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