In this issue of Teaching Assistance, Yuri Machihara reminds readers that English, like music, has its own melody and rhythm. And music, like language, varies across regions and cultures. This lets people express themselves. For the past five years, she has been working in the International Office at Kagawa University. She runs activities in the Global Café, a space where Japanese students and foreigners gather to talk, exchange ideas, learn, and have fun, while preparing to study overseas.
In a vibrant five-part essay, she posits that vocalization techniques that she learned while studying music in the US can be applied to teaching pronunciation in Japan. She explains using posture and volume as basic examples. Speed is a more challenging technique. When she observed students rush through pauses and breaks, she recommended that they begin by speaking English slowly. That can be awkward though. An alternative solution is to train students to add whole, half, and quarter rests between sentence clauses. That would allow them to find and cement where pauses should go. She deftly concludes her argument that such music techniques do improve oral communication by reinforcing the point that speaking English is not about the accent but about the skill.
Every student has their own reasons for studying English. It may be to travel, to study abroad, or to create a stronger resume for a future career. Sometimes, I have students who say they want to speak like a native English speaker. I have mixed feelings about this. Although it may be a good incentive, it should not be their goal. I want students to be able to express themselves in their own way instead of trying to speak like someone else.
When I teach English, I find using techniques that I practiced while studying music to be effective in improving pronunciation (Yuzawa, 2007). I learned English by living in the US and studied music from a young age. Traveling back and forth between the US and my hometown, I became interested in international relations as well as English education in Japan. After graduating from university, I returned to my home country and started teaching at Kagawa University (Figure 1). There, I have been coordinating international exchange programs and teaching English to students interested in studying abroad. Below are several observations that I have had with my students in my conversation class for beginners.
I had a student ask me how to pronounce the word cocurricular. He was saying something similar to /ˈkɔ-kju-ri-lər/, with a missing syllable and unaware that the word should be divided into “co” and “curricular.” After pointing these out, the word could be recognized, but his pronunciation sounded muffled. This time, he was having trouble with the /r/ sound. I saw him sitting at his desk, staring into his book with his brows furrowed. I asked him to straighten his back to open up his vocal cords, relax his shoulders to free up his muscles, and not to curl his tongue too far back.
“Cocurricular” he said. At that moment, I heard him say /ˌkō-kə-ˈri-kyə-lər/ with a clear /r/ sound–of course, with a bit of uncertainty but with clarity.
When learning music, it is essential to know how to hold your instrument properly (Reese, 2012). Before you play a note, you need to learn how to place the violin under your chin or which fingers go on which keys for the flute or clarinet. You also want to position your music stand so that it is high enough to see the teacher or conductor just by moving your eyes from the notes on the page. And raising that music stand automatically straightens your back and helps maintain good posture.
When my students study vocabulary, I often see them study quietly, saying the words to themselves with a soft voice. This may be enough to learn the definition, but if they want to learn the pronunciation of the words, I tell them that they should practice saying the word out loud and, if possible, louder than the voice they usually use in a conversation.
As a music student, I practiced difficult sections until I could play them well, loud and, strong. The reason for this was that playing loudly requires more strength and my muscles to work harder than when I played softly. When my hands became comfortable playing strong notes, playing normally made the section feel easier. Much of this is the same with English. In English, the mouth moves differently when you are whispering, when you are having a conversation, and when you are calling out to someone. Also, it requires more movement and power for your voice to be projected. If students are asked to speak up but have only practiced speaking softly, they often stumble on the word that they are not used to saying. However, if students learn to speak with a strong voice and practice varying their volume, then speaking in a natural tone takes less effort and allows them to produce the right sounds while sustaining the flow in their speech.
When Japanese students try to mimic native speakers, they often speak too quickly. The problem is that they speak so fast that they ignore the pauses and breaks that are essential to creating the flow in their speech and the listener is not able to distinguish the words that are being said.
In music, if you are learning a new passage, you start playing slowly (Volpé et al., 2014). By using a metronome, you set a slow tempo and make sure that you can play all of the notes in the rhythm written on the page. For example, if the passage should be played at 120 beats per minute, you might start at 60 beats per minute. Then, you practice at a faster tempo and continue raising the speed until you reach the tempo at which the passage should be played—120. Let’s say you can play the passage at 100 beats per minute. You then adjust the metronome to the next setting—104 beats per minute—and continue practicing at 104. But then you make a mistake—not just once, but each time you get to a certain note. If you ignore the mistake and continue setting the metronome faster to reach the goal of 120 beats per minute, the mistake will never be fixed. To correct the mistake, you have to go back—not to 104 beats per minute, but to 100 beats per minute or ever slower and make sure that you can play the entire passage accurately. You can always slow down, but you are not guaranteed anything if you cannot do it slowly.
I believe that music is a form of language, and that English is highly musical. Like language, music varies among different regions or cultures and can be used to express oneself. (Trehub et al., 2015). Likewise, English varies between people and is used to communicate with one another. Students in Japan may feel embarrassed about their Japanese English, but we need to remind them that speaking English is not about the accent—it is a skill to communicate. These practices of maintaining good posture, voice projection, and talking at an appropriate speed are only a starting point to help establish the basic techniques for speaking, but once they know how to take things slowly, they can develop a good ear for distinguishing subtle sounds and listening for rhythm and flow to further improve their oral skills.
Reese, A. (2012). A good start. Harp Column, 20(5), 34-39. https://harpcolumn.com/march-april-2012-issue/
Trehub, S. E., Becker, J., & Morley, I. (2015). Cross-cultural perspectives on music and musicality. Philosophical transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological Sciences, 370(1664). https://doi.org/10.1098/rstb.2014.0096
Volpé, E., Gilchrist, M., & Voltz, F. (2014, March 1). Advice—How can I get better at counting? Harp Column. Retrieved from https://harpcolumn.com/blog/how-can-i-get-better-at-counting/
Yuzawa, N. (2007). Teaching English pronunciation. The Economic Journal of TCUE, 50(Anniversary Edition), 95-107. Retrieved from http://www1.tcue.ac.jp/home1/k-gakkai/ronsyuu/ronsyuukeisai/50_1.2/yuzaw...