Eltabber of the month: Brigid Thurgood

Contact: www.shibboleth-english.com

  • Question from Rosie: One of my favourite things about Berlin is the fact you never feel very far away from nature.  What did you enjoy most about living in Berlin or Brandenburg?

I really like how easy it is to get around in Berlin. As someone who doesn’t have a car, I find the bicycle and public transit infrastructure here amazing. I also feel much safer as a woman out and about on my own in the city at night than I did back home.

  • Question from Ken: I’d be interested to know what motivated her to join the Eltabb board.

Though I am relatively new to ELTABB (I joined in 2018), I feel like I’ve really gotten a lot out of it so far. When I was approached about taking on the position of ELTABB Treasurer, it seemed like a great opportunity to give back to the organization and to really get to know its inner workings.

  • What sparked your interest in the pronunciation aspect of EFL?

Pronunciation first came to my conscious attention when I was learning Thai. There were sounds I couldn’t even come close to reproducing without performing what seemed like oral acrobatics (retroflex trill, anyone?). There were sounds used in ways that weren’t allowed in English (like ng- at the beginning of a word, or aspirated and unaspirated sounds as contrastive sounds rather than variations of the same sound) and disallowed sound combinations that we use without hesitation in English (consonant clusters at the end of words, for example) – not to mention a system of five contrasting tones. It made me very aware of what goes into articulation, and learning a tonal system made my ear quite sensitive to subtle sound variations.

When I started teaching English in Russia, I realized that there was a demand for pronunciation training, that people were willing to pay extra for it, and that I had the skills and experience to teach it. By doing it I quickly discovered how much I enjoyed it. I love the way students react when they really hear something for the first time, or when something is explained to them that clarifies a question they’ve had for years, or when we can stop working on some particular feature because they’ve mastered it. I also think that the orderliness and logic of many of the rules really appeals to me. “Why is it like this? Well, because it is surrounded by these sounds/in this position. End of story.”

  • As teachers, we know that pronunciation is an important aspect to learning a language, however how do you deal with students who don’t feel the same way?

This is the beauty of teaching something as specialized as accent and pronunciation training: students who come to me are very motivated in this area. Usually, they have specifically sought out this type of training, are paying for it themselves, and are very driven to improve their pronunciation. I just don’t get students who don’t feel that pronunciation is important.

  • Can you give us some examples of your favourite pronunciation activities?

There are so many… I like to emphasize visuals with my students, what your face looks like when you make a particular sound. I show them lots of pictures of English-speaking singers making what I call “Mick Jagger face” to show them how they need to shape their lips to make certain English sounds. We constantly use mirrors so they can see what they are doing. Then I send them off with a straw to balance on their upper lip, to get them used to using those muscles differently. Once that’s been mastered, they have to wiggle the straw while keeping it in place; finally, they graduate to a toothpick and go through the motions again.

Gross motor movements can be surprisingly helpful with speech sounds. For the tricky [æ] sound of cat and hat, for example, having students throw their hands up over their heads in a “Hallelujah!” gesture works wonders. I do find it can be hard to convince some students to really get into this full-body gesture – they will often try to get away with a self-conscious halfway reach – but you can really hear the difference once they commit! Obviously they aren’t going to use this in everyday speech, but a lot of pronunciation work is teaching students to recognize when they’ve hit the target sound or pattern, so that they can learn to first self-correct, then incorporate it in to spontaneous speech.

To work on intonation skills, I will often use a kazoo with students. (For those unfamiliar with kazoos, they are a sort of musical instrument, a little horn-type thing you blow in that only makes a sound if your vocal chords are active. They then project whatever pitch pattern you create vocally with a funny buzz). With this, you can practice simple intonation patterns, to help students internalize a prosodic pattern before trying it out with words. Alternatively, the teacher can play a pattern and have students guess which of two or three phrases it matches, to have them learn to recognize certain phrase types or identify focus words. Alternatively, one can do this with nonsense syllables like “BAH bububuh BAH,” but kazoos are always more fun.

  • What is theoretical linguistics and would you recommend this course of study to EFL teachers?

Theoretical linguistics is all about building and examining theories of language: how languages work, what kinds of rules and patterns are seen across languages, how language relates to other cognitive processes, etc. One of the main aims of theoretical linguistics is to establish whether all languages, regardless of surface differences, share a finite set of underlying guidelines or settings, and, if so, what those might be. The fields of phonetics, phonology, morphology, syntax, and semantics generally fall under the umbrella of theoretical linguistics.

Would I recommend theoretical linguistics to EFL teachers? Only if you are interested in the nitty-gritty, nerdy theoretical side of it all, as opposed to practical teaching implications. If you want a line of study more directed toward your EFL teaching practice, then applied linguistics, with its focus on EFL pedagogy, is probably the better path. (I think we may learn more about that from next month’s ELTABBer of the Month!)

  • What inspired you to learn all those languages, Thai especially?

I’ve had an ongoing love affair with languages since I was a child. I started learning French at 5 and first grew curious about German at 9. I was incredibly privileged to do a high school exchange and ended up in Thailand for a year, living with host families and attending a local school. Learning a new alphabet, a tonal system, and a grammar that was so incredibly different to those of European languages really opened my eyes to what language could be. After that I dreamed of learning all the languages I possibly could. Though I’ve since reluctantly eased off on that goal, I have also studied Russian, Italian, and German (all places I’ve lived or traveled extensively), dabbled in Uzbeki (grad research) and Icelandic (travel intentions), and I always have the question “So, what shall we learn next?” in the back of my mind.

  • What is involved in teaching pronunciation on its own?

Teaching pronunciation is more than just fixing a couple tricky sounds or addressing word-level stress patterns. Think of teaching grammar: you have to address tense and aspect, appropriate person and number combinations, agreement, word order, prepositions, complements, conjunction, dependency … the list goes on and on. Pronunciation, likewise, is an umbrella term for a whole set of categories one has to address in order to reach the ultimate goal: ease of communication. So while we do address individual sounds, we also look at sound interactions, phonological rules, stress patterns at the phrase and utterance levels, pitch, rhythm, and volume, and how all of these influence the successful conveyance of meaning in English.

The extent to which we handle any of these issues depends on the real-life needs of the students (for example, will they be dealing primarily with native-speakers, with highly-competent non-native speakers, or in mixed ELF environments?). I can’t overemphasize the importance of honing English listening skills in this process! I don’t mean the ability to recognize words and phrases, but the ability initially to distinguish specific sounds and intonation patterns, without which learners cannot be expected to reproduce sounds or glean meaning. On top of all that, we dabble in physiology, IPA, and discourse pragmatics. Basically, I teach articulatory phonetics and English phonology in a practical and accessible way.

  • What do you think are the most important things for German students to learn to help them improve their pronunciation?

In my experience, there are three pronunciation issues that can lead to miscommunication in German-speakers use of English.

The first is the so-called open or low vowels of English (those found in the words bet, bat, but, bar, and bought, which are produced with the mouth relatively open). German speakers will often substitute any/all of these vowels with either the bar vowel or a vowel that is between bet and bat, because these are the closest vowels in German. Because we have so many minimal pairs that differ only in these vowels in English, not distinguishing amongst them can cause confusion. This is especially true when the vowel issue is coupled with the second thing on my list: transfer of the word-final devoicing rule from German. This rule causes voiced consonants to lose their voicing quality when they occur at the end of a word (for example b becomes p or g becomes k). While this transfer is rarely a problem on its own, if a speaker has trouble with the open vowels mentioned above, it creates extra possibility for confusion – the two-way split of the minimal pair (bat/bet) becomes a four-ways split (bat/bad/bet/bed). Consider “My boss is the man with the big hat,” versus “My boss is the man with the big head,” or “For our trip to the country this weekend, should I pack some sort of bed/bat?” If there is no problem with the vowels, the devoicing is less of an issue.

Finally, if German speakers will be communicating regularly with native speakers in English, it is important to learn a bit about the distribution of stress in English – specifically how important unstress is – or risk serious miscommunications. As an example, consider how the words can and can’t differ in native-speaker speech: can is usually unstressed and thus reduced to [kən], whereas can’t always has some stress and retains its full vowel form, [æ], and the t is frequently dropped (especially by North Americans), so can’t starts sounding suspiciously like what one might expect can to sound like, [kæn]. So when a speaker says “I [kæn] have your order ready by next week,” is the intended message being understood, or just the opposite?

  • Who would you like to nominate as Eltabber of the month and what question would you like to ask them?

I’d like to nominate Richard Shaw.

Rich, you did a Masters in Applied Linguistics. How did your degree inform your teaching practice and would you recommend this line of study to other EFL teachers?

Thanks a lot!

Edited by Mandy Welfare