Saturday, October 27, 2012

Joining the Ear Force

In my last post, I went on about everyday spoken English and how it's not usually given a big role in ESL classes.  I do see some attention given to it in some textbooks.  For example, the Side by Side books will end a unit by including a pronunciation point.  In books 1 and 2, it's generally tacked on at the end, not integrated into the lesson. And it's presented as speaking practice: Listen and repeat.  Say and listen.

My feeling is that the there would be better value in shifting the focus to listening.  A second language speaker who says "twenty" instead of "twenny" will surely make herself understood.  But she could be confused when she receives "twenny" as input.  And, while judicious use of informal pronunciation can help a learner to sound likable, misuse can have the effect of making the learner sound uneducated.  "Gotta" and "gonna" may not go over well in a job interview, even if the interviewer happens to be speaking that way!  But it's important to understand an interviewer in this situation, nevertheless.

My learners are fascinated to hear the same text read with varying degrees of formality.  So, why not have students listen to two versions and contrast what they hear, discovering pronunciation differences on their own?  They might even try to generalize a bit.  If "want to" is pronounced "wanna", then "twenty" might be pronounced "twenny" for the same reason?  We would be analyzing authentic speech instead of  trying to reproduce it.  This might more effectively build the skills that ESL learners need to fearlessly grapple with the language of the man on the street.  And the same skills would be helpful to a traveling student who encounters regional differences.  (Those differences don't have to be copied, just comprehended.) Let students join the Ear Force and move up in the ranks!

A member of the Ear Force heading to class.
In related news, I discovered a great little web site which highlights some of the "secrets" of spoken American English with videos and text of short, simple snippets of speech. It's called True Spoken English.  My intermediate students were thrilled when I shared the URL earlier this week! I'm sure we can use it to complement an input-focused approach.

A final note: this whole idea of giving more attention to everyday spoken input is most relevant to learners who are trying to cope with native English speakers on the street (ESL).  But it can apply to EFL learners who want to visit an English-speaking country, watch movies or other videos, sing along with pop songs, etc. Does it have relevance for ELF (English as a Lingua Franca) learners?

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