Thursday, July 27, 2017

Killing pronunciation 7: Talking learners (and instructors) out of pronunciation change

Credit: Anna Shaw
How do you persuade students to work on their pronunciation--or sell them on it, especially pronunciation-related homework?  If you are using more "distal senses" such as sight and/or sound, according to a new study by Elder, Schlosser, Poor, Xu of Brigham Young University, summarized by Science Daily, you may not have the right approach. If, on the other "hand", your method evokes a more "proximal" sense experience (such as movement, touch and/or taste), you are probably on the right track. (I'm sure you can see where this is headed!)

The BYU study dealt with the impact of advertising on what type of pitch and/sensory imagery seems to get you to make a commitment to buy sooner, rather than later. The actual journal title, So Close I Can Almost Sense It: The Interplay between Sensory Imagery and Psychological Distance, describes the research well. What they found, not surprisingly, is that imagery connecting to or evoking a "felt" somatic response from the body, in effect, draws you in faster, and more effectively.

That does not mean that you DO something physical, only that the imagery on a screen in this case, may get the customer or learner's brain to respond AS IF actual touch or taste was involved, generating a very real feeling or taste-related memory. That mirroring effect, in part entertained by "mirror neurons" in the brain, is well established in brain research. To the brain under most circumstances the distinction between how we feel when we observe and do can be minimal. Turns out our metaphors are more than metaphors, in other words.

Some of the variability here may have to do with our personal instructional style in bringing learners' attention to, in this case, what they need to do outside of class. How do you do that? A list somewhere in the syllabus? An oral announcement? Something written on the board? A brief oral run through of what is to be done? A brief rehearsal w/students of what is to be done? What is very important here is not the actual classroom activity but the imagery that it evokes. And the key to that is what prior schema the classroom event is linking back to--and how, in the moment, it is delivered and experienced.

Pronunciation instruction done right is both an exceedingly physical and meta-cognitive process. What haptic work attempts to do is achieve that balance consistently. There are other ways to do that, of course, but most student textbooks, for example, either don't or can't, in part because the activities are presented and taught in a purely linear fashion. Haptic is ALWAYS simultaneous--sound, movement, and cognition (haptic) engagement, in effect, communicating more intentionally with learners in pronunciation change in and with somatic (body-based) imagery.

Still not sold? Try rereading the blog in the hot tub or on an exercise ball . . .

Full citation from
Brigham Young University. (2017, June 28). Now or later: How taste and sound affect when you buy: The way ads play on our senses influences the timing of our purchases. ScienceDaily. Retrieved July 23, 2017 from

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Students' pronunciation bad? It's important but not your fault!

Hot off the presses. Large scale study relating to what teachers think about teaching "pronunciation".
(The blog post was actually inspired by a comment from a neighborhood ESL practitioner recently.) Some conclusions, summarized by Science Daily:
  •  . . . it's important that students have strong PRONUNCIATION skills, and they (teachers) have a role to play in fostering them.
  • PRONUNCIATION learning supports need to be personalized to meet students' different needs. A formulaic approach may not benefit all students.
  • . . . many educators do not have support or know how to allocate time to helping students develop PRONUNCIATION skills
  • Professional development and resources for PRONUNCIATION learning should be available to educators who will be responsible for teaching these skills
  • Many factors outside the school's control influence students' PRONUNCIATION learning, and it is not clear which interventions have the greatest impact on students. Thus, schools and teachers should not be penalized for factors outside their control.
  • (Paraphrasing here) Teachers should not be judged or evaluated based on their students' PRONUNCIATION.
I lied, sort of. Those conclusions come from a large study of emotional intelligence work in public schools in the US. I just substituted in PRONUNCIATION for SOCIAL-EMOTIONAL DEVELOPMENT  OR INTELLIGENCE . . .

But the connection between social and emotional development or intelligence and success in developing adequate pronunciation in an L2 is well established in research in this field. I find the last two bullets intriguing. Evading responsibility for bad student pronunciation seems to be a standard (or at least implicit) objective in many L2 teacher education programs--and for pretty much the reasons indicated above.

Absolved of guilt and responsibility with lowered expectations, anything passing for individual intelligibility is fine. To paraphrase Gandhi's comment on Christianity: Pronunciation teaching has not been tried and found guilty (of messing with learners' identity,  social and emotional development, etc). It has just been found difficult and not tried.

Or an even better analogy is the great scene between John Belushi and Carrie Fischer in "The Blues Brothers"  . . .

I feel better already.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Why using music helps learning pronunciation even when it doesn't!
How did we ever teach or solve problems before neuroscience--or as we occasionally refer to it here: "near-ol'-science"? It is axiomatic that even when an experiment or study goes no place, or worse, it is still scientifically valid as long as it was well designed. (Try telling that to your tenure and promotion committee, however, or try and get a "no results" report published sometime, although that is changing when it comes to replicating well-known studies.)

Neuroscience has certainly added a new dimension to our work. Sometimes, for instance, it highlights a change in brain structure related to some experimental process, even if the treatment in the study didn't work as predicted.

Here's an example with particular relevance for pronunciation teaching, a "no discernable difference in main effect but related changes in the brain anyway" study, relating sound and movement. To misquote one of my favorite quotes from Bertrand Russell: A difference that doesn't make a difference . . . DOES make a difference in this case. Perhaps significantly.

In the study by Moore, Schaefer, Bastin, Roberts and Overy, summarized by Science Daily, Diffusion tensor MRI tractography reveals increased fractional anisotropy (FA) in arcuate fasciculus following music-cued motor training, subjects were trained in a pattern of finger movements either accompanied by music or not, and, of course, fMRI'd as well. The music treatment did not result in any significant difference in learning the skill but in the area of the brain connecting sound and movement, there was a striking increase in activity and activated "white matter". The music had still facilitated the learning in some sense, just not enough--but enough to suggest to researchers that the music-connection is indeed valuable in enhancing motor skill development.

My guess (based on common sense and the experience of generations of teachers who use music for this purpose and others) is that had the experiment involved a more complex skill and possibly more time, the gain by the music group would have been more evident. Another possibility is that the way that the skill was measured did not get at some other aspect of the process or look at it over a long enough time period. Perhaps had a second, related skill been learned next, the enhanced sound-movement connectivity would have been more "pronounced" . . . The researchers suggest as much in their conclusion.

The significance of the study, according the researchers was that: "The study suggests that music makes a key difference. We have long known that music encourages people to move. This study provides the first experimental evidence that adding musical cues to learning [sic] new motor task can lead to changes in white matter structure in the brain." Again, that key difference was in the brain, not in the hands. But if they are right, and I'm certain they are, it points to five important principles:
  • Music facilitates (at least motor and sound connected) learning.
  • The effect may be more cumulative, rather then evident in controlled "one time" studies.
  • Pronunciation learning, especially early in the process is in many respects is a sound-motor problem for the learner.
  • Evidence that training is consonant with brain development should be understood as more systemic, affecting and supporting other analogous processes in language learning as well.
  • There is much we do now that we lack clear empirical evidence for but experience argues strongly for it. Before abandoning it, connect up fMRIs to students and see what is actually going on in the brain. You may be making all kinds of progress that will be evident soon, or a bit later. 
Publish it, using this study as your model! It's a (no) brainer!
University of Edinburgh. (2017, July 6). Learning with music can change brain structure: Using musical cues to learn a physical task significantly develops an important part of the brain, according to a new study. ScienceDaily. Retrieved July 13, 2017 from

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Easy pronunciation change? You'd better believe it!

One of the most striking findings of research on teacher cognition about pronunciation teaching is that, especially those newer to field often believe it to be REALLY hard, difficult and intimidating (e.g., Burri 2017). There is less (much less) research on why that should be the case--or on how that can be best moderated, or prevented to any extent. We are talking here primarily about expectations.

As usual, my "go to" source for understanding how to affect pronunciation change is . . . sport. Pronunciation change is a physical business, one that from my perspective is best approached from that perspective, at least initially. But here is a case where the right "metacognitive set" can be enormously important, such as in the case of a new study by Mothes, Leukel, Seelig and Fuchs titled, "Do placebo expectations influence perceived exertion during physical exercise?" summarized by

On the surface of it, the research confirmed the common sense notion that expectations can dramatically influence performance. One feature of the study, for example, was that wearing great looking compression tights, and believing that they "work" makes exercise less strenuous or at least one's perception of effort. Being an enthusiastic wearing of that athletic placebo, I have been all in and a believer for years . . .

But how can this make pronunciation teaching and change easier?  Easy. What students pick up from you about pronunciation change impacts more than just their perception of how difficult it is. In other words, it is at least as much the fault of the method and the instructor's personal, professional presence as it is the learner's ability and L1 meddling. To paraphrase the great Pogo observation: We have met the enemy (of pronunciation change) and it is . . . us!

I'd recommend that you begin with some kind of compression top that gets the right message across, of course . . . probably not something like the message conveyed in the following from the forward to Orion, 1989 (quoted in Acton, 1992):

"Acquiring good pronunciation is the most difficult part of learning a new language. As you improve your articulation you have to learn to listen and imitate all over again. As with any activity you wish to do well, you have to practice, practice, practice, and then practice some more . Remember that you cannot accomplish good pronunciation overnight; improvement takes time. Some students may find it more difficult than others and will need more time than others to improve ( pp. xxiii-iv)."

It is "easier" from a haptic perspective, depending on the extent to which you Train the body first! (Lessac, 1967) in pronunciation teaching and project the right message both verbally and non-verbally. The key element here is the physical basis of change, not just pronunciation itself, the significance of the research to in our work. Conceptually, it is important that that distinction is kept in mind (and body)!

So, what do your class expectations for ongoing pronunciation improvement feel like? How do you create and sustain that? I'm expecting some great comments/insights to follow here!

You'd better believe it!

Hendrik Mothes, Christian Leukel, Harald Seelig, Reinhard Fuchs. Do placebo expectations influence perceived exertion during physical exercise? PLOS ONE, 2017; 12 (6): e0180434 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0180434

University of Freiburg. (2017, June 30). Sport feels less strenuous if you believe it's doing you good. ScienceDaily. Retrieved July 4, 2017 from