Saturday, April 14, 2012

Talkin' the Talk

Over the 30 months or so that I've been teaching ESL classes, I can't say how many times I've heard something like this: "I can understand you, teacher, but I can't understand the fluent English speakers out there." If encouraged, the students who make this comment will share a theory for why this is so.  Many say that Americans speak "too fast".  Some say that the people they talk to are using "bad English".  A few tell me that they learned British English and are having trouble making the transition to American English. (I heard this one just two days ago!) While there's a nugget of truth in each of these theories, I think there's more to it than that.

"Too fast" is true enough.  Learners certainly need extra processing time.  But fast English (i.e., fluent English spoken at a natural pace) also includes reductions and linking -- and whole chunks of "understood" information are sometimes just left out entirely!

Some students equate informal speech with uneducated or unrefined ("bad") speech.  They're right that informal speech is inappropriate in many contexts and they would be wise to err on the side of formality unless they're very comfortable with the situation they're in.  But even if my students were able to produce beautiful formal speech, they would still need to be aware of the ins and outs of casual speech because that's going to comprise much of their input when they go out there.  And it's not limited to uneducated speakers!  Once, when a fellow teacher came to observe a class I asked him to drop the teacher talk and repeat an exchange we had just had at a natural pace.  My class of beginners was shocked.  I hope it wasn't too traumatizing for them!  I tried to assure them that we would crack the code together ...

Finally, my students from India (and others) learn a version of English that they see as British English.  What I notice in class is that there's occasionally a question about vocabulary or the pronunciation of a particular word, but other than that I don't think that "British" is their primary comprehension problem.  My Indian students (mostly from Kerala) don't speak a stress-timed English. They not only have trouble understanding American English but they struggle with being understood, even when they use otherwise fine construction.

What it all boils down to is that I see a need for much more attention to spoken English in ESL classes like mine. The newer textbooks on my shelf do include jazz chants and notes about "gonna" and "wanna" but it usually seems to be an afterthought.  I spend a lot more time on it in class than other teachers I know, but I would love more tips and ideas for helping my students.  Which brings me (finally!) to one of the presentations I particularly appreciated at the TESOL convention.

The title was "Discourse Markers: Like, I Mean, They Are Important, Right?" and the presenters were Rachel Adams Goertel, Sarah Henderson Lee and James Patrick Goertel. While I was vaguely aware of the function of some discourse markers, I had no idea of their true significance.  These words serve (among other things) to:  help one organize thoughts, give affirmation, self-monitor, elicite a response, repair missteps, or signal a change. Overuse of a discourse marker (like "like") can have a negative impact on how a speaker is viewed, but what I learned from this presentation is  that discourse markers generally have a positive effect on the listener's perception of a speaker. L2 speakers who don't use them may come off as impolite or unnatural-sounding.

Even more interesting: in a study with L1 speakers, the presenters had them listen to a speech.  Some listeners heard a speech with discourse markers and the others heard the same speech with the markers removed.  There was less comprehension and recall when the markers were removed!  So, even high level L2 users could have difficulty with making themselves understood if they don't know how to use these words.  And, if they don't know the significance of discourse markers, then they will not be able to use them as tool for better comprehension themselves.

When I was studying German, we traveled to Austria/Germany several times to practice for a few weeks.  While I was there, I became curious about discourse markers. I didn't know that's what they were called, but when I asked the fluent speakers around me to tell me what words such as "tja" and "naja" meant, they couldn't give me a definition.  I remember being hesitant to use them but sensing that they were necessary. I started paying attention to how they were being used and looking for patterns.  I think they're both used like "well", but I never gained the confidence to use them myself!  (I did start to get the hang of "doch", though.)

What discourse markers would these 1940 gold miners use?
When I was in a GSL environment, I began working toward picking up discourse markers even though they were not taught explicitly in any of the lessons I took.  The practical suggestions that the presenters offered (per Carter and McCarthy, I don't have the specific reference) included the same tip.  Learners who pay attention will pick up the use of discourse markers ... if they're exposed to them.  Therefore, we should take steps to provide this input. We should include genuine conversation as part of our lessons. Students can analyze authentic materials such as YouTube videos of unrehearsed speech, recordings of themselves in free conversation with another speaker, and even notes they take while eavesdropping on fluent conversation in a cafe or other public place. Students can be encouraged to draw their own conclusions about markers and their function.  What should teachers do explicitly?  Make learners aware of discourse markers and their significance in fluent speech. Help students to become sensitive to the presence of markers in the input they're exposed to.

Hmmmm, this set of recommendations would certainly find a comfortable place in a Dogme classroom!

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