Getting real in teaching listening

phonology-for-listening-richard-cauldwell-paperback-cover-artBook review:
Richard Cauldwell: Phonology for Listening. Teaching the Stream of Speech. Speech in Action. Birmingham, UK 2013.
ISBN 0954344723, ISBN-13: 978-0954344726. Printed on demand by Amazon. €25.68

Richard Cauldwell makes a key point: Listening acquisition lags behind the acquisition of other skills, he says, because we treat listening skills as something learners will acquire through enough exposure, as if by osmosis. Instead of teaching listening, we simply test listening comprehension. Drawing on learner diaries, Cauldwell reports that, as a result, learners typically have two complaints:

  • Ying’s dilemma“: Ying from Sinagpore says she can’t catch the words she knows, as she doesn’t understand how their sound shapes change in the middle of sentences, squeezed together, especially in spontaneous speech.
  • Anna’s anger“: A student from Finland is angry at her teachers for underusing recordings. She wants them to go beyond comprehension practice to teach what Cauldwell calls “the realities of the stream of speech.” (p. 3)

Approaching the problem from the standard pronunciation syllabus doesn’t resolve the problem, Cauldwell says, because the “careful speech model” that underlies that syllabus treats language as “a correct, tidy, steady-speed, rule-governed phenomenon,” with a limited set of sounds and rules for sentence types and connected speech phenomena, “optimised for clear pronunciation.” (p. 4) So while it may be easy to use such a syllabus to teach, it doesn’t help learners acquire the listening skills they need. Cauldwell explains the challenge using three metaphors: Beyond the “greenhouse” of the classroom, and outside the “garden” of careful speech, the student of English needs to deal with the unruly “jungle” of spontaneous speech (p. 260). That’s the messy, real world that we need to prepare our students to handle.

Cauldwell’s solution is to take a comprehensive approach, “teaching learners to decode the sound substance of the stream of speech.” (p.1) He lays out a “window on speech framework”, a toolkit for contrasting the clearly pronounced “citation form” with the changed sound shapes in spontaneous speech. The framework is built around the speaker-defined speech unit, rather than the grammar-defined sentence unit, as it reflects “the moment-by-moment choices that speakers make as they communicate.” (p.5) Speech units are defined as multi-word rhythmic sections with prominent and non-prominent syllables, steps up and down in pitch, and tone glides (up, down and level). Cauldwell’s special focus is on the “squeeze zones” of non-prominent syllables contained in speech units, and he highlights the compression of whole word groups.

  • Part 1 (Chapters 1-5) presents the “window on speech” framework, expanding on the work of David Brazil, Richard Bradford, Martin Hewings and others to introduce notation techniques to describe the precise sound effects of squeezing.
  • Part 2 (Chapters 6-10) describes the sound substance of the stream of speech, including shifts in stress. This includes an interesting discussion on syllable timing, i.e. how speakers of an L1 such as French will retain syllable timing when they use English.
  • Part 3 (Chapters 11-15) studies the range of factors influencing the stream of sound, including accents (i.e. Britain, Ireland, North America, and Global including English as a Lingua Franca), as well as how identity, emotion and attitude influence speech.
  • Part 4 (Chapters 16-20) suggests learner activities for spontaneous speech listening, in both low-tech (teacher and peer listening, recordings) and high-tech (recordings and apps) contexts.

Overall, the exercises raise awareness for getting past the “decoding gap”. The key requirement is “letting go of the careful speech model”. While Cauldwell uses sample recordings throughout the book to raise awareness for the specific sound shapes, with careful listening/analyzing and preparing/performing tasks, Part 4 goes the extra step of explaining how to work with the material.

The activities pivot on what Cauldwell calls “savouring” and “handling short stretches of speech“. Such activities often involve drafting a transcript of the various versions of one and the same phrase. Notations bracket phrases in speech units between double lines to signify short breaks in the stream, capitalize the stressed syllables and underline the main stress. One of the exercises goes like this:

18.1 Stepping stones (mp3 sound files 18.01-4)
This pair work activity to explore a variety of ways a phrase can sound is modeled in four recordings using the phrase “It’s the second biggest city in my country, I think.”

  1. First, students or the teacher create a “greenhouse” version of the phrase, i.e. every word is spoken very clearly.
  2. Then they create a slightly messy “garden” version with stress being dictated by the speaker’s personal intended meaning.
  3. After that, pairs speak in unison to contrast the two different versions (then performing before the class). In the recoding, this sounds quite disjointed.
  4. Finally, students are presented a very messy “jungle” version with hesitation, stumbling, hedging (perhaps from the teacher, or from an authentic recording)

This is a rather general awareness-raising exercise that could be used to introduce the overall approach, and to practice noting down a phrase in its different sound shapes.

Other activities targeting more specific areas include:

  • Practicing clusters of frequent forms
  • Close listening following transcripts
  • Soft focus listening to suggest “mondegreens” – phrases that are misinterpreted because they sound like something else – i.e. “occasionally” can sound like “ok jolly” (p. 285)
  • Formulating multiple choice questions to include an answer that the learner would give based on mistakes in decoding the sound stream
  • Taking phrases from the squeezed version to the clear version and back
  • “Instant dictations” in which you stop recordings and have students write down the last 4 words they’ve heard, which are still fresh in mind and not yet processed for meaning

Finally, Cauldwell suggests using Audacity or another digital editor to record and study the wave shape of sounds, and Audio Notetaker to listen to, analyze and edit the chunks of a given piece of audio.

Overall, Phonology for Listening represents an original and enormously practical approach to teaching an essential language skill that needs attention, and is clearly in need of improvement among many of our students. Highly recommended.


Yoda: A Jedi craves not these things.

Craving Yoda’s funny and wise pontifications, I went and found some quotes, with their charming and haunting backward sentence structure:

No. Try not. Do… or do not. There is no try.

Much to learn, you still have.

Truly wonderful, the mind of a child is.

Ready, are you? What know you of ready?
For eight hundred years have I trained Jedi.
My own counsel will I keep on who is to be trained!
A Jedi must have the deepest commitment, the most serious mind.
(to the invisible Ben, indicating Luke)
This one a long time have I watched.
All his life has he looked away…
to the future, to the horizon.
Never his mind on where he was.
Hmm? What he was doing. Hmph.
Adventure. Heh! Excitement. Heh!
A Jedi craves not these things.
(turning to Luke)
You are reckless.

Yes, a Jedi’s strength flows from the Force.
But beware of the dark side.
Anger, fear, aggression; the dark side of the Force are they.
Easily they flow, quick to join you in a fight.
If once you start down the dark path,
forever will it dominate your destiny,
consume you it will, as it did Obi-Wan’s apprentice.

Fear is the path to the dark side.
Fear leads to anger.
Anger leads to hate.
Hate leads to suffering.

You will know when you are calm, at peace. Passive.
A Jedi uses the Force for knowledge and defense, never for attack.

When you look at the dark side, careful you must be.
For the dark side looks back.

You will find only what you bring in.

Size matters not. Look at me. Judge me by my size, do you? Hmm?
Hmm. And well you should not.
For my ally is the Force, and a powerful ally it is.
Life creates it, makes it grow. Its energy surrounds us and binds us.
Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter.
You must feel the Force around you; here, between you, me, the tree, the rock, everywhere, yes.
Even between the land and the ship.

When 900 years old you reach, look as good, you will not.

Creatives and their art forms

English for Artists should highlight different art forms, e.g. profiling artists expressing themselves in the various media. The Thrash Lab vlog and YouTube playlist include a profile of Saber, a graffiti artist who has branched out. In this profile he describes the work that made him a name, similarities to typography, and how he reacts to young people today who engage in the illegal art of graffiti.

manifest something through the creative process
maintain a level of inspiration
my artist name is
I’m based in… and have been painting for X years
I knew that art was what I wanted, and graffiti was the venue that I chose.
Picture diving headfirst into your signature and making it your number one mission
Typography is held at a high level of design
We are master typographers
I was willing to risk my life and freedom
Something made me go do it
We were one of the first to use housepaint
I just took it from there
26 gallons of bucket paint were used
It just so happened to be the biggest piece in the world – the biggest illegal piece ever painted.
It became a home plate for graffiti
It takes years and years to stumble into those processes
My paintings represent 22 years of intense art-making

“Art gets a bad rap because it’s considered something that’s elite, and something that only an elite person can understand, when that’s not true. ’cause every single kid in the world picked up a crayon once and had that little spark.”

“There’s two kids I meet in the world. And there’s the kid who says, ‘Hey Saber, I’m so happy to meet you, and take the Facebook photo’ and I’m nice and I do it all, and then they say ‘Yeah, I’m a’go bombing tonight’ And I go ‘na, you should go on a computer, you know, you should do graphic design, you should get into school, that’s what’s your path is.’ And then I meet the kid who says ‘Wassup Saber’ and I go, ok, I feel it in him, and I go, ‘You know what, go crush those freeways’, because you know what, that’s all he has, and the alternative is a lot worse.”

Painting from Life

Videos on painting from life by The Art Students’ League of New York would be useful in an English course for Artists. Here I would focus on how an artist, Sharon Sprung,  describes her process as she paints. Notice how difficult it is to multitask, producing both visually and verbally, and both commenting on the process and beginning a new action, This involves associative holistic and analytical faculties at the same time, and makes the artist sound slightly distracted.

On the receptive side, as you watch, you’re filling in what the artist shows but doesn’t explicitly say – or can’t express in words – which adds a completely different dimension of understanding. In these videos I find it’s almost impossible to listen without watching, or to watch without listening, to understand what is going on at any given moment.

Explore The Art Students’ League of New York YouTube channel.

Google Translate

I use Google Translate in my work, and like to introduce it to advanced English students who need to do translation at work. But you need to study very closely what this great tool does and doesn’t do. Based on the World Wide Web, Google Translate is really quite helpful for suggesting collocations (word partnerships) and colligations (grammar structures following given words), such as, in the example below,

  • adverbs after verbs, e.g. “think independently”
  • gerunds after prepositions, e.g. “without losing sight” or “dynamic way of doing”

But you naturally need to rearrange and adjust the various parts of speech, since German sentence structure is so different. I’ve highlighted the corresponding sections in the slide you see below. Also, German abstract terms carry meanings not transported in the more common sense English translation, and therefore need to be extended:

  • Unternehmer ist er weniger im Sinne … sondern …
  • His entrepreneurial qualities lie less in … than …

Note that when you use Google Translate, you can mouse over to view and select additional suggested translations. The more reference material goes in, the better Google Translate gets. So have a look:

German: In Max Mustermann begegnet man dem fast klassisch zu nennenden Vertriebsmann, der ausgeprägte Macherqualitäten besitzt und unabhängig denkt und handelt. Unternehmer ist er weniger im Sinne eines ganzheitlich denkenden und sorgfältig analysierenden Managers, sondern eher in Hinblick auf seine zupackende und dynamische Art, die Dinge anzugehen und umzusetzen, ohne jemals das Ziel und das gewünschte Ergebnis aus den Augen zu verlieren.

Google Translate: In Joe Blow, one encounters the most classic to be mentioned salesman who has distinctive makers qualities and thinks and acts independently. Entrepreneur, he is less in terms of a holistic thinking and carefully analyzed manager, but rather in terms of their purposeful and dynamic way of doing things and implement without ever losing sight of the target and the desired result in mind.

Improved: Joe Blow has many of the distinctive qualities of the classic salesman, a man of action who thinks and acts independently. His entrepreneurial qualities as a manager lie less in holistic thinking and careful analysis than in his purposeful and dynamic way of approaching and implementing things without ever losing sight of the target and the desired result.


When you become a whistleblower

Yesterday Edward Snowden came forward and outed himself as the whistleblower who leaked information about Boundless Informant. This system developed by the NSA with major corporations, enables raw data to be analyzed and processed in the cloud, including IP addresses, so sender and recipient information can be tracked to rough location. I’m not going to politicize here, but I do want to talk about how Edward Snowden chooses his words.

In the remarkable interview with the Guardian about why he blew the whistle on the NSA, Edward Snowden uses the second person ‘you’ to hedge the details of his unique role and position. The speaker using ‘you’ disguises and generalizes his own experience and range of choices, inviting ‘you’, the listener, to imagine how you or anyone else would do the same thing if it happened to you. Likewise, he uses the simple present to generalize rather than the past tense to report on what he did.

‘When you’re in positions of privileged access like a systems administrator for these sort of intelligence community agencies, you’re exposed to a lot more information on a broader scale than the average employee. And because of that you see things that – uh – may be disturbing. But over the course of a normal person’s career you’d only see one or two of these instances. When you see everything, you see them on a more frequent basis, and you recognize that some of these things are actually abuses, and when you talk to people about them – uh – in a place like this where this is the normal state of business, people tend not to take them very seriously and, you know, move on from them. But over time, that awareness of wrongdoing sort of builds up, and you feel compelled to talk about it. And the more you talk about it, the more you’re ignored, the more you’re told it’s not a problem, until eventually you realize that – uh – these things need to be determined by the public, not by somebody who is simply hired by the government.”

Overall, he comes across as quiet and self-effacing, and very principled when he uses ‘I':

  • ‘I don’t want to live in a society that does these sort of things’
  • ‘I do not expect to see home again’

For the full interview see the Guardian (interview by Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald in Hong Kong, 12min 35sec)

Keep calm and carry on

Keep Calm and Carry On was a motivational poster produced by the British government in 1939, intended to raise the morale of the British public in the event of a German invasion. It was never used, even during the air raids, but kept for the worst case. What could be more British! The poster was rediscovered in 2000, and subsequently commercialized. Now it’s become an amusing and inescapable meme. You can even create your own parody of the poster on this website.

But I’d like to know: Has it become a buzzword? I mean, do people in Britain actually say “Keep calm and carry on” jokingly in conversation? In other words, does this omnipresent visual meme built around words actually translate into spoken English?