

So what we have is a complex of the factors affecting success in gesture work: (probably) inherited ego or allo-centric tendencies which will impact how well one can accommodate a model moving in front of you, taking on the same handedness, as opposed to mirror image, and fact that some, less skillful learners are assisted more effectively by a partner SxS instead of standing F2F.

In other words, both studies seem to be getting at the same underlying variable or issue for us: why some gestural work works and some doesn't. This is potentially an important finding for haptic pronunciation teaching or just use of gesture in teaching in general, one that should impact our "standing" in the classroom, where we locate ourselves relative to learners when we manage or conduct gesture.

Sometimes facing your problem is not the answer!


Mojtahedi K, Fu Q and Santello M (2017) On the Role of Physical Interaction on Performance of Object Manipulation by Dyads. Front. Hum. Neurosci. 11:533. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2017.00533

Nikola Vukovic et al, Cortical networks for reference-frame processing are shared by language and spatial navigation systems, NeuroImage (2017). DOI: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2017.08.041

Friday, November 3, 2017

Operant conditioning rides again in language teaching!
 "The major difference between rats and people is that rats learn from experience." B.F Skinner

Quick quiz: What is "operant conditioning" and of what value is it to you in understanding language learning and teaching? If you can't answer either part of that question, unfortunately, you're not alone. Your formal training may well have lacked any thoughtful consideration of the concept of "operant conditioning". Following Chomsky's devastating attack on it and behaviorism and the ascendancy of cognitive/constructivist theory, it has in most learning frameworks appeared to have been at least dismissed, at best. Not really, according to an excellent new piece by Sturdy and Nicoladis, "How Much of Language Acquisition Does Operant Conditioning Explain?" -- it has just gone underground.

Their basic argument: "Researchers have ended up inventing learning mechanisms that, in actual practice, not only resemble but also in fact are examples of operant conditioning (OC) by any other name they select."

According to the meta-analysis, the most persuasive cases or contexts discussed are (a) socialization, (b) ritualization and (c) early child language learning. At least for one whose "basic training" in psychology as an undergraduate happened in 1962, it is a breath of fresh (familiar) air, not exactly vindication, but pretty close. It applies especially to the more embodied dimensions of pronunciation instruction, such as physical work on articulation and the felt sense of sound production in the vocal mechanism--and, of course, haptic engagement.

But it also is fundamental to understanding and using context-based feedback that is critical to socialization or social constructivism, including the role of ritual, pragmatics and long-term reinforcement mechanisms.

If you don't get a full-body, warm fuzzy from this piece, read it again holding a cup of hot tea or coffee. 

Required reading.

Sturdy CB and Nicoladis E (2017) How Much of Language Acquisition Does Operant Conditioning Explain?. Front. Psychol. 8:1918. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2017.01918

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Enhanced courage and L2 pronunciation through acute alcohol consumption!
Some studies are enough to drive you to drink . . . and then miss numerous unaccounted for sources of variance.

You may have seen popular commentary on this recent study, "Dutch courage? Effects of acute alcohol consumption on self-ratings and observer ratings of foreign language skills" by Renner, Kersbergen, Field, and Werthmann of the University of Liverpool, published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology.  (ScienceDaily recast the title as: "Dutch courage: Alcohol improves foreign language skills."

This study had potential. What they found, basically, was that rater evaluation of pronunciation , as opposed to overall speech production, was better but  (interestingly!) that the subjects, themselves, did not perceive their L2 speech to be better. The subjects had been provided with a pint of something a bit earlier--not the raters or the experimenters, as far as we can tell.

Another relatively interesting feature was that the evaluations were done by blindfolded judges (which in itself, may have been problematic as noted in recent blogposts here) and the speech was evaluated during dialogue (interesting, again, but not sufficiently unpacked), not just with controlled repetition in a laboratory setting as had been the case in many past studies (e.g., summary of  Guiora et al, 1972 by Ellis).

Two terminological issues:
  • By "acute" the researchers indicate that it was a "low dose", one pint of 5% beer or equivalent. Now in the field of psychopharmacology that term, acute, may just mean something like "one time" or unusual. (I find conflicting opinions on that.) In normal North American English usage, of course, that usually is taken to mean something like: severe, critical, long term, etc. --or, of course, insightful, attention to detail, etc.  In Guiora, et al (1972) the alcohol dosage where the main effect was evident was at about one ounce of alcohol in a cocktail, roughly equivalent to that used in this study--but it was not described as "acute!"
  •  The subjects were termed "bilingual" (absent any empirical measurement of what that meant exactly) who had learned dutch "recently", at best a loose interpretation of what "bilingual" is generally taken to mean in the field today. That proficiency question may have had significant impact on the outcome of study, in fact.
So, why was the perceived improvement in subjects' speech just in their pronunciation, not other aspects of their speech or behavior? In Guiora et al (1972), for example, to explore that effect, subjects also had to perform a motor skill task, putting shaped blocks in holes of different shapes. What they found, not surprisingly, was at the 1-ounce level, both pronunciation improved and manual dexterity declined. The "physical" correlate was clear. One of the main criticisms of that alcohol study was that the alcohol effect may have been primarily "just" loosening up of the muscles and vocal mechanism, not some more higher level cognitive functioning. (Brown, 1989, also cited in Ellis, above).

Guiora et al (1972) were ultimately looking for the impact of that effect on "language ego", perception of one's identity in the L2. In a way they found that--a correlate. It is to some extent a matter of design directionality: loosening up the body does the same to the vocal mechanism. Will it be any surprise to find out that other non-pharmacological yet still "somatic" treatments, such as hypnosis, mindfulness or simply kinaesthetic engagement, such as gestural (or even haptic) work do something similar? Not at all.

In other words, the "pharmacogs" seem to have come up with a possible explanation for a well-appreciated phenomenon: after a shot, you'll be more courageous (or foolhardy) and your L2 pronunciation will be perceived as improved as long as your date is blindfolded or the room is very dark--but you won't know it, or care . . .

A little more interdisciplinary research and theory-integration, along with more in depth concern for the relevant "cocktail cognitions" of the subjects, might have made this more a fun read. Of course, the ultimate source of insight on the effect of  alcohol will always be Brad Paisley!

Fritz Renner, Inge Kersbergen, Matt Field, Jessica Werthmann. Dutch courage? Effects of acute alcohol consumption on self-ratings and observer ratings of foreign language skills. Journal of Psychopharmacology, 2017; 026988111773568 DOI: 10.1177/0269881117735687

Friday, October 20, 2017

Bedside manner in (pronunciation) teaching: the BATHE protocol
Sometime the doctor-patient metaphor does work in our work!

Recovering from recent surgery here at home, and especially recalling the wonderful way that I was treated and prepared prior to the operation by the nurse in pre-op, this study, "Inpatient satisfaction improved by five-minute intervention," summarized by Augusta Free Press, published originally in Family Medicine by Pace, Somerville, Enyioha, Allen, J, Lemon and C. Allen of the University of Virginia really hit home, both as an interpersonal framework for dealing with problems in general and (naturally) pronunciation teaching!

The research looked at the effectiveness of a training system for preparing doctors better for talking with patients, bedside manner. In summary, patient satisfaction went up substantially, and time spent per patient generally went down. The acronym for the protocol is BATHE. Below is my paraphrase of what constitutes each phase of the process:

B - Start with getting concise background information with patients
A - Help them talk about how they are feeling (affect)
T - Together, review the problem (trouble)
H - Discuss how the problem is being handled.
E - Confirm your understanding of the situation and how the patient is feeling (empathy).

That is a deceptively elegant protocol. Next time you have a student (or colleague) or friend approach you with a difficult problem, keep that in mind. That also translates beautifully into pronunciation work, especially where there is appropriate attention to the body (like in haptic work, of course!) Here is how the acronym plays out in our work:

B - Start with providing a concise explanation of the target, also eliciting from students what their understanding is of what you'll be working on.
A - Anchor the target sound in a way that learners get a good "felt sense" of it, i.e., awareness and control of the sensations in the vocal track and upper body
T - Together, talk through the "cash value" and functional load of the target and practice the target sound(s) in isolation and context. 
H - Discuss how the student may be handling the problem already, or could, and what you'll do together going forward, including homework and follow up in the classroom in the future.
E - Finally, go back to brief, active, "physical" review and anchoring of the sound, also providing some realistic guidance as to the process of integrating the sound or word into their active speaking, especially the role of consistent, systematic practice.

One remarkable feature of that system, other then the operationalized empathy, of course, is the way it creates a framework for staying focused on the problem and solution. How does that map on to your own "BATHE-side manner?"

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Empathy for strangers: better heard and not seen? (and other teachable moments)

The technique of closing one's eyes to concentrate has both everyday sense and empirical research support. For many, it is common practice in pronunciation and listening comprehension instruction. Several studies of the practice under various conditions have been reported here in the past. A nice 2017 study by Kraus of Yale University, Voice-only communication enhances empathic accuracy, examines the effect from several perspectives.
What the research establishes is that perception of the emotion encoded in the voice of a stranger is more accurately determined with eyes closed, as opposed to just looking at the video or watching the video with sound on. (Note: The researcher concedes in the conclusion that the same effect might not be as pronounced were one listening to the voice of someone we are familiar or intimate with, or were the same experiments to be carried out in some culture other than "North American".) In the study there is no unpacking of just which features of the strangers' speech are being attended to, whether linguistic or paralinguistic, the focus being:
 . . . paradoxically that understanding others’ mental states and emotions relies less on the amount of information provided, and more on the extent that people attend to the information being vocalized in interactions with others.
The targeted effect is statistically significant, well established. The question is, to paraphrase the philosopher Bertrand Russell, does this "difference that makes a difference make a difference?"--especially to language and pronunciation teaching?
How can we use that insight pedagogically? First, of course, is the question of how MUCH better will the closed eyes condition be in the classroom and even if it is initially, will it hold up with repeated listening to the voice sample or conversation? Second, in real life, when do we employ that strategy, either on purpose or by accident? Third, there was a time when radio or audio drama was a staple of popular media and instruction. In our contemporary visual media culture, as reflected in the previous blog post, the appeal of video/multimedia sources is near irresistible. But, maybe still worth resisting?
Especially with certain learners and classes, in classrooms where multi-sensory distraction is a real problem, I have over the years worked successfully with explicit control of visual/auditory attention in teaching listening comprehension and pronunciation. (It is prescribed in certain phases of hapic pronunciation teaching.) My sense is that the "stranger" study actually is tapping into comprehension of new material or ideas, not simply new people/relationships and emotion. Stranger things have happened, eh!
If this is a new concept to you in your teaching, close your eyes and visualize just how you could employ it next week. Start with little bits, for example when you have a spot in a passage of a listening exercise that is expressively very complex or intense. For many, it will be an eye opening experience, I promise!

Kraus, M. (2017). Voice-only communication enhances empathic accuracy, American Psychologist 72(6)344-654.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

The shibboleth of great pronunciation teaching: Body sync!

If there is a sine qua non of contemporary pronunciation teaching, in addition to the great story of the first recorded pronunciation test in history that we often use in teacher training, it is the use of mirroring (moving along with a spoken model on audio or video). If you are not familiar with the practice of mirroring, here are a few links to get you started by Meyers (PDF), Meyers (video) and Jones.

There are decades of practice and several studies showing that it works, seems to help improve suprasegmentals, attitudes and listening comprehension--among other things. There has always been a question, however, as to how and why. A new study by Morillon and Baillet of McGill University reported by not only suggests what is going on but also (I think) points to how to better work with a range of techniques related to mirroring in the classroom.

The study looked at the relationship between motor and speech perception centers of the brain. What it revealed was that by getting subjects to move (some part) of their bodies to the rhythm of what they were listening to, their ability to predict what sound would come next was enhanced substantially. Quoting from the ScienceDaily summary:

"One striking aspect of this discovery is that timed brain motor signaling anticipated the incoming tones of the target melody, even when participants remained completely still. Hand tapping to the beat of interest further improved performance, confirming the important role of motor activity in the accuracy of auditory perception."

The researchers go on to note that a good analogy is the experience of being in a very noisy cocktail party and trying focus in on the speech rhythm of someone you are listening to better understand what they are saying. (As one whose hearing is not what it used to be, due in part to just age and tinnitus, that strategy is one I'm sure I employ frequently.) You can do that, I assume, by either watching the body or facial movement or just syncing to rhythm of what you can hear.

As both Meyer and Jones note, with the development of visual/auditory technology and the availability to appropriate models on the web or in commercial materials, the feasibility of any student having the opportunity and tools to work with mirroring today has improved dramatically. Synchronized body movement is the basis of haptic pronunciation teaching. We have not done any systematic study of the subsequent impact of that training and practice on speech perception, but students often report that silently mirroring a video model helps them understand better. (Well, actually, we tell them that will happen!)

If you are new to mirrored body syncing in pronunciation teaching or in listening comprehension work, you should  try it, or at least dance along with us for a bit.

McGill University. (2017, October 5). Predicting when a sound will occur relies on the brain's motor system: Research shows how the brain's motor signals sharpen our ability to decipher complex sound flows. ScienceDaily. Retrieved October 6, 2017 from

Friday, September 29, 2017

The "Magpie Effect" in pronunciation teaching: what you see is (not necessarily) what you get!

Wow! I knew there had to be a term for flashy, beautiful visual aids in pronunciation teaching, and education in general, that may (best case) contribute very little, if anything to the process: the Magpie Effect.

One of the fundamental assumptions of materials design is that visual salience--what stands out due to design, color, placement, etc.--is key to uptake. In general, the claims are far stronger than that. Brighter colors, striking photos and engaging layouts are the stuff of advertising and marketing. Marketing research has long established the potential impact of all of those, in addition to seduction of the other senses.

A new study by Henderson and Hayes of UC Davis, “Meaning-based guidance of attention in scenes as revealed by meaning maps', as reported by, provides a striking alternative view into how visual processing and visual attention work. Quoting from the summary:

"Saliency is relatively easy to measure. You can map the amount of saliency in different areas of a picture by measuring relative contrast or brightness, for example. Henderson called this the “magpie theory” our attention is drawn to bright and shiny objects.“It becomes obvious, though, that it can’t be right,” he said, otherwise we would constantly be distracted."

What the Henderson and Hayes (2017) research suggests is that what we attend to in the visual field in front of us has more to do with the mental schema or map we bring to the experience than with the "bright and shiny" object there. Of course, that does not exclude being at least momentarily distracted by those features, or even more importantly the visual "clutter" undermining the connection to the learner's body or somatic experience of a sound or expression.

There have been literally dozens of blog posts here exploring the basic "competition" between visual and auditory modalities. Hint: Visual almost always trumps audio or haptic, except when audio and  haptic team up in some sense--as in haptic pronunciation teaching! The question is, if the impact of glitz and graphics may be a wash, or random at best, what do optimal "maps" in pronunciation teaching "look" like to the learner? The problem, in part, is in the way the question is stated, the visual metaphor itself: look.

Whenever I get stuck on a question of modalities in learning, I go back to Lessac (1967): Train the body first. Anchor sound in body movement and vocal resonance, and then use that mapping in connecting up words and speaking patterns in general. (If you are into mindfulness training, you get this!) The reference to the learner is always what it FEELS like in the entire body to pronounce a word or phrase, not it's visual/graphic representation or cognitive rationale or procedural protocol for doing it!

So, how can we describe the right map in pronunciation teaching? Gendlin's (1981) concept of "felt sense" probably captures it best, a combination of movement, touch and resonance generated by the sound, combined with cognitive insight/understanding of the process and place of the sound in the phonology of the L2. But always IN THAT ORDER, with that sense of priorities.The key is to be able to in effect "rate" or scale the intensity and boundaries of a sensation in the body, still a highly cognitive, conscious process. From there, the sensation can be recalled or moderated, or even associated to other concepts or symbols.

In other words, in pronunciation instruction the body is the territory; designated locations,  measured sensations and movements across it are the map that must be in place before words and meanngs are efficiently attached or reattached. Setting up the map still requires . . .  serious drill and practice. Once done, feel free to channel your "inner Magpie", glitz, color, song and dance!

Original source: 
“Meaning-based guidance of attention in scenes as revealed by meaning maps” by  Henderson. J. and Hayes, T.,  in Human Nature. Published online September 25 2017 doi:10.1038/s41562-017-0208-0

Monday, September 18, 2017

Killing Pronunciation 9: Reappraising negative attitudes toward pronunciation
 Maybe the most consistent finding of research on pronunciation teaching is that (at least from instructors who have yet to recover from structuralism, "communicative language teaching" or cognitive phonology) there are a lot of negatives associated with it (e.g., Baker, 2015 and many others). My approach has always been to stay calm and train teachers in how to do pronunciation well, figuring that success will eventually get them past all the noise out there.

I may have to reappraise that line of march, especially with my Chinese students. Maybe I could do more to attack those negative feelings and perceptions directly. But how?

New research by Wu, Guo, Tang, Shi, and Luo reported in Role of Creativity in the Effectiveness of Cognitive Reappraisal suggests a way to do just that: a little instructor-directed and controlled creativity, something I suspect that only a team from the Beijing Key Laboratory of Learning and Cognition, The Collaborative Innovation Center for Capital Education Development, Department of Psychology, Capital Normal University, Beijing, China and the Key Laboratory of Mental Health, Institute of Psychology, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing, China--could possibly pull off!

In essence, they confirmed that subjects recognized creativity as a potentially powerful antidote to negative emotions, something that has been established empirically for some time. What was fascinating, however, was that subjects negative feelings about the targeted video scenes could only be "affected" substantially by being led through creative exercises. In other words, they couldn't get past the negatives by doing something creative on their own, themselves, without help. Wow.

Instructor-conducted / creativity-driven / negative attitudes /  toward pronunciation teaching repair/reappraisal (INPRR pronounced: In-P-RR). What a concept! Well, actually, much of what passes for creativity training is instructor-centered, not designed to provide you with the tools but to guide you in thinking outside of the box so  you know what it feels like when it happens. I was really into that for a couple of decades in pronunciation teacher training, in fact. There are still those in the field, like Marsha Chan, who do that well, the "there are all kinds of really creative, fun things you can do when teaching  pronunciation" shtick. Working with kids, that plays well; with adults, on the whole I have always thought it is at best counter productive.  (The reasons for that have been developed on the blog extensively.)

However, I may have it wrong. But rather than training teacher trainees in creative techniques to use in the classroom, I should be doing creative activities with them that address their underlying negative feelings (fear, self doubt, etc.) directly. Some suggestions, most of which I have seen over the years at conferences or on the web. I'll get things started with a few that are research-based (and reported on the blog recently) and then you help by adding to the list your best INPR:
  • Have them list all those negative pronunciation-induced emotions on the top of cookies or in chocolate and eat them.
  • Lead them in doing your basic OEI switching technique to defuse the emotion if it is really strong. (Done with only one student at a time, in private, however.)
  • Have them talk about themselves fearing pronunciation in the 3rd person (See Gollum Speak)
  •  Lead them in coming up with a list of all the ways they might overcome such emotions and then have select students read out each expressively and dramatically in their heaviest L1 accent (I like that one!)
  • Have them share with each other in pairs their negative feelings toward pronunciation holding a hot beverage. That one is incredibly powerful.
  • Then have them report back to the class in pantomime, having the rest of the class guess what it is. 
  • You stand up in front of the class and begin listing verbally the unrealistic fears your students may have about pronunciation or those that they may have now but will be "gone" at the end of the course. Also have a list on the board of epithets appropriate for shouting down goofy ideas which the students produce after you state each, possibly accompanied by gesture. 
  • Come to class dressed as Sigmund Freud or your neighborhood therapist. Sit in a comfortable chair and answer their questions chewing on a pipe, suggesting hilariously funny solutions to their fears. (I sat in on one of those in Japan that was priceless and exceedingly effective, I think.)
  • Have a "Love me, love my accent day" in class where students intentionally speak with stereo-typically heavy accent. (Have seen that recommended a number of times.)
Your turn! I'll award a set of the v4.5 AHEPS DVDs to the contributor of the best one!

Retrieved September 18, 2017 from

Thursday, September 14, 2017

To thrive (but not arrive) in a second language: socio-cultural capital
Yesterday morning I met an immigrant Chinese cashier at a Korean supermarket who had been here for a couple of years.  In her early 30's, she seemed quite positive, fashionably sport-dressed and looked very fit--she had just signed up for Orangetheory, in fact. As we talked she struck me as somebody who at least at first glance is thriving in her new culture. She seemed an almost perfect fit to the first half of the profile just produced in a meta-analysis of what it means to "thrive" by Brown of the University of Portsmouth,, reported by Sciencedaily. Brown defines "thriving" as

" . . . an individual experiencing a sense of development, of getting better at something, and succeeding at mastering something"

The list of qualities of a "thriver" are: 
  • optimistic,
  • spiritual or religious,
  • motivated,
  • proactive,
  • someone who enjoys learning,
  • flexible,
  • adaptable,
  • socially competent,
  • believes in self/has self-esteem.
That's her; fits her to a tee, but her English, both her general competence and pronunciation had stalled about a year in. She was engaging, had a wide range of conversational strategies to draw on, but she was at times very difficult to understand, especially when she became animated, which was often. She was very conscious of that and had a reason: her dead-end job. She suddenly shifted into her cashier persona, running through some of the very limited repertoire of phrases she uses every day at work. Her pronunciation and grammar became nearly impeccable!

What a demonstration!

What she seems to lack for her English to improve substantially is socio-cultural capital, the opportunity and network of resources to grow and practice more advanced and sophisticated in her L2. 
Again, according to Brown, (quoting the Sciencedaily report) the thriver has:
    • opportunity
    • employer/family/other support
    • challenges and difficulties are at manageable level,
    • environment is calm
    • is given a high degree of autonomy
    • is trusted as competent.
    Being here alone, as a single woman in this cultural context she has virtually none of those. She did comment half in jest that joining the Orangetheory community and all the beautiful, cut gym rats might be the answer. She may be right. Being a fan of TheoryOrange, myself, I encouraged her. She promised to get back in touch with me after a few months. And I'll report back to you, too.

    Sunday, September 10, 2017

    Killing pronuciation 8: Unproductive goals and their "goalees!"
    The goal (of this) post is to at least partially relieve you of the burden of meeting many of your pronunciation teaching goals--and suggest a better way to reach them! Or at least "Clear-ify" them!

    How would you describe your students' personal goals in terms of their English pronunciation, or their L2 learning in general? What would they tell you? Where did they come from? Do they work? Do they make sense? How do you work with them? Are they clear? Are you clear? Good questions. More research needed . . .

     One of the apparent "problems" with pronunciation teaching we are told is unrealistic or "utopian" goals (Derwing, 2010). There is certainly some of that, to be sure.

    The actual problem, however, based on a new piece by James Clear, Forget About Setting Goals. Focus on This Instead: Continuous Improvement, may be the practice of (unproductive) goal setting in the first place. (If you, personally, have defective goals, that is a great piece for sorting things out. Clear is good, very good.) Clear's basic point: progress is generally best achieved by following a method, not by simply "keeping your eye on the prize", not by ad libbing your way along with exercises and practice decisions. Good advice, but how do we do that? What's the method?

    I am always interested in what pronunciation teaching books recommend to students and instructors regarding goals. Here is a typical example from Learning  English VOA News that really doesn't say much but is actually about half right (The sentence in italics!):

    "Start by setting a reasonable goal. Choose one or two sounds that are difficult for you to pronounce. Then, work to improve those sounds. When you have improved, study other sounds. Progress might be slow for you, but don't give up!" There is no clue there or on the website as to HOW you work or practice, but the idea that you commit to an ongoing process of improvement is what Clear is referring to. 

    That VOA prescription is still at least as helpful as the typical, high-level, intelligibility-centered goal approach:
    • "Aim for intelligibility, not accuracy"
    • "Model yourself on an articulate educated L2 speaker of English from your L1"
     Or the more entertaining accent reduction approach:
    What Clear is talking about, based on research in physical training, motivation and discipline development, is that what works is commitment to a method, in effect letting the method take over and (get ready!) . . . following it consistently. Hence, the conundrum in contemporary teaching, in general.

    On the one hand we want students to take responsibility and control over their learning; on the other, we want them to do what we know is best for them. Short of handing it off to the computer, which is on the horizon to be sure, what do you do? The answer is "clear", a method. Here is a little check list, based on Clear's general framework, of what that method should probably include. You don't need all the pieces but probably most of them, depending on your available "tool kit!"
    • Clear sense of what needs to be done.
    • Clear, relatively complete procedures for working on the problem sound/sound process, including recommended time-on-task instructions.
    • Clear feedback from something/body periodically
    • Clear guidelines for out-of class or independent practice and exploration
    • Clear reporting or journaling on work/progress.
    • Clear signs of progress becoming evident.  
    • Clear criteria as to when the goal is achieved.
    • Clear understanding and trust between the learner and the instructor.
    • And, of course, clear commitment to ongoing progress as "the goal", not just some unattainable model. 
    Are we clear on that? If not, ask your local haptician (instructor trained in haptic pronunciation teaching) or personal trainer at the gym about her method.

    Derwing, T. M. (2010). Utopian goals for pronunciation teaching. In J. Levis & K. LeVelle (Eds.), Proceedings of the 1st Pronunciation in Second Language Learning and Teaching Conference,

    Sunday, August 20, 2017

    Good listening (and pronunciation teaching) is in the EYE of the beholder (not just the ear)!
    Here is some research well worth gazing at and listening to by Pomper and Chait of University College London: The impact of visual gaze direction on auditory object tracking, summarized by

    In the study, subjects "sat facing three loudspeakers arranged in front of them in a darkened, soundproof room. They were instructed to follow sounds from one of the loudspeakers while ignoring sounds from the other two loudspeakers. . . . instructed to look away from the attended loudspeaker" in an aural comprehension task. What they found was that " . . . participants’ reaction times were slower when they were instructed to look away from the attended loudspeaker . . .  this was also accompanied by an increase in oscillatory neural activity . . .

     Look . .  I realize that the connection to (haptic) pronunciation teaching may not be immediately obvious, but it is potentially significant. For example, we know from several research studies (e.g., Molloy et al. 2015) that visual tends to override or "trump" audio--in "head to head" competition in the brain. In addition, auditory generally trumps kinesthetic, but the two together may override visual in some contexts. Touch seems to be able to complement the strength or impact of the other three or serve to unite them or integrate them in various ways. (See the two or three dozen earlier blog posts on those and related issues.)

    In this study, you have three competing auditory sources with the eyes tracking to one as opposed to the others. Being done in a dark room probably helped to mitigate the effect of other possible visual distraction. It is not uncommon at all for a student to chose to close her eyes when listening or look away from a speaker (a person, not an audio loudspeaker as in the study). So this is not about simply paying attention visually. It has more to do with eyes either being focused or NOT. 

    Had the researchers asked subjects to gaze at their navels--or any other specific object--the results might have been very different. In my view the study is not valid just on those grounds alone, but still interesting in that subjects' gaze was fixed at all.) Likewise, there should have been a control group that did the same protocols with the lights on, etc. In effect, to tell subjects to look away was equivalent to having them try to ignore the target sound and attend to it at the same time. No wonder there was " . . .  an increase in oscillatory neural activity"! Really!

    In other words, the EYEs have it--the ability to radically focus attention, in this case to sound, but to images as well. That is, in effect, the basis of most hypnosis and good public speaking, and well-established in brain research. In haptic pronunciation teaching, the pedagogical movement patterns by the instructor alone should capture the eyes of the students temporarily, linking back to earlier student experience or orientation to those patterns. 

    So try this: Have students fix their eyes on something reasonable or relevant, like a picture or neutral, like an area on the wall in front of them--and not look away--during a listening task. Their eyes should not wander, at least not much. Don't do it for a very long period of time , maybe 30 seconds, max at the start. You should explain to them this research so they understand why you are doing it. (As often as I hammer popular "Near-ol'-science", this is one case where I think the general findings of the research are useful and help to explain a very common sense experience.)

     I have been using some form of this technique for years; it is basic to haptic work except we do not specifically call attention to the eye tracking since the gestural work naturally accomplishes that to some degree. (If you have, too, let us know!)

    This is particularly effective if you work in a teaching environment that has a lot of ambient noise in the background. You can also, of course, add music or white noise to help cancel out competing noise or maybe even turn down the lights, too, as in the research. See what I mean?

    Good listening to you!

    UCL (2017, July 5). Gaze Direction Affects Sound Sensitivity. NeuroscienceNew. Retrieved July 5, 2017 from
    Molloy, K, Griffiths, D.,  Chait, Lavie, N. Inattentional Deafness: Visual Load Leads to Time-Specific Suppression of Auditory Evoked Responses. Journal of Neuroscience, 2015; 35 (49): 16046 DOI: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.2931-15.2015