Sunday, April 29, 2018

Mission unpronouncable: When there's no method to the madness . . . (the kitchen sink)
Caveat Emptor: I am a (a) near fanatical exerciser (b) language teaching method/ologist with about 50 years in the field, (c) compulsive researcher, and (d) this post is maybe a little "retro." You'd think that the (b) and (c) skill sets would naturally combine to make me a near world-class athlete. In my dreams, maybe . . .

For years, when asked how to get started exercising like I do, my standard response has been:
  • Pick your grandparents well.
  • Get a trainer or sign up for a class -- Don't do it on your own. 
  • Follow the method.
  • Be disciplined and consistent.
  • Run the long race: a life of better fitness. 
Should have taken my own advice. I (mistakenly) thought that I was perfectly capable of creating my own system to run fast, based on research and my understanding of how methods and the body work. My self-assembled and constructed "method" has always been reasonably good for staying fit and strong . . .

I typically don't have time for classes, am genetically averse to following other people's methods and figured that I am smart enough to research my way to excellence. Not quite. I had fallen prey to a common version of the electronic post-modernist's "Decartes' Error" (I think, therefore I am) able to do this myself, with a little "Google shopping".

So, I  present my "method," a full report on what I had done the preceding two weeks, to my new coach. In retrospect, it had everything but the kitchen sink in it. She was kind, to put it mildly. When I first explained my essentially ad hoc method her reaction was (in essence):

"Hmm . . . Nice collection of tools . . . but where is your method? Aren't you a teacher?"

Turns out that I had many near-appropriate techniques and procedures, but they were either in the wrong order, done without the correct form or amount of weights or repetitions. In other words, great ideas, but a weak or counterproductive system.

So, how’s your (pronunciation) method?  Tried describing it lately? Could you? (Ask my grad students how easy that is!) When it comes to pronunciation, I think I know how to do that and help others in many different contexts construct their own, unique systems, but when it came to competitive running, turns out that I really didn’t have a clue, plan . . . or effective method.

I have one (plan+coach) now, one that applies as much (or more) to fast running as it does to effective pronunciation teaching or any instruction for that matter. Some features  of "our" new method:
  • Reasonable and really achievable goals that will reveal incremental progress.
  • Progress is not always immediate and perceptible, but it becomes evident "on schedule" according to the method/ologist! (Good methods "future pace", spell out what should happen and when.)
  • Near perfect form as a target is essential, if only in terms of simplicity of focus, but combined with the ongoing assessment and assistance of a "guide," gradual approximation is the gold standard.
  •  Having a model, in my case, Bill Rogers, Olympic marathoner perhaps, or a native speaker in teaching, is OK as long as the goal is the good form of the model, the process, not the ultimate outcome.
  • Regular, proscribed practice, coupled with systematic feedback, probably from a person at this point in time, is the soul of method. "Overdoing" it is as counterproductive as "under-doing" it.
  • Lessons and homework are rationally and explicitly scaffolded, building across time, for the most part at the direction of the method/ologist. That can't be "neo-behaviorist" in nature, but the framework has to be there in some cognitive-behavioral-neurophysiological form, where focus of attention is engineered in carefully.
  • Unstructured, random meta-cognitive analysis of the method (not the data) undermines results, but near absolute concentration on movement and intensity,  moment by moment, is the sine qua non of it all. 
  • Meta-communication (planning, monitoring) of the process, should be highly interactive, of course, but generally more controlled by the method/ologist than the learner, flexible enough to adjust to learners and contexts, of course, and but only when the brain/mind is allowed such "out of body" experience. 
To the extent that pronunciation is a more somatic/physical process, does that not suggest why efficient pronunciation work can be illusive? If you are in a program where there is a pronunciation class that approaches some or most of that criteria--and where the other instructors in the program can support and follow up to some extent on what is done there-- things work.

If not, if it is mostly just up to you, what do you do? Well, you pick some strategic targets, like stress, intonation and high functional load consonants for your students. In addition, you selectively use some of the features above, many of which apply to all instruction, not just pronunciation, and hope for the best.

Method rides again, but this time as a comprehensive body-mind system that is more and more feasible and achievable, e.g., Murphy's new book, but still potentially time consuming, expensive and maddening if you have to go it alone. 

Of course, if you don't have the time or resources to do relatively minimal pronunciation work, you can still probably find an expert-book-website to send yourself and students to for basics. There are many. Of course, I'd suggest one in particular . . .

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Out of touch and "pointless" gesture use in (pronunciation) teaching

Two recently published, interesting papers illustrate potential problems and pleasures with gesture use in (pronunciation) teaching. The author(s) both, unfortunately, implicate or misrepresent haptic pronunciation training.

Note: In Haptic Pronunciation Training-English (HaPT-Eng) there is NO interpersonal touch, whatsoever. A learner's hands may touch either each other or the learner holds something, such as a ball or pencil that functions as an extension of the hand. Touch typically serves to control and standardize gesture--and integrate the senses--while amplifying the focus on stressed syllables in words or phrases.

This from Chan (2018): Embodied Pronunciation Learning: Research and Practice in special issue of the CATESOL journal on research-based pronunciation teaching:

"In discussing the use of tactile communication or haptic interventions, they (Hişmanoglu and Hişmanoglu, 2008) advise language teachers to be careful. They cite a number of researchers who distinguish high-contact, touch-oriented societies (e.g., Filipino, Latin American, Turkish) from societies that are low contact and not touch oriented (e.g., Chinese, Japanese, Korean); the former may perceive the teacher’s haptic behavior (emphasis mine)as normal while the latter may perceive it as abnormal and uncomfortable. They also point out that in Islamic cultures, touching between people (emphasis mine) of the same gender is approved, but touching between genders is not allowed. Thus, while integrating embodied pronunciation methods into instruction, teachers need to remain constantly aware of the individuals, the classroom dynamics, and the attitudes students express toward these activities."

What Chan means by the "teacher's haptic behavior" is not defined. (She most probably means simply touching--tactile, not "haptic" in the technical sense as in robotics, for example, or as we use it in HaPT-Eng, that is: gesture synchronized with speech and anchored with intra-personal touch that provides feedback to the learner.) For example, to emphasize word stress in HaPT-Eng, in a technique called the "Rhythm Fight Club", the teacher/learner may squeeze a ball on a stressed syllable, as the arm punches forward, as in boxing. .

Again: There is absolutely no "interpersonal touch" or tactile or haptic communication, body-to-body, utilized in  HaPT-Eng . . . it certainly could be, of course--acknowledging the precautions noted by Chan.
A second study, Shadowing for pronunciation development: Haptic-shadowing and IPA-shadowing, by Hamada, has a related problem with the definition of "haptic". In the nice study, subjects "shadowed" a model, that is attempted to repeat what they heard (while view a script), simultaneously, along with the model. (It is a great technique, one use extensively in the field.) The IPA group had been trained in some "light" phonetic analysis of the texts, before attempting the shadowing. The "haptic" group were trained in what was said (inaccurately) to be the Rhythm Fight Club. There was a slight main effect, nonetheless, the haptic group being a bit more comprehensible.

The version of the RFC used was not haptic; it was only kinesthetic (there was no touch involved), just using the punching gesture, itself, to anchor/emphasize designated stressed syllables in the model sentences. The kinesthetic (touchless) version of the RFC has been used in other studies with even less success! It was not designed to be used without something for the hand to squeeze on the stressed element of the word or sentence, making it haptic. In that form, the gesture use can easily become erratic and out of control--best case! One of the main--and fully justified--reasons for avoidance of gesture work by many practitioners, as well as the central focus of HaPT-Eng: controlled, systematic use of gesture in anchoring prominence in language instruction.  

But a slight tweak of the title of the Hamada piece from "haptic" to "kinesthetic", of course, would do the trick.

The good news: using just kinesthetic gesture (movement w/o touch anchoring), the main effect was discernable. The moderately "bad" news: it was not haptic--which (I am absolutely convinced) would have made the study much more significant--let alone more memorable, touching and moving . . .

Keep in touch! v5.0 of HaPT-Eng will be available later this summer!

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Blogpost #1000! - Gender discrimination in L2 listening and teaching!

How appropriate that the 1000th post on this blog is on the lighter side--but still with a useful "in-sight!"

Ever wonder why girls are better language learners than boys? A new study, Explicit Performance in Girls and Implicit Processing in Boys: A Simultaneous fNIRS–ERP Study on Second Language Syntactic Learning in Young Adolescents  by Sugiura, Hata, Matsuba-Kurita, Uga, Tsuzuki, Dan, Hagiwara, and Homae at Tokyo Metropolitan University, summarized by, has recently demonstrated that, at least in listening to an L2:
  • Middle school boys tend to rely more on their left pre-frontal cortex, that part of the brain that is more visual, analytic and rule-oriented--and is connected more to the left hemisphere of the brain and right visual field. 
  • Middle school girls, on the other hand, tend to to use the right area at the back of the brain that is more holistic, meaning and relation-based--that is connected to the right hemisphere and left visual field.
Now granted the subjects were pre-adolescent. That could well mean that within a year or two their general ability to "absorb" language holistically will begin to degrade even further, adding to the boy's handicap. (Although there is still the remote possibility that the effect would impact girls more than boys? Not really.)
Research on what is processed better in the left, as opposed to right visual field (the right, as opposed to left brain hemisphere) was referenced recently in a fun piece in, How a Strange Fact About Eyeballs Could Change Your Whole Marketing Plan: What public speakers accidentally know about neuroanatomy, by Tim David, that finally provided an explanation for the long established principle in show business that you go "stage left" (into the right visual field of the audience) if you want to get a laugh, and you go stage right if you want tears and emotion. (If you don't believe that is true, try both perspectives in class a few times.)

(Most of us) boys really don't have a chance, at least not in terms of contemporary language teaching methodology either! Not only does de-emphasis on form or structure in instruction give girls an unfair advantage, moving away from boy's preferred processing style, but where are left-brained (generally right-handed) instructors more likely to gesture and direct their gaze? You got it--right into the girls' preferred left visual fields.  And that is NOT funny!

So, lighten your cognitions up a bit, move more stage left,
and cater a little more to the boys' need for rules and reasons, eh!