Sunday, February 5, 2012

The Not-So-Simple Past

Last week, my intermediate class had a free-range lesson.  This group meets at a public library not too far from Philadelphia's Chinatown.  We were booted from our usual meeting space to make room for a Chinese New Year celebration featuring local schoolchildren.  Actually, the librarians were very nice about it.  They advised us a week in advance that the meeting room would be transformed into a dressing room during the time we usually meet.

Not to worry!  I asked the students to bring their notebooks on the appointed day, sit in the audience and observe the celebration.  In our next lesson, they would share their impressions.

During the lesson that preceded the celebration, we read a short piece about Chinese New Year. I also passed around a picture of the Chinese zodiac and descriptions of the traits that are supposed to be associated with each animal. The Chinese students in the class (about half of the group) answered questions from the other students about traditions and culture. They didn't always agree with each other, so there was quite a bit of negotiation of meaning between them in addition to the flow between them and the students from other countries.  The class compared the Chinese zodiac with the astrological version and there was a robust discussion about whether such descriptions are useful or true.

Thanks to Felix Andrews

One form that emerged was the passive mood (Chinese New Year is celebrated ...  Money is given ...  Lanterns are hung ... ).  We also spent some time examining the difference between these two forms:

Are you [a noun/adjective]?
Do you [verb]?

Finally, we talked about different ways to get attention in order to ask a question.  One student had heard "I have a question." and wanted to be sure that this was acceptable.  He was familiar with "I want to ask a question."

The event, which took the place of our next lesson, was charming.  A big group of preschool children of varying cultural heritages was herded in to be the audience. We adults stood around in the back.  Older children of Chinese heritage performed an umbrella dance, a ribbon dance and the lion dance.  An adult led the kids in a few songs and told a story from a picture book. About two-thirds of our regular group showed up and took notes, photos and videos.  During our following lesson, the students who attended reported to the students who didn't.  Smart phones were passed around.  There were more questions for the Chinese students (Why were so many people wearing red?).

video
a short snip from the lion dance

After students reported on events, I wrote some verbs on the board and asked students to recall sentences from the discussion that included these verbs.  This is an intermediate group and they all know that simple past is appropriate for relating a sequence of past events such as reporting or storytelling.  But in practice, when they were focused entirely on meaning, some students sometimes used the infinitive.  Other students consistently pronounced the "ed" ending of regular simple past as its own syllable. I suspected that this group was not hearing (and therefore not assimilating) the pronunciation of "ed" for the simple past as spoken by a fluent speaker.
Mulla Nasrudin from Wikimedia Commons
This insight struck me at the end of the lesson, so I didn't go into it.  But, for the next lesson, I brought in a very short story (a Mulla Nasrudin story -- there are lots of them on the web) and, after the group read it, asked questions, responded, etc., I asked them to identify all of the simple past verbs in the story.  I pronounced each one and let the class decide how the "ed" sounded (no prompting from me, though I did repeat when asked).  As they came up with "id", "t" and "d" I wrote these on the board and we categorized all of the verbs. I reminded everyone about voiced and unvoiced sounds by pointing out that "d" and "t" were examples of each.  I then let small groups try to decide if there was a pattern in how the verbs were categorized.  I wasn't planning to, but I ended up giving them a hint (listen to the sound at the end of the base form of the verb).  The conclusion:

For verbs that end with an unvoiced sound, use the unvoiced pronunciation ("t").  But verbs that end with "t" already have that sound, so in that case use "id".

For verbs that end with a voiced sound, use the voiced pronunciation ("d").  But verbs that end with "d" already have that sound, so in that case use "id".

Students brainstormed a list of regular verbs, then individuals wrote sentences.  They exchanged with partner and read aloud, coaching each other on pronunciation.  Whenever a narrative comes up in the next few lessons (it always does), I'll ask students to analyzed the pronunciation.  I'll periodically compliment students on good pronunciation as lessons go forward. 

I've taught this pronunciation point before with other groups, but it didn't dawn on me until this lesson that some continuing student mistakes with the simple past could be because they (quite logically) expect to hear "id".  This is occasionally borne out in their experience (wanted, needed) but very often, it isn't.  A student's subconscious pattern-noticing process may be binning most regular simple past verbs incorrectly into "base form", so that's what comes out in free speech. If a student is somewhat conscious that simple past is supposed to be used, then they graft on an "id".  Helping the student hear and recognize the subtle ways that most simple past regular verbs differ from the base form will not only improve their pronunciation but, perhaps more importantly, help them comprehend fluent speech.

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