Symphony of Science

This wonderful video is not just a joy to ponder…

It also shows perfectly, by engineering natural speech into song, how rhythmic English is, and how speakers of English in the UK, US and Down Under will stress the content words and separate what they say into phrases. This is something that my students from other parts of the world will generally not do. They generally use syllable-timing, or giving every syllable the same weight. Stress timing by contrast makes us blend the sounds in the unstressed parts, so when we speak fast it’s like switching into high gear, and we leave those who don’t use our stress timing behind. Because we’re so used to them, those stress patterns are key to how we understand each other, and failing to use them causes intelligibility problems in the UK, US and Down Under. Sure, we can attune our ears to other accents, and we need to, because English is our lingua franca. But it is a hurdle to take.

Rap uses syllable timing rather than stress-timing: Stressing every syllable in its own right makes it easier to write a rhythmic poem. Standard English rhythms by contrast are very different, if you’ll just listen…

Mind Your Language

I’m revising for the phonology orals now, trying to focus on typical areas that learners with different mother tongues need to work on. Had some fun with this. I was wondering whether it was offensive, but have come down on the side of funny. As one reviewer puts it “Yes, they were stereotypes, and it was deliberate. Put believable foreigners in there and you do not have a funny show.” Anna’s trouble with /v/ and /w/ is in part 2 at 9:25.

Mr. Jeremy Brown teaches an English class to a diverse group of ten foreign adult students in London, hailing from nine different countries. From Europe come two au pairs, the flirtatious and beautiful Danielle (France) and prim and proper Anna (Germany), two young single men, Giovanni (Italy) and Max (Greece) and a laid-back middle-aged bartender, Juan (Spain), who speaks no English at all. From Asia, come a revolutionary-minded secretary from the Chinese Embassy (Su-Li), a Japanese businessman (Taro) as well as three students from the Subcontinent, a devout Sikh (Ranjeet) and an unemployed Pakistani (Ali), who are constantly at each other’s throats, and finally a Hindi-speaking housewife (Jamila) who can’t speak a word of English. The school principal, Miss Delores Courtney, nearly dismisses Mr. Brown immediately as she had requested a female teacher, but he is allowed to stay on a trial basis. Mind Your Language, TV Series 1977-1986

Pronunciation of words

Part 1: Individual words

In English, words are rarely pronounced the way they are spelled. Here, an online teacher, Melanie (American), provides short video lessons, between 4 and 10 minutes each, contrasting and comparing words that many speakers of other languages find difficult in English.

    • Video 1: said, suit, clothes, recipe, mountain, famous, virus

Note: Most English words with “ch” are pronounced “tsh”: chief, charming, channel. However, in words with a Greek stem the sound is often “k” (archaeology, chasm, hierarchy) and in loanwords from modern Romance languages it’s “sh” (chute, cache, machete)

Part 2: Individual sounds

Now study sounds that many Germans in particular have trouble making. Getting “v” and “w” right is particularly important to avoid misunderstanding. Practice “minimal pairs”, or words that are the same except for that one sound. Also watch closely how a native speaker makes them, and mouth the sounds yourself, exaggerating the movements your mouth makes. The new sounds must become a habit. The more practice, the better. Watch the two embedded videos to get started.

    • Video 8: “hierarchy”: pronouncing the American rhotic r

Part 3: Phonemic chart


Learn to distinguish sounds using this chart, which is built around the geography of your mouth. Tools:

Note to teachers: It’s well worth watching Adrian Underhill‘s teacher training session – 1 hour

To teachers: I posted this on Moodle for self-study (see screenshot of the top part of the web page). For those of you using Moodle with college students and thinking about how to layout a page, here’s food for thought: Pages load far more slowly when videos are embedded in them, and wifi connections at universities may be slow. I make long pages rather than many short ones, since users prefer to scroll down to check how much there is, which means a lot of data is being loaded at once. So Not to try my students’ patience, I didn’t embed most of the videos, just provided a link. I actually only embedded them here and there, after I saw my (impatient and honest) husband just check the first couple of links, which go to very similar videos, so he missed the more entertaining ones in the second half.

So we might think about embedding one video to raise interest, adding that short intro and a reference to study time needed, and then just link to the following ones beneath. I’m also wondering in retrospect whether it was a good idea to start with Melanie’s videos, as good as they are, since talking heads are more eyecatching and engaging.

In this case, I didn’t add any tasks for practice. This is just reference to self-contained online lessons. I’ll use them as resources to follow-up our face-to-face teaching, or to have something there for the students who only come in to class periodically (this is an ongoing, supplementary, not-for-credit open learning environment for a group of 100 PhD students).

The sequence may seem backwards from an in-class  didactic point of view – Adrian Underhill starts with the phonemic chart – but since this is self-study, I thought starting with mispronounced words was less likely to alienate learners.


Stress and Intonation

These are the videos I posted on the Moodle site for students, for self-study in intonation. All are by the same online teacher, who does a really fabulous job, taking learners into the world of stress patterns with practice sentences like this:

Clients get haircuts.
Clients will get haircuts.
His clients will get haircuts.
His clients will get good haircuts.
All of his clients will get good haircuts.

Jennifer’s lesson 8: Stress patterns
Video a – introduction
Video b – cont.: stress for emphasis
Video c – reading practice

Jennifer’s lesson 9: Advanced Stress Patterns
Video a – follow-up lesson on rhythm
Video b – cont.: emphasis on last content word
Video c – exercises

Jennifer’s lesson 10: Intonation

Video a – introduction
Video b – cont.
Video c – cont.
Video d – exercises

Teaching pronunciation using jazz chants

Carol Graham trains teachers how to use jazz chants to teach pronunciation. They’re great energizers and get learners speaking faster than they can think – one of the elements of fluency.

I’ll be doing some jazz chants in the telephoning part of a compact course next week, first giving them some jazz chant minis (see below), and then having them notice stress patterns as we start using each phrase (i.e. finding the onset and tonic syllables, trying out how the meaning changes when patterns change). Carol Graham says it’s very difficult for non-native speakers to put together jazz chants, so if they do discover rhythm patterns on their own, going as far as making their own chants, that’s very impressive.  Anyway, I’ll give them short chants, like these:

  • Hold on, __ I’ll put you through. OK, I’ll get back to you.
  • I’ll fax it to you. I’ll give you a call. I’ll call you right back. No, I’ll wait for your call.
  • Let me see if he’s in. I think he’s gone out. He’ll be back at 1. Shall I have him call you?
  • I’ll make sure she gets your message. Let me see what I can do. I’ll make sure she calls you back. Let me read that back to you.

I like having learners get up and clap their hands or snap their fingers, or do arm movements to go with these.

Vicki Hollett recently made a lovely jazz chant video that includes karaoke, for the language of making appointments here.