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.


State of the art: Machine translation

In a word: Aaaaargh! The German machine translation below is complete nonsense. Lexis is far more complicated than you’d think. A word like ‘searing’ can be a verb, an adjective or a noun. Consider how differently ‘even’ can translate –’even heating’ has been translated here as  ‘sogar Heizung’ rather than ‘gleichmäßige Erwärmung’. And ‘seasoning’ is a good example of usage in a technical context: ‘Seasoned cast iron’ does not mean ‘iron with a pinch of salt’!
Curiouser and curiouser: How did the machines get from ‘bare’ to ‘Blondine’?

Original article:
By: Michael Shah
Cast iron is used for cookware because it has excellent heat retention and diffusion properties, and can be produced and formed with a relatively low level of technology. Seasoning is used to protect bare cast iron from rust, and to create a non-stick surface.
Cast iron cookware is slow to heat, but once at temperature provides even heating. Cast iron can also withstand very high temperatures, making cast iron pans ideal for searing. Being a reactive material, cast iron can have chemical reactions with high acid foods such as wine or tomatoes. In addition, some foods (such as spinach) cooked on bare cast iron will turn black.
Cast iron is a porous material that rusts easily. As a result, it typically requires seasoning before use. Seasoning creates a thin layer of fat and carbon over the iron that coats and protects the surface, and prevents sticking.

Machine translation:
Von: Michael Shah
Gusseisen ist für Kochgeschirr verwendet, da ihm verfügt über ausgezeichnete Wärme-Speicherung und Verbreitung Eigenschaften, und produziert und können mit einem relativ niedrigen Niveau der Technologie gebildet. Gewürz dient Blondine Gusseisen vor Rost zu schützen, und eine Antihaft-Oberfläche erstellen.
Gusseisen Kochgeschirr ist langsam zu heizen, aber einmal bei Temperatur bietet sogar Heizung. Gusseisen kann auch sehr hohe Temperaturen, so dass Gusseisen Pfannen ideal für die sengende standhalten. Ein reaktives Material können, aus Gusseisen chemische Reaktionen mit hohen saure Lebensmittel wie Wein oder Tomaten haben. Darüber hinaus werden einige Lebensmittel (z. B. Spinat), gekocht auf nackten Gusseisen schwarz.
Gusseisen ist ein poröses Material, das leicht rostet. Daher bedarf es normalerweise Würze vor Gebrauch. Würze erzeugt eine dünne Schicht von Fett und Kohlenstoff über das Eisen, das Mäntel und schützt die Oberfläche und verhindert kleben.

Google translate back to English:
Cast Iron Oven to Tableware
From: Michael Shah
Cast iron is used for cookware because it has excellent heat retention and distribution properties, and produces and can be formed with a relatively low level of technology. Spice serves blonde cast iron to protect against rust and create a nonstick surface.
Cast iron cookware is slow to heat, but once at temperature provides even heating. Cast iron can also be very high temperatures, so that cast iron pans withstand ideal for searing. A reactive material can , of cast iron have chemical reactions with high acid foods such as wine or tomatoes. In addition, some foods (such as spinach ) cooked on bare cast iron black.
Cast iron is a porous material that rusts easily. Therefore, normally it requires seasoning before use. Seasoning creates a thin layer of grease and carbon over the iron that coats and protects the surface and prevents sticking.

Grammar Guru: You’ll want to turn left at the light

You’ll want to… The pragmatics of this phrase is interesting:

  • Driver: How do I get to the lake?
  • Pedestrian: You’ll want to turn left at the light up there and then just go straight til you hit Shore Drive.

Why do we consider it acceptable and polite to predict what the person we are talking to will want to do? It would be quite bizarre to tell someone in German, “Sie werden da vorne links abbiegen wollen.” How presumptuous! So what makes telling them what they’ll want more polite than a direct imperative in English? Andreas Grundtvig recently explained to me that this is an example of implicature, that is a phrase that implies something rather than expressing it outright. Here the speaker implies a command rather than actually uttering it. Implicature is the broad term for such implied meanings. The use of this particular form – you will – used to imply a command is also found in conversations on the phone or at the front desk:

  • Amanda: I’d like to speak to someone about using room 1123 for an event.
  • Bertha: Oh, then you’ll want to speak to Marcy. Let me see if she’s in.

Unfortunately, using the will future like this doesn’t always signify an unspoken but implied command. Consider this foodie story, for example, where the writer simply predicts that once you read about these dishes, you will want to devour them on the spot:

So you need to keep your senses open to determine whether the phrase you have just heard or read is meant literally, or is a case of implicature.

Anyone looking at the will future as a form will be struck by how versatile it is in English. It’s worth exploring much more. For example, we use it all the time, especially in spoken English, to describe our habits, and what is typical:

  • When I go to the gym, I’ll generally take a bottle of water with me.
  • On Saturdays, we’ll sometimes go out for breakfast

None of those phrases are about the future at all. If anything, they reflect the past, because normalcy is based on habits developed over the years. I used the will-future above, in my intro: “Anyone … will be struck…” to express that same normalcy; yet in your case, being alerted to the form and its various meanings, the reference will naturally imply future acts of noticing.

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.

A documentary about grammar

David and Elisabeth O’Brien, former English teachers, have raised over 22,000 dollars through Kickstarter to make a film about grammar. Talk about geeky – but they say their film is for everyone. Follow Elizabeth on Twitter @GrammarRocks. Their blog, Grammar Revolution, features diagramming, which I would find too complicated for my German students. But maybe I’m wrong.