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The Language Teacher

Seven Suggestions of Highly Successful Pronunciation Teaching

William Acton
Nagoya University of Commerce

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Imagine yourself sitting in a pronunciation class as the instructor begins to introduce the program with something like Column A [boldface mine!]:

Column A
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 (Orion, 1989, pp. xxiii-iv).
Column B
Acquiring good pronunciation is the most intriguing part of learning a new language. As you improve, you will be learning to listen and imitate in new ways. As with everything you do well, you know how to learn and practice enthusiastically. Some English sounds will arrive almost overnight; some improvement takes a little more time. Some of you may be more successful than others in discovering unique ways to improve your pronunciation; others will find other creative ways to improve.

In those bold-faced words and phrases in Column A, can you not hear echoes of that famous line above the door in Dante's Inferno, "Abandon hope, all ye who enter here?"

The process of learning the pronunciation of a second language is especially sensitive to (generally unconscious) suggestion (Lozanov, 1979). So, if you haven't already, please go back and read Column B - in an enthusiastic, yet soothing, confident voice. I have substituted in a few phrases here and there in Orion's introduction to illustrate (and, of course, exaggerate) the difference in general approach we might expect from one trained in NLP (e.g., O'Connor & McDermott, 1996) or Educational Hypnosis (EdHyp - see Murphy & Bolstad, in this issue.). Each column (along with its contrasting delivery style) can suggest different paths ahead.

In today's communication and "efficiency" oriented approaches to second language teaching, pronunciation instruction remains something of an embarrassment. In learning grammar, vocabulary, conversational conventions, for example, there is optimism that the process can be sped up substantially. In L2 pronunciation instruction, especially by those not involved directly in developing pronunciation instruction methodology, that view is rarely, if ever expressed.

Not surprisingly, pronunciation is often just ignored or, at best, included only superficially. (Recall Dante's admonition above!) Although there have been some important advances in methodology (e.g., Morley, 1989), many instructors still do not see time spent on improving pronunciation as being all that productive or cost effective. However, when several developments in pronunciation pedagogy and related fields are viewed together, within this NLP perspective, it becomes evident that pronunciation instruction can be, "accelerated" considerably.1

That is not to say that NLP-oriented instructors are, themselves, doing more with pronunciation instruction or that they are doing it better. They probably tend to do even less pronunciation work than "mainline" ESL professionals, being more concerned with issues of fluency, memory and integration. The point here is that there are features of the NLP perspective that, if adopted, can enhance pronunciation teaching. In what follows, the procedures and strategies described are, for the most part, "borrowed" from ESL texts, public speaking methods, speech and drama teaching. Other techniques are derived from clinical hypnosis (e.g., Bandler & Grinder, 1975.), an integral part of NLP training.

Suggestion One

(Just as an exercise) assume for a couple of weeks that you are entirely responsible for how and what your students learn.

One of the strongest claims of NLP is that the instructor must be (again) seen as much more responsible for effective learning than is usually the case in communicative and so-called learner-centered instruction. The seven suggestions described here are all "instructor-centered" in that sense. A popular way out of this "problem" for some second language acquisition theorists is to claim that ultimately it is the individual student's motivation or strategies that determine "learning." The instructor can only do so much.

From the outset, in an NLP framework, the instructor assumes a more central role -- one which should be, nonetheless, more completely relinquished later. Especially in working with adults, the instructor must be more active, more directing. That is doubly the case in pronunciation instruction.

Suggestion Two

Assess your general classroom suggestive/communication patterns and the quality of physical setting you create.

In NLP training a high priority is placed on attention to "suggestion." Everything about the learning "menu and venue" may be evaluated to insure that acquisition is promoted, much as in Suggestopedia (Lozanov, 1979; Adamson, C., this issue). That may include anything from "Column B" suggestions and extend to the type of intonation and rhythm patterns you use when in "teacher" mode. Many aspects of the speech model of the teacher have obvious importance for pronunciation instruction -- especially in the case of the nonnative instructor.

The impact of suggestion depends upon meta-communication (rapport, linking, and authority, cf., Murphey & Bolstad, this issue). By contrast, in typical pronunciation instruction, it is often mistakenly assumed that the way we talk and work on pronunciation is relatively unimportant, compared to the conscious "cognitive" stuff going on. Nothing could be further from the truth. No matter how carefully the explanation or practice is done, if it is set in comments and interpersonal relationships that are not suggestive of success and learning, the efficacy of a lesson will be seriously compromised.

Pronunciation teaching has "traditionally" been seen as being far closer to mindless, endless "push ups" than to genuine, coherent meta-communication.

Suggestion Three

Get some (more) voice and speech training.

For a number of reasons, speech and voice work have been de-emphasized in communicative language teaching. Training in NLP almost always entails voicework. Control of voice production is practically the sine qua non of hypnotic work. A voice which communicates messages of confidence and authority, and the ability to accurately monitor vocal production and body movement, is crucial to NLP, public speaking, and first-rate pronunciation teaching. In addition, in overcoming fossilized pronunciation, helping students to create "new" more confident-sounding voices (changing the pitch, speed or timbre) and more L2-like body "presentations," has been shown to be very effective for overall L2 acquisition (Acton, 1984).

Many methodologists (e.g., Fanselow, 1987) recommend that teachers regularly videotape and evaluate their teaching. Even if we are concerned only with creating a good model voice for our students, for specific sounds or comprehensible input, we should at the very least have a good instrument to "play" (Lessac, 1967 and 1981).

Suggestion Four

Make sure pronunciation work is both non-threatening and expressive.

A number of studies have established the extent to which pronunciation and accent are sensitive to (basically unconscious) emotional and affective factors. (see Brown, 1987 and 1991, for summaries of that research.) As lie detection professionals have known for decades, when we are stressed, our pronunciation is usually the first thing to break down. Likewise, trying to learn new pronunciation in a threatening environment (such as during nasty peer correction or "solo" oral responses in class) is probably, rarely an efficient use of time or energy.

Pronunciation instruction obviously requires not only concentration but also the freedom to do some relatively uninhibited things. The learner must take many more "chances" in attempting to improve pronunciation and be comfortable with potentially very "personal" correction and criticism. (That may be yet another reason why so many instructors avoid pronunciation work in the first place! It requires too much tact and sensitivity!)

Much of what passes for hypnotic work can be understood as effective shortcuts for dealing with emotions. The hypnotist may then help the client reduce the emotional impediment to something or intensify an emotional response to an event or idea. Simply by removing an emotional "block," whatever it is, learning or performance in general improves, but that is only half of the story.

As we will consider in Suggestion Six, by helping a learner become more expressive, the emotions can be enlisted to help improve memory and performance. But that, of course, involves even more risk-taking, allowing students to truly "let themselves go" and experiment with new sounds and processes. In other words, pronunciation work should be simultaneously non- threatening and expressive. Drama work is a great place to begin.

Recall Charles Adamson's note (in this issue) on Lozanov's claim to be able to teach 1000 words in an hour when learners are in the right "state" of mind. If that's the case with vocabulary -- imagine the impact on trying to remember how to pronounce a "simple" [th] sound!

Suggestion Five

Think "modalities," and "sequences of modalities."

Being able to approach pronunciation teaching from different modalities (auditory, visual, kinesthetic, tactile) is clearly advantageous. Regardless of the "target" of instruction, being able to present and practice a sound or sound process, from several perspectives is just basic stuff of good teaching, good pronunciation work.

Attention to modalities is also a central process in NLP (see Bolstad, this issue). An important assumption of NLP practitioners, one which I think is most interesting, is that our modality preference (our "favorite" modality choice) is not as fixed as many claim (O'Connor & Seymour, 1994). One of the key arguments for "individualized instruction" has been that everybody is so "different" in terms of learning style: some prefer visual; some, auditory, and so forth. As one of the founders of NLP (Bandler, 1985) notes, if we can, instead, learn to use other modalities in remembering, we may be even more effective.

The implication for pronunciation work is that we do not have to be overly concerned that we "give" everybody their favorite modality, because we should be using a multi-modality approach in the first place. In other words, every sound process should be experienced as a totality: visual + auditory + kinesthetic + tactile (although not necessarily in that order, of course). In that way learners have the opportunity to strengthen their "lesser" modalities.

What training in NLP aims do is to (1) inform the instructor as to his or her own preferred modalities, and (2) improve his or her ability to decide which combination of modalities to use on a particular project.

For example, in helping Japanese students with [r/l] pronunciation, we have a choice of several approaches, depending on which modality or sets of modalities we chose to lead with. I observed one teacher who stuck on a purely auditory strategy for a while (Repeat after me! ) and only in desperation switched to a more visual (Look here in my mouth and then try to say it again! ) strategy. Any experienced pronunciation teacher (or speech therapist) has learned, if only by trial and error, that to do [r/l] well may require all modalities be engaged and sequenced. Students may have to be led to hear the distinction, feel the difference (in the vibrations in the mouth), consciously focus on the movement of lips and tongue, and (probably) focus on the place(s) where the tongue touches the roof of the mouth.

NLP training will not necessarily make one better at helping students quickly change their pronunciation of troublesome consonants. You first have to have some basis in articulatory phonetics so you can at least know how to talk people through new movements. (Simply) by approaching pronunciation problems with the question "Which modality or set of modalities should I begin with?" is often enough, to help you get it done.

Suggestion Six

Anchor well!

"Anchoring " is, in some sense, the basic idea in hypnosis: Do something striking so that "it" is remembered or forgotten (Bandler, 1985; Acton, 1995; Adamson, K., this issue). From a NLP standpoint it means first, ensuring concentration (Suggestion Four above) and then bringing together the right combination of modalities to "set" the memory (Suggestion Five.)

Anchoring often naturally occurs in the summary or concluding phase of any lesson. It may mean just "giving" the learner a phrase that contains the new sound or process, in some vivid and memorable context to "carry home." The NLP-oriented instructor would plan for that kind of closure, making it a top priority. NLP training includes a great deal of practice in anchoring and in reading others' nonverbal communication, looking for signs of anchoring effectiveness. Practically speaking, that means that you pick your pronunciation targets well and spend enough time and energy on them. Especially with pronunciation work, if you do not have time to anchor a sound change or process well, (Present and practice it so it will be remembered!) don't bother with it. It is one thing simply to "point out" the meaning of a word or phrase to students. That may be useful information and may "stick." Pronunciation change, especially in a classroom, must be a focused, multi-sensory and multi-modal experience which is well anchored.

Suggestion Seven

Talk more effectively and more often with students about how to integrate and use what they are learning.

Here again, pronunciation teaching methodology is actually quite complete in terms of (1) training so that almost anyone can become sufficiently skilled at leading students to change speech sounds or imitate any critical feature of the target language, and (2) creating communicative practice opportunities. We do not, however, have a generally accepted performance model that explains how pronunciation features attended to in isolation (in the classroom) can be integrated into spontaneous speech. That is pretty much the case with second language acquisition in general at this point (e.g., Stevick, 1996).

Much of the "talk" in an NLP-oriented language classroom would revolve around reports and strategies related to what happens "out there." NLP may well hold an important key to making pronunciation and conversation teaching more effective: a methodology for helping students integrate (pronunciation) change into interpersonal communication. Several current (mainline) pronunciation texts include a wide range of (explicit) strategies for pronunciation homework and real world practice (Grant, 1993; Dalton & Seidlhofer, 1994).

A beginning . . .

The NLP perspective can bring to instruction, any kind of instruction, treatment of aspects of the learning milieu for which we may not normally have time, energy or thought. In pronunciation work, in a class process that moves back and forth between loud, uninhibited talk and near "catatonic," these seven features of NLP should provide a useful foundation. Between the riot and the respite, with a few suggestions, you can more consistently find that experience to share with your students which will allow them to change, learn, associate and remember better later.

Let me suggest that you begin with Column B . . .

I would like to thank Tim Murphy, Charles Adamson, Phil Goertzen, George Watt, and Elka Todeva for "suggestions" on earlier drafts of this paper.

1NLP professionals are, in fact, frequently involved in so-called "accelerated" learning programs. See publications of the Society for Accelerated Language Teaching, such as the SALT Journal.

Acton, W. (1984). Changing fossilized pronunciation. TESOL Quarterly, 18 (1), 71-85.

Acton, W. (1995). Anchoring language learning in sensory creativity. MetaMaps, 3(2), 7-10.

Adamson, C. (this issue). Suggestopedia as NLP.

Bandler, R. (1985). Using your brain for a change. Moab, UT: Real People Press.

Bandler, R., & Grinder, J. (1975). Patterns of hypnotic techniques of Milton H. Erickson, M.D., Vol. 1. Cupertino, CA: Science and Behavior Books.

Bolstad, R. (this issue). Using the language of the brain.

Brown, D. (1987). Principles of second language teaching and learning (2nd ed.). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Brown, D. (1991). Breaking the language barrier. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Dalton, C., & Seidlhofer, B. (1994). Pronunciation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Fanselow, J. (1987). Breaking rules: Generating and exploring alternatives in language teaching. New York: Longman.

Grant, L. (1993). Well said. Boston: Heinle & Heinle.

Lessac, A. (1967). The use and training of the human voice (2nd ed.). New York: Drama Book Specialists.

Lessac, A. (1981). Body wisdom. New York: Drama Book Specialists.

Lozanov, G. (1979). Suggestology and outlines of suggestopedy. New York: Gordon and Breach Science Publishers.

Morley, J. (Ed.). (1989). Current perspectives on teaching pronunciation. Washington, D.C.: TESOL.

Murphey, T., & Bolstad, R. (this issue). Educational hypnosis.

O'Connor, J., & Seymour, J. (1994). Introducing NLP. New York: Harper Collins.

O'Connor, J., & McDermott, I. (1996). Principles of NLP. New York: Harper Collins.

Orion, G. (1988). Pronouncing American English: sounds, stress, and intonation. New York: Newbury House Publishers.

Stevick, E. (1996). Images and options: a view of language teaching (2nd ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

William Acton may be contacted at: Nagoya Shoka Daigaku, Nisshin-cho, Aichi-gun, Aichi-ken. 470-01.

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