Archive | October, 2015

The case for and against RP

19 Oct

“Since being in hospital, the only people I have heard speaking in the UK prestige model of “received pronunciation” are some of the consultants and surgeons.  Everyone else in the hospital is from everywhere else.”

In a recent post, about the need for native speakers to be trained in how to speak to non-native speakers, I made the point that very few of the non-native speakers will have encountered anything like the variety of dialect and accent that exists in the UK, let alone all of the variations of standard English that exist around the world.

The 2015 Ethnologue entry for English gives population figures of 335,000,000 L1 speakers of English worldwide, and 515,000,000 L2 speakers.  Yet estimates of received pronunciation speakers in the UK suggest only about 2% of the population, or just over 1.25 million people, actually use this form.  In other words, 0.15% of the global English speaking community uses RP.  Which begs the question of why we bother teaching it?

Proportion of RP Speakers

It is a staggeringly small proportion and the prominence of RP as a model owes a lot to historical views in the UK relating to class and status, as well as the historical nature of the education system and the dominance of the public schools (the term used in the UK to refer to private, fee paying establishments).

Unlike every other variety or dialect of English, RP does not relate to where you were born or where you grew up.  RP is a class and status marker and became desirable partly because of that, and partly because of its adoption by the BBC as a broadcasting standard.  There is an excellent and accessible piece by the British Library on RP, which goes into the history and evolution of RP in more detail.

It is the reasons why RP was chosen by the first general manager, Lord Reith, as the standard for the BBC that gives us our clue as to why it is so widespread in ELT:  “Reith believed Standard English, spoken with an RP accent, would be the most widely understood variety of English, both here in the UK and overseas. He was also conscious that choosing a regional accent might run the risk of alienating some listeners.” (British Library).  In other words, Reith wanted the BBC to be understandable and accessible to the broadest possible audience and was concerned that using dialect would make programmes accessible only to certain speech communities.  RP, with it’s relatively unmarked patterns, fit the bill.

Ultimately, shouldn’t this also be what our students should want?  To be understood by the broadest possible audience?  I have encountered negative attitudes to non-RP accents and speech in the classroom, including one student who flatly refused to do a listening activity with an African English accent on the grounds that he was never going to go to Africa and it wasn’t a useful model for him.  Fair enough, but this does miss the point slightly.

In Sound Foundations, Adrian Underhill distinguishes between Rapid Colloquial Speech (RCS) and Careful Colloquial Speech (CCS), where an example of RCS would be two native speakers talking informally to each other (for an example, see the transcript and audio via the link) and where CCS is a slowed down, clearer and, well, careful version of the language.  “An internationally available example of careful colloquial RP,” he says, “is that of newscasters and announcers on the BBC World Service.”  Just to be clear, Underhill does not say that CCS is the same thing as RP.  Features of CCS are that the speaker slows down, enunciates clearly, and makes sure that word boundaries are discernible; these are not features of accent.

CCS then, is a productive target.  As with the BBC, we want to be understood by as many people as possible, and so we should adopt a form of speech that carries the greatest degree of intelligibility, or what might also be the lowest common denominator.  As an example of that, RP is a useful productive model.

For RCS though, Underhill suggests “that this style of pronunciation is useful as a target for learners to aim at in their listening skill.”  Which begs the question, why isn’t it used for such?

speaking

Without the benefit of asking coursebook authors, editors and publishers; I suspect the answer is probably pragmatic.  Firstly,  the listening tasks don’t only function to develop listening skills, they also function as pronunciation models so that students can consistently link the way they hear a word to the way they say a word.  Secondly, if you do decide to feature alternative dialects and accents, which do you choose?  How would you determine which are most useful to the learners?  Thirdly, what additional input is needed?

The Dialect Blog, which looks at the way English is spoken everywhere, has some great input on Jamaican English and was the source for the You Tube video below, which is the story of “The Night before Christmas” read in the Jamaican patois.  Watch it and then think about what you would need to teach for that to be comprehensible to a group of learners.  Or alternatively, if you have a group of over confident higher level students, play it for them and ask them to transcribe it…..

It is probably going to have to be up to the teachers, responding to the needs of their learners, who decide when and how to incorporate non-RP speech into their classrooms.  The British Library, which has been previously referred to, hosts a collection of 71 sound recordings from around the UK with notes on the dialect.  Some great examples include:

These are all interviews, some have dialect notes, some have transcripts, some have neither.  The sound quality can vary, particularly with the older recordings.  Most are about five minutes long.

As an instant, no preparation procedure, I would suggest a three listening strategy:

  • First listening:  tell the students who they will hear and what they will be talking about.  Ask them to find one interesting “fact”.  Feedback on any content the students manage to uncover, but then move the conversation to process feedback – how difficult was it to listen to?  What did you understand and where did you have problems?  How much was accent and how much was vocabulary?  If the recording has dialect notes, you may be able to provide some vocabulary items at this stage.
  • Second listening:  Ask the students to take notes.  After the second listening, ask the students to work in small groups to try and reconstruct a version of what the speaker said.  This obviously doesn’t have to be a verbatim transcript, but should broadly reflect the content and attitude of the speaker.
  • Third listening:  Students check their reconstruction.  If you have a transcript for the recording, students could listen and follow the transcript at the same time.

I would then recommend some form of content follow up.  For example, Nicola from Plymouth (as above) talks about life as a teenager.  How is her life different to teenagers in your country?

A further possibility might be for learners to record their own interviews, using their mobile phones.

***

Another way to find authentic speakers talking about pretty much any topic is to search for videos including the phrase VOX POP and your topic.  e.g. Environment vox pop, christmas shopping vox pop.  A vox pop is an on the street interview between a reporter and member of the public.  They are usually quite short and may feature two or three people giving their opinions on the same topic.  The search term “street interview” also brings up similar results.  You could develop these into listening exercises as above, but as they are quite short, you could just use them as a lead in to your topic, asking students if they agree with the opinions.  While this is a primarily content led way of using the videos, it does also serve to expose and familiarise students to non-RP voices.

Finally, here’s the Night before Christmas.

Enjoy!

 

 

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Disemvoweled

16 Oct

t’s nt lwys tht sy t rd txts tht hv hd ll th vwls tkn t f thm.  Whch f crs s wht mks t sch gd ctvty fr th lngg clssrm.*

Taking the vowels out of words is not a particularly new thing.  I though I was being quite clever with the title of this post, only to find the verb “dismevowel” has been in use since 2005 (Macmillan Dictionary) to talk about the process in text messaging, though I suspect language teachers have probably been doing it for much longer than that!

Disemvoweling is a nice way to focus students on the written form of words and to think about spelling (though it isn’t always the vowels that cause the spelling problems).

It’s also a nice way to review vocabulary items from previous lessons, though as it doesn’t really focus on meaning, you might want to do some kind of follow up activity that involves using the target items.

As a warmer, I pre-prepare my target words, minus the vowels, on pieces of scrap paper (flashcard style).  I put the students into teams and get them to come up with their buzzer noise (so for example, on team has to cluck like a chicken, another has to make a car alarm noise and so on).  Then you just show the words and the fastest team to correctly spell the target item gets the point.  An alternative for young learner classes where you need to use up some of their energy, is to do the same, but ask them to run to the board and write the word correctly.

I had thought that a more challenging version of this for higher level learners would be to leave the vowels in and to take all the other letters out, which presumably would mean they were “inconsonant” (the words, not the learners), u o eeion i ie e a oo aei, ee o oeioa! **

So perhaps some fun could be had with letter frequency charts and statistics?

English Letter Frequency Graph

You could choose to remove single letters, like the letter “T”, from a short text and ask learners to put them back in again.  Or challenge learners to write a ten word sentence without using the letters “e”, “t” or “a”.

Or…….  o oul emov h irs n as etter ro ac or n e f h tudent a u he ac gai.***

 

If you try any of these ideas, let me know how they work out – or if you have any related activities, do share!

Hv fn!

 

*It’s not always that easy to read texts that have had all the vowels taken out of them.  Which of course is what makes it such a good activity for the language classroom.

** but on reflection it strikes me as too challenging, even for professionals!

*** you could remove the first and last letters from each word and see if the students can put them back again.

Collocation Connections

13 Oct

Here’s a little test for you to see how good you are at spotting collocations.  The words in the grid below can be put into four collocation groups.  Can you figure out (a) what the groups are?  (b) which word(s) collocate with the groups?

Collocation Connections

For example, if you had found the words “a distinction  /  attention to  /  a line  /  up plans” in the grid, then you would have the four words for your group and you would (of course) have correctly identified “draw” as the word that collocates with them.

Obviously, in some instances more than one answer is possible and words might be able to fit into more than one group, but that is all part of the fun!

How long do you need?  Two minutes?  Five?

It’s ok – you can take your time!  Answers at the bottom of the page!

This is an activity I thought of after watching the popular UK quiz show “Only Connect“, which has a round called “the wall” where contestants have to find four categories and describe the connections.  If you visit the website, you can play for yourself – but be warned – they aren’t easy!

You can easily adapt it for different ages and abilities and it is is nice way of reviewing vocabulary.  Two ways you could use it in class:

  1. Have one grid displayed (or written) on the board and the students are in teams, trying to be first to find the correct answers.
  2. Have the students in teams with different grids competing against the clock (three minutes?).  Then they can swap and try each other’s.

Try it and let me know how it goes!

ANSWERS:

  • Heavy:  going  /  smoker  /  traffic  /  rain
  • Do:  something  /  business  /  me a favour  /  your best
  • Time:  extra  /  waste  /  spend  /  spare
  • A pack of:  cigarettes  /  wolves  /  lies  /  cards

 

Instructions: Don’t blame Maria, blame Sharon and Tracy

1 Oct

By day seven of a recent hospitalisation, I had identified four of the non-native speakers who worked on the nursing team.  Apparently there are seven in total, but the ward is large and I may never get to meet the others.  I know there are seven because I overheard a senior nurse commenting on it.  And not positively.   Communication, it seems is something of an issue on ward B5.

Of the four NNS nurses I’ve met, two are Italian and two are Portuguese.  I would estimate that the Portugese are solid B2 level speakers – there are frequent mistakes but these don’t often impede communication and when they do, the speakers are able to correct.  The Italians are lower level – one of the Italians is a solid B1 and the other, who is also older, is somewhere between A2 and B1; listening to her I can see how she might have passed Cambridge English Preliminary exam but her slips and errors are probably more common slightly below that.

And it was this lady, who I shall call Maria, that had to deal with this little burst of language the other day.  If you can, imagine the nurse speaking with a broad south London accent, all run together and rapid with random glottal stops thrown in here and there:

NURSE: “Right.  Maria, so bed 3’s jus come back from her colonoscopy so we know that means she can only have four things, black tea, water, apple juice and jelly.  But not the red jelly cos it’s got that stuff in it she can have the orange jelly though so she’d better have a tea and an orange jelly but it don’t matter cos we ain’t got any jelly anyway and the kitchen’s sending some up so that’ll take a while so it’s probably best if you wayer first and that’ll give the kitchen time to send it up, alright?”

MARIA:  Tea and jelly.  Ok.  I do this now?

NURSE: She’s going the wrong way.  Maria luv?  You’re going the wrong way!  She’s over there.  Go wayer.  WAYer.  Weigh her.

MARIA: ah! I weigh her and then tea and jelly.

NURSE:  Yeah go on luv off you pop.  (Exeunt Maria) it’s so difficult when they don’t understand English innit?

***

I’ve tried to reproduce this verbally in this recording – it’s the best approximation I can manage of the speed and speech patterns! Click the vocaroo link to listen.

Source: Vocaroo Voice Message

***

I later overheard a senior nurse tell the Italians they could leave an hour early the following day to attend English lessons being run elsewhere in the hospital.

Maria could probably use some English lessons, this is true – I wonder though, whether they will be the right kind of language lessons.  Since being in hospital, the only people I have heard speaking in the UK prestige model of “received pronunciation” are some of the consultants and the surgeons.  Everyone else in the hospital is from everywhere else.  This being south London, there is a broad mix of Britain’s colonial and cultural heritage in the accents: West Indian, Jamaican, Indian, Pakistani, Nigerian, Ugandan.  And of course the famous “estuary English” common to the South East of the UK.

Course book accents tend to be clearer, tinged slightly with regionalism here and there as a nod to the existence of other forms of speech and as a way of helping learners tell the speakers apart during the listening exercise.  This is an understandable part of grading the materials to the level of the learner – listening materials need to be accessible after all, but I wonder if, in grading the language our learners hear, we could do more to include a greater variety of dialect and accent.  That perhaps, is a topic for another blogpost though.

The big issue for Maria is the one that probably every teacher picked up on when reading or listening to the above conversation.  It isn’t that Maria doesn’t understand, in fact if you consider the length and content of the initial utterance, Maria has done quite well to pull “tea and jelly” out of it and to use contextual knowledge to figure out that she has to go and get some for bed 3.

The problem isn’t just that the non-native speaker doesn’t understand, the problem is that the native speaker doesn’t have the best communication skills for speaking to a non-native speaker.

INSTRUCTIONS PEOPLE!!!!  INSTRUCTIONS!

The nurse is delivering the utterance at relatively high speed and in an informal mode as is suitable between colleagues who don’t want to make an issue of any power relationships.  She pre-justifies the instruction by giving background information that supports the instruction and then gets lost in her own thinking as she clarifies which kind of jelly and what the best sequence of activities is.  The speed of speech, and in particular the south London speech patterns of catenation, elision and assimilation, make it very difficult to identify the word boundaries.  Likewise, because this is delivered at speed, the stress patterns are not as obvious.

In short, it is a wonder that anybody understood anything.

It might be a bit too much to expect the nurse to grade her language appropriately as this is something that teachers get better at through repeated exposure to multiple levels of ability and understanding what language patterns and lexis are generally comprehensible at those levels.  There are though, some simple things that our nurse could do to make life easier on the ward:

  • Use fewer words. Don’t use three words where one will do.
  • Separate out instructions into single imperative sentences. Don’t front them with polite phrases – keep it simple.  So not “Please, if you wouldn’t mind, could you go and wash bed 8 and get them ready for X-ray?”  But:  “Wash bed 8.  Get them ready for x-ray.”
  • Enunciate more clearly and make sure key words are separated.
  • Speak slower.
  • Try and give stress to key words in the sentence, in particular actions to be taken and names or other key nouns.

I also have a theory, based on limited observation and not borne out by any reading or research (not that I found any research on this, so who knows?), that when native speakers try to simplify their language for non-native speakers, they do so in the same way that they might simplify their language for a child.  This can be characterised by using more “informal” language, which includes more use of phrasal verbs.  Phrasal verbs though, are notoriously tricky for non-native speakers to acquire and differentiate between.  Certainly speakers of Latin based languages might have more luck with slightly more formal vocabulary where there are more cognates.  So in the example instruction “Get them ready for x-ray”, a better instruction might be “prepare them for x-ray”.  But this is only a personal theory…

So there is my free business idea for any teacher in the UK looking to drum up a bit more business – don’t only target the language learners, but look for opportunities in areas where the native and the non-native speaker work together or interact more regularly.  Sell the courses in communication skills to Sharon and Tracy (or their boss in HR), and make sure it isn’t only Maria that gets the blame.