Dispelling some common ELT pronunciation myths (Part 1 of 2)

Allow me to make a brief interlude from my current series on learning Greek in order to announce my latest guest post for the Cambridge University Press Better Learning blog:

Dispelling ELT myths: What really matters when teaching pronunciation – Part 1

In part 1 of 2, I bust three common myths about teaching English pronunciation:

Myth #1: There is one correct accent of English.

Myth #2: It’s not that important to teach pronunciation.

Myth #3: Pronunciation is more useful for advanced learners.

Im not sure when Part 2 will come out, but I can tell you now that there will be 3 more common myths in that one—along with (of course) explanations of why it is high time we stopped believing them!

Learning Greek, 2.3: A phrasebook for (digital) nomads

This is the fourth in a new series of posts about my experiences of learning Greek.


Also, a pre-emptive P.S. (a “pre-script”?) in case youre wondering… Where are all the apostrophes in this blogpost?


“Nonsense, you speak very well!”

This has got to be one of the top three most common things* I hear from locals when I am living (or at least spending more than a few weeks) in another country and communicating as much as possible in the local language.

Here are the conditions under which the phrase normally occurs:

  1. I am way out of my depth in some communicative scenario. I take a deep breath and just use whatever I know in order to get as far as I can (normally before it all breaks down and they switch to English).
  2. I only actually know a few phrases in the language—and because of Condition 1, I have uttered these few phrases about a million times. I have therefore benefited from intensive real-life drilling, you might say.
  3. I have just faltered when they said something I didnt understand, but to which they clearly expect a response, and admitted (in the L2), “Er, sorry… I dont speak much [Greek/Czech/Portuguese/whatever other language is the latest object of my feeble attempt to be a fluent multilingual]”.

And heres the thing. They say it sincerely, with no pretence of flattery, genuinely expressing how impressed they are that I can communicate so well in their language.

BUT I CANNOT.

“Really!” I protest. “Youre very kind. But I really dont speak much [Greek/Czech etc.].”

And then I continue—but in my own head, of course—”Its just that since I arrived in this country a few weeks ago, Ive said this damned phrase SO MANY SQUILLIONS OF TIMES that every item in my extraordinarily limited repertoire of L2 phrases has been rehearsed ad nauseum until I can say it as fluently as my own name (even though I cant seem to pronounce my own name yet in any way that helps you spell it L-A-U-R-A). Plus Im something of a pronunciation geek, so Im pretty good at convincing you that Im more fluent than I am because I like to notice things like connected speech features, allophones, final-consonant devoicing and clusters that arent permissible in English but which youve been using without a second thought since you were about 2 years old. Hey, wanna talk about phonotactics?”

Meanwhile, they are continuing to jabber at me in [Greek etc.] until a minute or so later, when they realise my blank expression isnt for show. At which point they assume a vaguely disappointed look as they finally realise that Im no longer following, despite things apparently having started so well…

Anyway, Ive long since learnt to accept the compliment and keep doing my utmost to feel, next time it happens, like I might actually deserve it.

So what are these magical phrases?

After quite a lot of travelling to various cities and learning rapidly how to manage the same typical daily interactions, heres my suggested phrasebook for effective basic communication in another language. This wont get you far, but it will get you far enough to be a pleasant and polite visitor to your chosen foreign land, to make sure you can get something to eat, and maybe even to get you the occasional compliment on your language skills.

I must confess that this is a somewhat selfish blogpost: Im actually going to be something of a digital nomad over the next couple of months, staying for at least a few days in at least 6 different language environments, only 1 of which I can claim to be fluent in (French) and only 2 others of which I already know these phrases to a compliment-winning degree (Czech, Greek). So this blogpost has given me a good excuse to collect in one place all the things that have been floating around my head in the past few years, resulting in one handy list which I can print out and prepare before I start a new episode of Lauras International Language Adventures. (And the bits in purple italics are just for you!)

Note: The phrases below are in no particular order of importance—theyre all important! As I say, this list comprises just those phrases I recommend for survival if youre the type of person who wants to communicate in the local language as much as possible (which I usually do).

  1. Hello. (formal, when entering public spaces like shops or offices and acknowledging anyone elses presence there)
  2. Goodbye. (formal, when leaving the aforementioned spaces, sometimes the same as #1)
  3. Hi. (informal, for greeting friends)
  4. See you (soon)! (informal, for leaving friends, sometimes the same as #3)
  5. How are you? / Whats new? (optional addition to #3)
  6. [How to answer #5 and whether to do so honestly or just be very English and say “very well, thanks” even if your cat has just been run over.]
  7. Would you like to sit down? (useful for offering to give up your seat on public transport, which I seem to need surprisingly often when I travel)
  8. Please, sit down! (or other way of insisting on #7 when the elderly/pregnant/disabled person inevitably politely refuses your first offer)
  9. Where are the toilets? (self-explanatory)
  10. Downstairs/upstairs/over there/down the corridor. (optional response to #9—but normally just knowing to use and obey a pointing finger is enough)
  11. The bill, please.
  12. Do you take cards? (optional addition to #11)
  13. Yes.
  14. No.
  15. [The numbers 1-20.]
  16. Excuse me. (for getting someones attention, e.g. because you need to ask them about #9)
  17. Excuse me. (as in, youre in my way and should know better than to stand on the wrong side of the escalator, which I learned within my first hour here when an old man pushed me aside with his cane while muttering words that are unfortunately cognates with “idiot” in other languages I understand, tsk)
  18. Do you need help? (not for you to use, but for you to understand when shop assistants use it)
  19. No thanks, Im just looking. (when you want the shop assistants to leave you alone so you can Google translate various signs and labels in peace)
  20. Please.
  21. Thank you.
  22. Im looking for… (and then you can just look up a translation for whatever it is you need—this is particularly useful for pharmacies, I find, where trying to mime your symptoms isnt always an attractive prospect)
  23. Which floor? (it still surprises me how often I need to use this)
  24. Like this. (SUPER useful for when you already have some of what you want but you need more and dont know how to begin translating/explaining it, so its easier just to show them an example. Ive used this a lot when buying fabric to match something Im already working on and Im not even sure in English what the material is!)
  25. Its too (light/dark/expensive). (Of course, there are many possible adjectives you might need but I find that most can be mimed, like “big” and “small”. Ive found these three harder to mime and, as I often seem to be looking for things in particular colours, “light” and “dark” are quite useful, particularly in combination with #24.)
  26. Perfect! (to be added to #21 when someone in a shop is very helpful and you leave happily with whatever you had gone in for)
  27. Youre very kind. (to be uttered—while smiling bashfully—in response to the misguided compliment with which we started this blogpost…)

And two bonus questions, if youre really getting into the swing of things and want to keep discovering new things, and have people nearby who are willing to humour you:

  1. How do you say…in [Greek etc.]? (useful for when they keep trying to switch into English but youre THIS CLOSE to expressing what you want to say in the L2 and really want to persevere)
  2. Whats happening? (useful for when you wander into some exciting local event but cant make sense of whats going on)

Youll note that I havent included “Do you speak English?” or “I dont speak much [Greek etc.]” above because I have never actually really needed these. If I start speaking in the L2 with one of the 27 phrases above, the other person inevitably (and quickly) either answers the former (by just switching to English) and/or surmises the latter anyway!

Id love to hear what other phrases youd add to this list from your own experience…

*The other two are “Where are you from?”, sprung on me within the first 10 sentences (max) of our dialogue, and “Do you know where…is?” (from other tourists, regardless of my notorious lack of navigational skills—I guess I must just generally walk with purpose and thus always appear to know where Im going… ha!).


P.S. In case you missed it… What happened to all the apostrophes in this blogpost?

Learning Greek, 2.2: Micro-listening skills and strategies

This is the third in a new series of posts about my experiences of learning Greek.


Also, a pre-emptive P.S. (a “pre-script”?) in case youre wondering… Where are all the apostrophes in this blogpost?


Adventures in Greek, episode #509:

The dialogue you are about to read took place all in Greek, in a shop somewhere in Athens in November 2019…

Me: [walks into shop] Hello.

Shop assistant: Hello.

Me: [attempts to browse inconspicuously despite sharing only about 20 square metres and no dividing walls with the shop assistant]

Shop assistant: Would you like any help?

Me: Thanks, Im just looking.

Shop assistant: [something I dont quite catch, sounds more like a statement than a question but she seems to expect a response…]

Me: [making my customary 50/50 guess] No.

…awkward pause…

Me: [belatedly processing the phrase “tell me” and promptly realising that what she had actually said was basically “cool, if you need anything, just let me know! 🙂”] Oops. Yes!! Ahem. Thank you…

Wah wah…

A classroom-related thought

This kind of silly and mildly embarrassing scenario (though less embarrassing than when I tried to leave the shop moments later, couldnt work out how to open the door, and she had to physically get up and come rescue me) really makes me empathise with language students who feel like theyve been studying the L2 for years but still cant understand fluent speakers when they speak quickly, even with apparently clear context. Their top-down skills might be quite good, but when those are not enough, their bottom-up skills sometimes fail to compensate.

In my own example above, it took a moment for my bottom-up skills (recognising individual sounds → recognising how they connect to form distinct words → mapping these onto meaningful items in my burgeoning L2 Greek lexicon) and my top-down skills (using context and co-text to made an educated guess) to cooperate and help me decide what to say next.

Actual footage from inside my brain at the moment of realisation

So how can we help learners develop effective rapid-listening skills?

This feels like a good case for what John Field refers to as “micro-listening”, or practising “individual subskills of listening” and micro-strategies, particularly those aspects of proficient listening that focus on acoustic processing, perception and interpretation (as opposed to more popular, but vaguer, terms like “listening for gist” or “listening for information”).

Heres an example from Fields 1998 ELT Journal article relating the reality of listening to research and classroom practice (p. 116):

Excerpt from page 116 of: Field, J. (1998). Skills and strategies: Towards a new methodology for listening. ELT Journal, 52(2), pp. 110–118.
Excerpt from page 116 of: Field, J. (1998). Skills and strategies: Towards a new methodology for listening. ELT Journal, 52(2), pp. 110–118.

If I could listen to and study several more-or-less common dialogues from shopping experiences in this focused way, I would probably be much better prepared for the next time I find myself in such a situation.

In fact, lets put that to the test. Ill try it right now using a very short section, beginning at 04:25, of Lesson 18 from the Learning Greek podcast created by the Hellenic American Union. Helpfully, they also supply a transcript for every episode, so I can check my answers afterwards.

(What follows was written in real time as I followed the 4 steps suggested above, so you can join me in working my way through them!)

1. Write down as many words as possible from the speech stream. Decide how certain you are about each one. 

1st listening: Πο πο κόσμος. Δεν μπορώ _______________________.

2nd listening: Πο πο κόσμος. Δεν μπορώ ___________________ γρήγορα.

3rd listening: Πο πο κόσμος. Δεν μπορώ _______________ πολύ? γρήγορα.

4th listening: Πο πο κόσμος. Δεν μπορώ _______________ πολύ γρήγορα.

5th listening: Πο πο κόσμος. Δεν μπορώ να ____?____ πολύ γρήγορα.

6th listening: Πο πο κόσμος. Δεν μπορώ να προ?___?____ πολύ γρήγορα.

7th listening: Πο πο κόσμος. Δεν μπορώ να προ___?____ πολύ γρήγορα.

8th listening: Πο πο κόσμος. Δεν μπορώ να προχόρισω? πολύ γρήγορα.

Anglicised, for those of you who are not literate in Greek, this is: “Po-po kosmos. Then bor-oh na proh-choh-ree-soh pol-ee gree-gora.”

2. Form guesses as to the ideas which link these words. Make use of your knowledge of the world, the topic of the text, the speaker, the text so far, and similar speech events.

  • My knowledge of the world: Shopping in cities and/or in open-air markets often involves navigating large crowds of slow-moving fellow shoppers.
  • The topic of the text: Visiting the open-air market for fruits and vegetables.
  • The speaker: I havent been following this whole podcast series so I dont really know anything about the speaker, other than that he seems to be an adult male.
  • The text so far:
    • 1st-4th listenings: The first part of the lesson just had a little dialogue of three friends in the supermarket deciding what to buy (a chicken, some fruit and feta—which was on sale, incidentally). [An aside: I actually understood everything in the first part! Woohoo!] But there was no mention of what would come next except that the title of the lesson is “At the supermarket/at the open-air market”, so I would presume the next bit is where the characters are at the open-air market. When it starts, there are 10 seconds of background noise that includes street sounds like car horns and the feint burble of people going about their daily business. But as the sentence Im trying to transcribe is the very first line of the second part of the lesson, I dont have much else to go on.
    • 5th listening: Ive heard my Greek friends say “Πο πο” (Anglicised: “po-po”) in a sort of surprised/disappointed/resigned way, like English “uh-oh” or “oh no…”, so I would guess that what follows this sentence-starter here is something expressing a negative feeling about the situation at hand.
    • 6th-7th listenings: The meaning of this short clip, as far as I can tell, is something like: “Ohhh, there are a lot of people here. I cant [subjunctive-prefacing particle/conjunction thingy, first-person singular verb] very fast.”
    • 8th listening: As theres only one short bit (I think one word) which Im still unsure about, but which appears to be a verb, I would guess it means something like “move forward”. Im confident that I have correctly heard the actual sounds the speaker is producing, but as for meaning, Im just speculating based on context and prior knowledge of other words beginning with “pro-” (like προχθές = “the day before yesterday”) and the verb “to dance” (χορεύω). I think its fair to assume that hes not complaining that theres no space in the market for him to dance into the recent past, and I dont know what other verb it could logically be, so Im sticking with “move forward/get through this crowd”. I may be way off.
  • Similar speech events: Not sure what to say here… I guess a “similar speech event”, if my other guesses are correct, would be “a friend saying something pessimistic while we are out shopping together”?

3. Check your guesses when the section of the text is replayed.

As Im working on my own, without any peer to compare with, I sort of combined this with step 1. But to keep things clear for you (youre welcome) I typed up steps 1 and 2 in parallel.

4. Check your guesses against the next section of the text.

I listened to it once and didnt catch much besides some discussion about buying tomatoes for a Greek salad. And the guy on the fruit and vegetables stall didnt have something, because… something about the afternoon.

I listened again and didnt catch much else except something in the following line which I think was another friend agreeing that he couldnt move at all. I definitely caught a word that sounded like the verb “to walk” and I definitely caught the word καθόλου (“(not) at all”), but nothing else. Πο πο…

(Implied step 5. Check with the tapescript, especially if youre studying without a teacher!)

Well now. It seems I got it mostly right—the tapescript is actually illustrated with a picture of a busy marketplace, and I had heard that following line correctly, about his friend not being able to walk at all.

My answer key. What is that second pic meant to illustrate?

I wrote:

Πο πο κόσμος. Δεν μπορώ να προχόρισω? πολύ γρήγορα.

The correct way to write this is:

Πω πω κόσμος! Δε μπορώ να προχωρήσω πολύ γρήγορα.

Clearly, I still have issues with guessing spellings in Greek. The various possible spellings of those pesky [o] and [i] sounds always trip me up! But actually, my friends here in Athens tell me that these particular mistakes are very common even for Greeks. And after all, its not so surprising or disheartening to still struggle with spelling these vowels, given that Im still only at roughly CEFR A1-A2 level.

I also forgot that theres no final /n/ on the word δεν (pronounced “then”, meaning “not”) when it occurs before the plosive sounds /p t k b d g/.

Otherwise, not a bad effort. Im quite pleased with that, given how little I caught on the first listening.

But… I still dont know what that mystery verb means, and I still couldnt get it from context!

Epilogue

Well, now my experiment is over, I can cheat and look up the word on Google Translate and Linguee. And… drumroll please… apparently, it means “move on”, “proceed”, “go further” etc.! Woohoo! So all that hard work trying to match my bottom-up phonetic decoding and top-down context-based skills paid off.

Pity the sentence I decoded wasnt actually a very common feature of shopping dialogues, so probably wont help me that much in future. But it has boosted my confidence (and vocabulary) very slightly.

Now, if only I can get the next shop assistant whose rapid speech baffles me to repeat herself 8 times and then provide subtitles so I can check whether I correctly guessed what she said…

Reference

Field, J. (1998). Skills and strategies: Towards a new methodology for listening. ELT Journal, 52(2), pp. 110–118.


P.S. In case you missed it… What happened to all the apostrophes in this blogpost?

Prepostrophe!

It’s Halloween, so I’m going to share something that might seem scary to some…

I am giving up apostrophes!

Not forever. Just for a month. I was first prompted by this suggestion that I saw on Twitter recently:

And I thought, sure, why not? Could be an interesting challenge! And then, in the responses to this tweet, I came across James Harbeck‘s excellent (and potentially tongue-in-cheek, but let’s run with it) article Kill The Apostrophe!. As he explains* very persuasively:

  1. Most of them don’t add anything useful.
  2. George Bernard Shaw did it and so can you.
  3. Many apostrophes are really only there for condescension.
  4. Even where an apostrophe can add something useful, we usually get by without it.
  5. They add confusion.
  6. It will free them up for use as single quotes.
  7. It will make the rules better.

For my part, it was mainly a combination of reasons 3 and 4 that prompted me to take part in this month-long experiment/challenge. Language does many things but one way that people sometimes (ab)use it is in an arrogant effort to exercise power and demonstrate their superiority over others. This kind of aggressive assertion of authority by the self-appointed language police is just downright obnoxious—and it says far more about the offended than the offender.

OK, so you’ve spotted a greengrocer’s apostrophe. Do you really need to point this out to anyone or to lose even a moment’s mental tranquility over it? It might make you feel smart to have noticed such an appalling atrocity, but what are those few seconds of smug self-satisfaction really worth? Will this improve your social relationships somehow? (Alright, maybe it will improve your relationships with other pedants or bullies, and if those are the ones you want to nurture, well, more fool you.)

As this tweet points out, people generally manage to communicate just fine despite potential competing meanings, differences in register or “errors”, thanks to wonderful things like context and the Cooperative Principle. Most of the time, we want to understand each other, and a particular (mis)use of an apostrophe won’t normally get in the way.

What’s more, I remember reading as a Linguistics undergrad something that always stayed in my mind: there has never been a “golden age” where everybody agreed on precisely how or when to use apostrophes. (And of course, I’ve long since forgotten the original source, but I think it might have been this chapter by Watts. In any case, googling reveals that many authors appear to have used similar phrasing to point out that prescriptive “rules” of language are rarely universally agreed and applied, even by those “educated” people who “should know better”.)

(Incidentally, scare quotes throughout this post reflect my stance but also just… because Halloween.)

So, following Talk the Talk’s lead, I’ve decided to go without apostrophes for the duration of November** and see what happens. (My prediction: nothing more eventful than a few people pointing out my “mistakes” and lots of swearing and undo-sending whenever my phone and laptop innocently but overzealously autocorrect my deliberately apostrophe-less typing.)

I confess, the tiny bit of my brain that is all too human in its need for order and method, the bit that most commonly reveals itself by tweeting moments of linguistic cognitive dissonance with the hashtag #ImADescriptivistBut, does feel a bit uneasy about this due to its long-standing fondness for apostrophes. And I’m not so radical as to suggest that all “rules” that are invented (yes, invented) to standardise language usage are pointless and that everything would be just hunky-dory if nobody ever followed them.

But there are 2 major flaws with the “BUT NOBODY WILL UNDERSTAND YOU” argument so commonly levelled at the apparently apostrophically challenged:

  1. Clearly, some kind of common linguistic ground has to be established in order for people generally to communicate effectively. But—and this is the important point—for effective communication to depend on adherence to a specific rule, both parties have to know the rules. If a greengrocer writes “apple’s, 50p” and an apple-desiring customer thinks it should say “apples, 50p” but the message is still evidently communicated effectively and the customer manages to smoothly complete their apple purchase, then this result obviously did not depend on a shared understanding of how to use apostrophes “correctly”.
  2. Similarly, insisting that everybody consistently follow specific apostrophe rules presupposes that this is the only way to communicate particular meanings unambiguously (and also implies that accidental ambiguity is a very grave offence). But while it’s certainly more important to make one’s intended meaning explicit in writing (as opposed to in speech, when it’s easier to clarify potential misunderstandings immediately), there are almost always several ways to express something; and it seems highly unlikely that a potentially ambiguous apostrophe usage couldn’t just be avoided by recasting the phrase in question.

On this second point, arguments like this one have more than a vague whiff of straw-clutching:

I mean, this is true—but why adamantly enforce an arbitrary rule, transgression of which rarely has any dire real-world consequences, based on the infinitesimally small off-chance that you find yourself writing about possessions belonging to individuals or groups of people named George(s)?

Let’s be reasonable. It’s actually very hard to think of many examples where a “misplaced” or “misused” apostrophe would really have terrible consequences. In cases where it would—I’m thinking of some kind of legal document, for example—then fair enough, let’s make sure everything is expressed unambiguously. But this seems to be a rule appropriate for a very specific community of practice, rather than something the general population really needs to be worrying so much about.

Yes, sometimes syntactic ambiguity in particular has amusing results; but these instances are amusing precisely because we can simultaneously appreciate both the intended meaning and the accidental alternative interpretation. Language is often ambiguous and, generally speaking, we get along just fine. And when we don’t, it’s rarely because our message was muddied by a misplaced (or missing) apostrophe.

What’s more, if a scenario arose in which communication really did break down because of a genuinely ambiguous apostrophe usage, I suspect that the instinctive reaction of the reader would be, “Hang on, does the writer mean X or Y?” and not “HOW DARE YOU PUT AN APOSTROPHE IN A PLACE WHERE ITS PURPOSE IS NOT WHOLLY CLEAR, THUS RECKLESSLY JEOPARDISING OUR CHANCES OF COMMUNICATIVE SUCCESS?” But that wouldn’t be as funny, would it?

The point is, there’s a time and a place for enforcing prescriptive rules, but where apostrophes are concerned, we rarely see these times and places. We’re more likely to see things like this (all selected at random from Twitter today):

It’s quite clear that not one of these cases is a sincere attempt to seek clarification or to respectfully discuss patterns and rules of language usage, but rather just instance after puerile instance of unnecessarily pedantic nit-picking and superiority-signalling.

And it’s one thing—a pitiable thing, really—for some deep personal insecurity or general existential unease to manifest itself in the gleeful seizure of every possible opportunity to set other wayward individuals straight and thus exert some sense of control over a frighteningly chaotic world, full of unfair systems and power structures; but it’s little more than bullying, pure and simple, when someone feels compelled to object publicly to a person’s message/stance (or just to the person in general) without actually having any substantial objection to make, deciding instead to deliberately miss the point and poke holes in how the message was expressed, or indeed, punctuated.

As Virginia Woolf once argued so articulately:

Without self-confidence we are babes in the cradle. And how can we generate this imponderable quality, which is yet so invaluable, most quickly? By thinking that other people are inferior to oneself. By feeling that one has some innate superiority—it may be wealth, or rank, a straight nose, or the portrait of a grandfather by Romney—for there is no end to the pathetic devices of the human imagination—over other people.

Or, as James Harbeck puts it:

So. This is all well and good, but if it doesn’t really matter how anyone uses apostrophes anyway, why go to all the symbolic trouble of giving them up for a month?! (Not to mention imposing on myself the tech-related nuisance of disabling autocorrect across all my devices and therefore having to type much more slowly and carefully than I normally would, at least on my phone, plus having a lot more words than usual appear underlined with red squiggles.) I can think of 3 reasons:

  1. To actively make all the important linguistic points above—albeit potentially provocatively—by passively prompting people to notice the absence of commas and generating discussion around what “rules” really achieve, in theory and in practice.
  2. To put all these thoughts and observations to the test. Will I discover any times when dropping an apostrophe actually renders what I’m writing unclear? Will I notice anything else about my own language use (or that of other people) that I might not have noticed otherwise? Will other people react as I’d expect them to, or even notice at all?
  3. Come on; it’s fun! Other people decide to let their moustaches grow during November; I decide not to use apostrophes.

So… Whos with me?

Happy Halloween!

References

Watts, R.J. (2000). Mythical strands in the ideology of prescriptivism. In L. Wright (ed.), The Development of Standard English 1300–1800 (pp. 11–28). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Woolf, V. (1929). A room of one’s own. London: Hogarth Press.

 

Notes

*I’ve added apostrophes back in to James’s (or should that be James’?) words. After all, I’m not giving up apostrophes until tomorrow…

**I do a lot of writing in my line of work and, unfortunately, I suspect my clients would not like me to deliver work without apostrophes that will endure long past November. This is a temporary personal challenge, so I won’t apply it to longer-lasting written texts, such as papers I’m writing or editing for publication. Emails, instant messages, SMS and social media, however, are all fair game until 1 December 2019.

P.S. My experiment applies only to English. When writing in other languages (e.g. French), I’ll continue to follow their rules, as these aren’t always the same as in English and my knowledge of the potential impact of dropping them is much more limited. So I’ll keep things relatively simple this time, and maybe next year I’ll be more adventurous and try a multilingual apostrophe challenge!

Learning Greek, 2.1: A Tale of Two Lessons (and then some…)

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…

So goes the start of our tale, in which we meet two teachers, diametrically opposed in methodology and sociolinguistic awareness.

But wait. Let’s rewind a moment and set the scene properly…


I promised in the Prologue to this series that at the end of every week I’d blog about my experiences of learning Greek.

That was 3 weeks ago and now I’m finally writing the first post.

Oh dear.

I guess that was something of a pie-crust promise.

It has been an extremely busy 3 weeks, though, and the Greek-learning experience involved some turbulence before settling. Am I forgiven? Good. Let’s move on.

Here are the other promises and plans I made in that first post… along with a few confessions (and explanations)!

Things I actually did:

1. I need to be patient with myself.

2. I will make sure I get a good night’s sleep every night!

Well, 2 out of 11 ain’t bad, right?

OK, so it’s pretty poor. Shame on me. But in my defence, these are two Life Skills that I have definitely not already mastered, so there is some kind of achievement there.

And if I may clutch at another straw or two, research shows that taking breaks between study sessions, particularly when those breaks include sleep, is critical for learning (at least insofar as learning can be said to require the integration of new knowledge in long-term memory). So really, number 2 was very important. Well done, me.

Things I sort of did:

3. I’ll take a course: three mornings per week, three hours per morning, for 6 weeks.

Reader, I quit.

You may have seen this coming.

I only survived two lessons before I knew it wasn’t for me. Wanna know why? …’Course you do!

OK, let’s start with the good things he did, because I’m not a total monster:

  • He clearly made an effort to generate rapport with the group, using our names* and referring to things we’d mentioned previously.
  • He engaged in natural conversation with each of us, talking to us about our lives and asking real questions, not merely display questions.
  • He answered our questions more or less satisfactorily.
  • He corrected us frequently enough, and generally didn’t overdo it.
  • Although almost all input and explanations were given by the teacher, he did occasionally elicit things from us.
  • He drew attention to things which are easily confused and important points of difference, such as words with quite different connotations or common words where changing the stress changes the meaning.
  • He addressed pronunciation! Far too few teachers in ELT include pronunciation. I don’t know how Greek language teachers are trained in this regard. But don’t get too excited just yet—I’ll have more to say on this later.

And now the bad:

  • Our “course book” was a book of grammar exercises, akin to using Murphy as an ELT course book. These sorts of book are certainly not without any value, but there’s a time and a place for them, and the entirety of a 3-hour lesson, 3 times a week is not it. OK, so the teacher didn’t write (and possibly didn’t choose) the book, but he also did nothing to clarify, supplement or improve it for in-class use.
  • The balance of skills and language areas was inadequate. Perhaps this would have changed over the course of a few lessons, had I stayed to witness them. But in the first two, there was essentially just speaking and grammar. To interpret it a bit more charitably (but just a bit), there was speaking (to the teacher), listening (to the teacher), writing (to complete gap-fills) and reading (gap-fills), emergent vocabulary (but nothing apparently planned based on what was in the exercises), grammar (obviously) and pronunciation (correction).
  • No context was given before or during any of the exercises and none of the vocabulary present in the grammar gap-fills was explained unless we asked. When I asked about or looked up some of the meanings, I found words like “brooch”, “icon” (in the religious sense), “doll” and “mountain”. Yeah, that common lexical set.
  • There was no interaction that did not involve him. Not a moment. When we tried to address each other (there were only 6 of us, all friendly and apparently interested in each other), he would jump in. We’re not total beginners and were more than capable of asking and answering some basic questions, but we almost never got the chance. (I say “almost” because sometimes I just doggedly kept directing what I was saying at another student instead of him! But that didn’t stop him explaining or translating it to them, or answering it himself.)
  • He often answered his own questions within a second or two, not giving us enough time to process the question or even think before he jumped in and saved us the necessity of trying to answer.
  • He did not look closely at what we wrote, nor did he monitor. But then, he never let us do anything by ourselves, so when would he?
  • A pet peeve of mine: he asked leading questions which negatively framed and represented to us our presumed (in)ability, like, “This is difficult, isn’t it?” “You don’t like reading, do you?!” Questions or comments like these seem superficially to show empathy, but in effect implicitly reinforce learners’ impression that learning a second language is just too hard or unpleasant, a chore, a negative experience. (Though I’d have to say, in his class, those complaints were all true.)
  • When we were all having difficulty accurately producing the singular and plural articles and nouns in three genders and two cases (i.e. 36 possible combinations, with no context and sometimes using words we didn’t know the meaning of and had never heard), and I made a mistake with a feminine form, he laughed, “Come on! Feminine is easy!” I suspect this was an effort to lighten the mood and remind us all that declining masculine nouns requires remembering more endings than with the feminine or neuter nouns, but this entirely missed the point. It’s all new to us; we hadn’t actually studied all the patterns before being put on the spot to “practise” in front of the whole class; I hadn’t fully understood his lecture on the rules (the ones he actually told us about); and anyway working memory has limits, dammit!
  • *I said earlier that he used our names. At the start of the second lesson, I can’t remember how exactly, it came up that the name “Laura” comes from the laurel (or bay) tree, and that this is translated in Greek as δάφνη (“daphne”). But both forms exist in Greek as women’s names. He suggests, with a charming smile, clearly expecting me to agree, “So can I call you Daphne sometimes?” To which I replied (probably not without evident disdain, I’m afraid): “Well, I’d prefer my name.”

In short, there were many good reasons not to continue with this course. But one short exchange during the first lesson really clinched it. Looking back, I don’t really know why I even went to another lesson. Could I have been certain at that early stage that we weren’t a compatible student-teacher pairing? I suppose I wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt, as a fellow language teacher. And this course was at a long-established and well-renowned school. Surely its reputation must be worth something? But as for what definitely made my mind up, I’ll come back to this later…

Fortunately, I know a few people in the language-teaching industry, and Marisa helped match me with a teacher from her team for one-to-one lessons at CELT Athens, for which I am very grateful. A fairly simple exercise, comparing and contrasting a few key content and style differences between Teacher 1 and Teacher 2, will show you why.

Full disclosure: I took the notes for Teacher 1’s lesson during the lesson itself, but in Teacher 2’s lesson I was too busy and engaged, so I made notes with approximate timings immediately after the lesson ended.

And thus begins our Tale of Two Lessons…

  Teacher 1 Teacher 2
Lesson staging 40 mins:

Round the class, one by one, the T asking each student to recount what they did yesterday and interjecting now and then with comments, questions and corrections.

25 mins:

Checked answers to homework #1 (grammar gap-fill).

27 mins:

Checked answers to homework #2 (grammar gap-fill). Also spent 5 minutes explaining an apparently irrelevant grammar point no one seemed to be having any issue with.

13 mins:

Checked answers to homework #3 (grammar gap-fill).

 

(Total: 105 mins.)

5 mins: Warmer and aims

Brief chat, then WB organised, ready for lesson. Lesson content briefly introduced/explained.

Approx. 10 mins: Set context, pre-teach lexis

  • Context – look at image; look at example language; tell T what is familiar?
  • Concept checking anything student isn’t sure of.
  • Adding new vocab to WB.

Approx. 25 mins: Predictive task & gist listening practice.

  • Context – look at image.
  • Pre-teach key vocab + concept (do someone a favour)
  • Listening for gist.
  • Concept checked some vocab.

Approx. 20 mins: Focus on accuracy: vocab and pronunciation.

Without tapescript:

  • Shadowing the T (short chunks).
  • Shadowing the T/responding to prompts (longer chunks).

With tapescript:

  • Reading it aloud myself (whole passage).

(10-minute break)

20 mins: Focus on fluency.

Freer practice of key vocab via speaking task (in a pair with the teacher).

 

(Total: 90 mins. including short break)

Approach/methods No discernible underlying pedagogical principles. Communicative Approach.
Materials Exclusively grammar-focused, decontextualized, no graphic support, all book-based. Short recording, accompanying tapescript, supporting images.
Planning & prep Apparently none. Adequate—certainly fit for purpose and personalised to my needs and goals.
Use of whiteboard Used to record emergent vocab and some aspects of grammar rules. Not organised. Wiped off and re-filled about 4–5 times during the lesson. Messy, and sometimes difficult to read handwriting. Two different colours, but purposes inconsistent. Prepared for the lesson at the start of class, organised into sections for things which would definitely come up and a misc. section for other things that might arise during the lesson. Different colours used for different purposes, mostly consistently. Very clear handwriting, easy to read.
Instructions Given in English. Clear enough—the task for a generic gap-fill is pretty obvious, though. Given in Greek with accompanying gestures/pointing to appropriate part of material. Some instructions don’t match the task on the page, indicating that the T has thought about what I should be doing with the material and isn’t just trusting the material to ‘teach’ me.
Monitoring None. Nearly constant.
Student-centredness Every single interaction with the teacher or channelled through the teacher. No pairwork, no groupwork, and st-st interaction is never prompted, facilitated or encouraged by the teacher. Very student-centred. Worked at my pace, responded to my specific areas of difficulty. (Of course this is much easier in one-to-one context.)
Use of L1/English Lots of English used throughout to explain rules, translate words and build rapport by chatting with the students. Almost all teacher talk is in Greek, including instructions, explanations & concept-checking. Only occasional L1 use for things that weren’t relevant or the immediate focus of our attention so could just be skipped past.

Anyway! Back to…

Things I sort of did:

4. I need to make more effort.

Well, in a sense, I did make an effort. Despite seeing the diabolical syllabus in advance, I enrolled for the course. I reasoned that a good teacher can work wonders, even with a mere list of grammar points. (And, incidentally, I still believe this.)

Then, despite the first lesson proving me wrong in this respect (at least in this teacher’s case), I came back, undeterred (well, ish), for a second lesson. I mean… no one is perfect; everyone has an ‘off’ day; it was only my first lesson; I’m an unusually over-qualified judge as language students go; etc.

But there’s more at stake than my pedagogical sensibilities, effort and general comfort when it costs 675€ for 6 weeks of this torture. And in this case, δεν αξίζει!

5. I need to put in the hours.

I did! I put in 6 painful ones! Plus a few more for homework. And I’ve also been using Greek at every opportunity during the day, in shops, cafés, etc. I even spent a few hours in the fabric/crafts district of central Athens talking to shopkeepers about the kind of fabric and thread I was looking for. I learned (and still remember) more useful Greek from this than from those lessons.

An insight into my thought (and translation) processes during that afternoon of fabric & thread shopping.

But I admit, I could have put in a bit more time every day to consolidate my learning and improve my memory (see points 7 and 8, below).

6. I need to actually apply what I know to be effective from research and experience.

Again, I sort of did:

  • I used my L1 judiciously, both in and out of class;
  • I reflected on my motivation and goals and tried to self-regulate my emotional state so as to get the most out of study time;
  • I participated (as far as the teacher would let us) in peer interaction and peer teaching;
  • I took notes in ways that make sense to me;
  • I actively resisted succumbing to Death by Grammar, pursuing every available opportunity to increase my range of vocabulary and use it in natural conversation, both in and out of class.
The Gram(mar) Reaper

7. I will do a little bit every day, rather than just one huge day of study.

I did, if you consider that I’m using Greek every day in my general interactions. But I have to admit, I felt zero motivation to revisit the content of those two lessons every day.

8. I need to revisit my habits and strategies periodically with a view to iteratively changing and improving them, based on what I’m finding more or less useful to my own lived experience.

If attending and ultimately quitting a poorly taught course counts as a strategy, then OK, I did this. But seriously—I know I still need to work on developing better language-learning habits. To really improve my proficiency in Greek, it’s not enough to use the same functional language in the same sort of interactions every day—this is why I was politely corrected today by a waiter for the zillionth time when ordering a Coke in a café. (Coca-Cola is a feminine noun, not neutral, duh.)

Things I did not do

9. The evening before every lesson, I will revise what I learnt in the previous lesson(s). I will look for patterns and categories and re-organise my notes accordingly into advance organisers.

I repeat: I felt zero motivation to revisit the content of those lessons. In fact, when I look now at the notes I scribbled during class, do you know what patterns I see?

no time to think!

not wrong level, just wrong teacher

?

[unfinished word – didn’t know how to write down what I’d just heard]

?

Why?!

??

“Feminine is easy!” NOT FOR ME

hw will take “only 1 hr”

The patterns I see there aren’t linguistic. They’re patterns of confusion, frustration and irritation. Patterns of thought in the mind of a student who didn’t feel listened to. Patterns of thought in the mind of someone attending a lesson where the teacher just taught the material, not the learners.

10. As far as possible (given what is reasonably foreseeable from the class timetable and syllabus) I will brainstorm and/or write down what I already know about a given topic/language feature before we study it in class, so that I am primed to process it more effectively during class.

This wasn’t really possible, as we didn’t know lesson-by-lesson what we’d be studying, or so I thought. As it turned out, what we’d be studying in one class was what we’d done for homework in the previous class. And when I say “studying”, I mean “checking answers to, with occasional clarifications and frequent correction”.

11. I will spend 30 minutes every morning testing myself on what I’ve learned recently, i.e. focusing on remembering previous learning content, not simply re-reading/re-studying it.

I have no good excuse for not doing this. I was just too busy living the life in Athens! In future, I really do want to make an effort in future to spend 30 minutes studying every morning, before I go out into the city and have to use my Greek in real situations.

The dog ate my homework…

“But wait! What was the clincher???” I hear you say.

Alright, I’ve given you some examples of the good and bad things the teacher did. Now we’re going to see the truly ugly.

But before I get to that, though, please note: I have generally taken care to critique and criticise the teacher only for things for which I really think there is no excuse. I am all too aware of the appalling conditions of pay, benefits, job security, resources and more to which many language teachers around the world are unfairly subject. When it’s clear that systemic failures are the reason behind a teacher’s lack of training or preparation, I wouldn’t dream of victim-blaming. But some things come down to a person’s general professionalism and attitude towards other human beings, and it’s a combination of these, principally the latter, which ultimately clinched my decision to quit the class and find another teacher.

OK. Ready?

First of all, for the non-Greek speakers among you, you need to know that one feature of modern spoken Greek is to pronounce the <ντ> letter combination as /d/ at the start of words and as either /d/ or /nd/ within words. For example, πάντα (English translation: “always”) might be pronounced as [ˈpa.nda] by some speakers and [ˈpa.da] by others.

Or, as Holton et al put it (2004, p.5):

So far, so uncontroversial, right? These expert linguists have made it clear in two short sentences that two variant pronunciations exist and, it is implied, neither is uniquely (in)correct.

Unfortunately, Greek, like every other language, has its particular targets of linguistic discrimination, and it turns out that the pronunciation of <ντ> within words as /d/ is one of them. I soon learned that this teacher subscribes to the bigoted view that a person’s pronunciation can be used as a proxy for their general… character? personality? moral worth? I don’t really know how to adequately describe such views, other than that apparently, predictably eliding one consonant from a cluster of two in certain common phonetic environments is abhorrent and should be avoided at all costs.

I should also point out that I already knew two variant pronunciations existed, and had elected to go with the one that elides /n/ because I felt that this was the one I heard most frequently in all the conversations I’ve participated in or eavesdropped on over the past 5 years and 3 visits to Greece. So although it took me a second to realise what was happening when he corrected my pronunciation, the penny quickly dropped.

This is how the exchange went:

Me: …something something πάντα ([ˈpa.da]) something…

Teacher: [ˈpa.nda]!

Me: Huh?

T: [ˈpa.nda]! [ˈpa.nda]!

Me: [Suddenly understanding why he’s parroting this back to me with an extra consonant.] Oh. But—

T: [ˈpa.nda] is the correct way to say it.

Me: I always hear people say [ˈpa.da].

T: Just because 50% of Greeks do it doesn’t make it correct!

Me: But—

T: It’s the same in all languages: you know, the Queen doesn’t speak like the person on the street!

Me: OK, but I’m not the Queen; I’m your average person on the street.

Rest of class: [Looking politely perplexed at why this is becoming such a drama]

T: Look. Please understand why I want you to say [ˈpa.nda]. Dockers in Piraeus* say [ˈpa.da]. Homeless people say [ˈpa.da]!  [Laughs in a way that suggests I should also laugh at the thought of being mistaken for a member of one of these ill-favoured social groups]

Me: Wow.

T: [Sigh + wry smile.] You really want to say [ˈpa.da], that’s fine, say [ˈpa.da]. Everyone else—please do not imitate Laura! [Laughs jovially.]

Rest of class: [Laughsperhaps a bit uncomfortably… or did I imagine that?]

Me: [To self: This guy badly needs an education in sociolinguistics. Right now. But not from me.]

*Piraeus is a historically working-class neighbourhood of Athens, as well as the location of the port and thus where many sailors, dockers, etc. can be found, with all the associated sub-cultural baggage and discrimination.

In short, in the space of about 1 uncomfortable minute, my new Greek teacher made it very plain that he did not find my pronunciation of πάντα as /ˈpa.da/ socially acceptable, and his facile attempt to justify this—and accompanying ingratiating chuckle—may well have convinced a few of the other students to adopt this pejorative attitude, too. But I sincerely hope not.

Not that it matters in any practical way—I will never condone such wilful and deplorable accent prejudice—but out of curiosity, I conducted a bit of casual field research over the next few days, in which I elicited words containing this pronunciation feature from some of my Greek friends and colleagues from various walks of life. (A bit like Labov—but hopefully more ethical, since I told them immediately afterwards why I’d asked and reassured them that I couldn’t care less how they pronounce <ντ> spellings and anyone who does is an ill-formed twit.)

Here’s what I found:

People who said /nd/ in casual speech (the teacher’s preference, likely a relic of Katherevousa)

  • a teacher
  • a cleaner
  • a professional interpreter

And people who said /d/

  • a person in a co-working space (no idea of their profession or socioeconomic background)
  • two teacher trainers
  • several professors of linguistics
  • a professor of sociology (among whose family, incidentally, there are a number of sailors)

So basically, from this very unscientific study, I conclude that pronunciation of one ending or the other is not relevant to whether a Greek person has a basic education, a PhD, a job as a sailor/docker, a home, or is of a certain age, gender or class.

The homeless thing particularly annoyed and shocked me. I just couldn’t believe he invoked that unfortunate group of people as his example of whose linguistic behaviour not to imitate. He didn’t even look ashamed of the comparison.

It should be obvious, but for the record: whether someone happens to have a fixed abode is not reflected in the way they speak by any consistent phonetic or other linguistic measure I’m aware of, and is certainly not a reliable indicator of any other aspect of their class or character.

But then, it would be harder for someone to make such a pejorative judgment as this /d/-or-/nd/ nonsense involves if they’d deigned to undertake an even-slightly-more-than-superficial consideration of another person’s circumstances, context and fundamental humanity, wouldn’t it?

Coincidentally, a few days after that lesson, this tweet by photographer Marc Davenant about his new project appeared in my Twitter feed:

And a week later, so did this tweet (click here to read the rest of the short thread):

You can read more about the project by going to Marc Davenant’s website. Here’s a short excerpt:

excerpt from Outsiders photography project website
Photography by Marc Davenant.

What a great way to document this population and their lives compassionately, to “make the invisible visible”. If you agree, and if you can afford to, you can click here to make a donation to the project.

The end.

For now…

Reference

Holton, D., Mackridge, P. & Philippaki-Warburton, I. (2004). Greek: An essential grammar of the modern language. London: Routledge.

Learning Greek, 2.0 (or “Mamma mia! Here we go again…”): Prologue

About a thousand years ago, I decided to learn Greek. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I didn’t get very far on that first attempt and even now, I’m still hovering somewhere between CEFR levels A1 and A2.

Why “unsurprisingly”?

Well…

  • Because laziness. Above all, I just didn’t put in enough effort to actually study the language or to find a teacher suited to my needs and preferences. I did take lessons for several months at a school in Cambridge with a good teacher; but as a language teacher, trainer and linguist myself, I can be quite a demanding student (!), and I just wasn’t invested enough to make the effort. I got busy with other things, couldn’t always attend, and didn’t always do my homework. Mea culpa!!
  • Because levels. The class I attended was quite mixed, containing near-beginners and linguaphobes as well as people like me, i.e. people who already knew the alphabet and, perhaps more significantly, were formally trained language teachers and/or linguists and more curious/motivated about linguistics in general, so picked things up faster than other students. Altogether, the lessons were a bit too easy for me at times and I started to get bored when I did attend, so was less motivated to come when I actually had the time.
  • Because loneliness. Outside of taking actual lessons, I think I knew all along I’d find it difficult to study on my own, especially without being surrounded by Greek every day. I know from experience that I personally learn languages best when I’m immersed and when there’s a teacher and/or fellow learners to interact with and plague with questions. As I said in my previous post (prophetically, as it turns out): “I’ve optimistically titled this post “part 1″…” and “Let’s hope it’s not too long before the next one…”
  • Because life. As I always tell my own students and teacher trainees, we’re people before we’re language learners. We bring our whole selves to the language-learning experience. In the past few years, in addition to wanting to learn Greek, I also moved cities, moved house several times, changed jobs, travelled extensively, went freelance, and went through a sudden bereavement. “Learning another language just for fun” simply slid way down my list of priorities.

Fast forward to September 2019 and I’m now in Athens, and planning to stay here for a couple of months! I have found myself a Greek housemate, forewarned all my local friends that I’ll be practising with (on) them, and this morning I signed up to take a course: three mornings per week, three hours per morning, for 6 weeks.

So here we are. Time to go again. Second attempt. Version 2.0!

As Howard Chen explains, adapting this originally techie term and relating it to his own industry (health care):

“Being 2.0 means embracing something brand new, something different, revolutionary, totally revamped from the old 1.0 that’s just not as good. […] The terminology we use for what software developers call a “major version release” is a popular way to address all things new and cool.”

But he also points out a very important caveat to this “new and cool” way of seeing things:

“The danger with 2.0 lies in its implicit recognition of a dramatic change, in the fact that you simply cannot call something 2.0 without first defining a 1.0 and then defining its shortcomings. The implication is that 1.0 can be fixed with an [sic] packaged solution. It makes a complex process that may otherwise require a gradual transition appear achievable with a simple technological update.”

And I’d agree. After over a decade in ELT and over 15 years in linguistics, I’m certainly not naive enough to think I can just pick up the complex process of learning Greek again simply by signing up to a course, without also changing my behaviour and habits.

I need to make more effort; I need to actually apply what I know to be effective from research and experience; I need to put in the hours (and be patient with myself); and I need to revisit my habits and strategies periodically with a view to iteratively changing and improving them, based on what I’m finding more or less useful to my own lived experience.

As Chen suggests, perhaps perpetual beta is a more useful and realistic metaphor. To paraphrase him one last time:

“The reality is that, like cloud-based technology, [my attempt to learn Greek] doesn’t really have a true “2.0.” [An effective language learning process] is in perpetual beta testing, as new knowledge incrementally accumulates and changes practice patterns.”

I started this post by defining version 1.0 of my Greek learning process and its shortcomings. Now more specifically (and empirically*), I am going to make a few resolutions that should dramatically increase my chances of learning success this time around:

  • Research shows that integrating new with existing knowledge is crucial to learning, so the evening before every lesson, I will revise what I learnt in the previous lesson(s). I will look for patterns and categories and re-organise my notes accordingly into advance organisers; and (as far as possible, given what is reasonably foreseeable from the class timetable and syllabus) I will brainstorm and/or write down what I already know about a given topic/language feature before we study it in class, so that I am primed to process it more effectively during class.
  • I will spend 30 minutes every morning testing myself on what I’ve learned recently, i.e. focusing on remembering previous learning content, not simply re-reading/re-studying it. And the good news is, it doesn’t even matter if I get the answers right; simply testing myself will ultimately improve my memory and promote learning.
  • I will do a little bit every day, rather than just one huge day of study; and I will make sure I get a good night’s sleep every night!

*Follow the hyperlinks in these bullet points if you’re interested in reading about some of the research my resolutions are based on.

Combined with the immersive environment I’m now living in, I hope and expect that these resolutions will lead me to enjoy greater success this time.

I’m also going to share my experiences right here on this blog at the end of every week. I’m very interested to see what sort of methodology my new Greek teacher will use, and just as interested to discover how applicable the course content is to my daily life in Athens!

After my placement test this morning, I was assigned to the Level 2 class. This is the syllabus I was shown:

Greek syllabus (Level 2)

My first impressions?

Grammar, grammar, grammar! And no mention of pronunciation… hmmm…

But I will reserve judgment until my first lesson… or maybe the second…

Stay tuned for more updates, coming soon!

English with a Russian accent

Over the years, my work has mostly appeared in English-language publications or events. But occasionally, I am consulted for projects in a different language.

Recently, I was approached by Yelena McCafferty, an award-winning Russian-English translator/interpreter from Talk Russian (по-русски) who was writing an article about speaking English with a Russian accent. Yelena specialises in business, trade and legal matters, and was interested to know what research tells us about the relationship between accent and identity. Although many Russians living in the UK may be concerned that they still sound Russian when speaking English, is it really so important to try and ‘neutralise’ or ‘lose’ one’s accent?

You can read the full article (in Russian) here. And if you’re not a Russian speaker, you might like to read a summary in English of the comments I shared with Yelena:

Our accents reveal where we are from and which social groups we belong to (or wish to belong to). They help reflect and project our identities. But research shows that there is no single accent of English which is most widely used, understood or accepted. And interestingly, in international English communicative contexts (such as in business or academia), it is very often the native speakers whose pronunciation is least clear to others.

Most of the world’s 2 billion English users are non-native and multilingual. Even in the UK, eight percent of the population has a main language other than English, and in London, over 35% of schoolchildren have a non-English home language. English users are characterised by their diversity, both in the UK and internationally. Awareness of our own and others’ pronunciation is certainly important for clear communication, but it is not at all necessary, realistic or desirable to try and ‘lose’ one’s accent entirely.

In short, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with sounding Russian when you speak English. Like all effective international English users, there will be some pronunciation features that are important if you want to be widely understood, but there is also plenty of room for you to retain certain pronunciation features that “give you an accent”. That accent is part of your identity and that’s perfectly fine.

So which features of English are especially important for Russian speakers to focus on? Which things are going to help you be understood by a range of other English speakers from a range of different language backgrounds?

There are a number of key areas, but here are just three to get you started:

1. Aspiration of /p/, /t/ and /k/ sounds when followed by a vowel at the start of a stressed syllable.

For example: there are two syllables and two /p/ sounds in the word ‘paper’, with one /p/ at the start of each syllable. The first syllable is stressed, so this /p/ should be aspirated; but the second /p/ would not be aspirated. To aspirate a /p/, /t/ or /k/ sound, you need to release a little bit of air when you say the sound. (Don’t be too enthusiastic, or the words potatoes and pasta might come out like this!)

2. Length of vowel sounds before voiced consonants, especially at the ends of words.

For example: the vowel in had should be slightly longer than the vowel in hat; the vowel in back should be slightly longer than the vowel in bag; and the vowel in p should be slightly longer than the vowel in b. Russian speakers usually devoice consonants at the ends of words (compare English standard with Russian стандарт) and it can be very difficult to add this voicing when speaking English. But by lengthening the preceding vowel (so that had doesn’t sound like hat), you can create the same effect and help the listener.

3. The /ɜː/ vowel sound.

For example: work, bird. Try not to be distracted by the spelling. Both of these words have the same vowel sound, despite their different spellings. For Russian speakers, this sound might be particularly challenging when it follows a /w/ sound (as in work).


Basilica
Moscow (author’s own photo, 2012)

I am based in London (UK) and work as a consultant, trainer, speaker and writer, focusing on how to use English clearly and effectively when communicating with international audiences.

If you are a Russian-accented English speaker, are based in London, and want to find out more about making your pronunciation as clear as possible for international communicative contexts (such as business, academia, media), contact me to discuss tuition opportunities.

I also work with speakers from other first-language backgrounds (including English), so feel free to get in touch even if you are not a Russian speaker.

 

 


References

British Academy (2013). Multilingual Britain. Published online at http://www.ucml.ac.uk/sites/default/files/Multilingual%20Britain%20Report.pdf

Crystal, D. (2008). ‘Two thousand million?’ English Today, 93, Vol. 24, Issue 1, pp. 3-6.

Jenkins, J. (2014). English as a lingua franca in the international university. Abingdon: Routledge.

Kalocsai, K. (2009). Erasmus exchange students: A behind-the-scenes view of an ELF community of practice. Apples – Journal of Applied Language Studies, 3/1, pp. 25-49.

Levis, J. (2007). Guidelines for promoting intelligibility. Paper presented at International TESOL, Seattle, WA March 2007.

McCafferty, Y. (2019). Как избавиться от иностранного акцента в английской речи. The Business Courier. Published online at https://thebusinesscourier.com/ru/kak-izbavitsya-ot-inostrannogo-akcenta-v-anglijskoj-rechi

Munro, M. & Derwing, T. (1999).  Foreign accent, comprehensibility, and intelligibility in the speech of second language learners. Language Learning, 49 (supp. 1), pp. 285-310.

Ordin, M. (2010). ‘Russian’. In R. Walker, Teaching the pronunciation of English as a Lingua Franca. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 127-130.

Smith, L. E. & Rafiqzad, K. (1979). English for cross-cultural communication: The question of intelligibility. TESOL Quarterly, 13/3, pp. 371-380.

Von Ahn, M., Lupton, R., Greenwood, C. and Wiggins, D. (2010). Languages, ethnicity and education in London. Institute of Education: Department of Quantitative Social Science. Published online at http://repec.ioe.ac.uk/REPEc/pdf/qsswp1012.pdf

Sweeney, E. and Zhu, Hua (2010). Accommodating towards your audience: do native speakers of English know how to accommodate their communication strategies towards non-native speakers of English? Journal of Business Communication 47 (4), pp. 477-504.

Macmillan webinar coming soon…

It’s been a while since I gave a webinar!

And what better way to make a comeback than via Macmillan’s ‘Advancing Learning’ series, which is devoting the next few months to “celebrating Women Advancing Learning with a fantastic line-up of prominent female experts and authors from the education and ELT world“?

In my webinar for this series on 7 November 2018, we’ll discuss the issue of “Teaching English pronunciation for the real world”. It’s gonna be fun. In fact, it’ll be so much fun, I’m doing it twice! Once at 10:00 and again at 16:00 (GMT); so, whatever time zone you’re in that day, I hope you can make it.

[Update, December 2018: you can now watch a recording of this webinar or read a summary by ELT Planning.]

Did you know, for example, that…

  • …there are billions of people using English today – and most of them are not native speakers?
  • …there is no single accent of English which is most widely understood?
  • …teaching pronunciation can be both practical and fun?
  • …teaching pronunciation will improve learners’ skills in all areas, not only speaking?

In the webinar, we’ll discuss these points and more, plus try some practical activities for teaching pron. Attendees will get a certificate from Macmillan afterwards.

Sign up now via the Macmillan English website.

Laura Patsko Macmillan webinar 7 Nov

Our new pronunciation book!

ELF Pronunciation

We are VERY excited to say that our new book, How To Write Pronunciation Activities, is now available on Smashwords, iBooks, and Amazon [affiliate link]. Find out more here.

Some of the things we cover in this book:

  • the challenges of writing pronunciation materials
  • how to support teachers in using pronunciation materials
  • dealing with diversity: ELF and different accents of English
  • pronunciation for listening vs. pronunciation for speaking
  • how to integrate pronunciation activities with other skills areas
  • how to design a syllabus for different levels
  • how to stage pronunciation activities
  • how to write rubrics
  • using the phonemic chart
  • beyond the student’s book: designing homework and supplementary materials
  • useful resources for further reading and resources

The book is very practical, with examples and explanations of all key points, plus exercises to guide the reader in his/her development as a writer of pronunciation materials.

Thank you to everyone…

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