When I heard that a small group of teens from my school in Thailand were going on an ASEAN exchange to Indonesia and wanted help preparing to use English in that context, I jumped at the chance to talk to them about ELF.
What is ASEAN?
ASEAN stands for Association of Southeast Asian Nations. The member states are Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and Vietnam. There has been increasing focus on teaching children about ASEAN because the countries have forged closer ties in 2015 with preparations for a common market (the ASEAN Economic Community, or AEC).
What was the aim of the workshop?
To raise students’ awareness of the main differences between their own accents and the accents they might hear in Indonesia, and to build confidence interrupting and asking for clarification in the event of not understanding someone.
What materials were used?
I came across the Tumblr Accent Challenge while hunting for clips on YouTube of Indonesian teenagers speaking English. People from all over the world have uploaded videos of themselves pronouncing a set list of words and answering the following questions:
- Pronounce the following words: Aunt, Roof, Route, Theater, Iron, Salmon, Caramel, Fire, Water, New Orleans, Pecan, Both, Again, Probably, Alabama, Lawyer, Coupon, Mayonnaise, Pajamas, Caught, Naturally, Aluminium, GIF, Tumblr, Crackerjack, Doorknob, Envelope, GPOY.
- What is it called when you throw toilet paper on a house?
- What is a bubbly carbonated drink called?
- What do you call gym shoes?
- What do you call your grandparents?
- What do you call the wheeled contraption in which you carry groceries at the supermarket?
- What is the thing you change the TV channel with?
- Choose a book and read a passage from it.
- Do you think you have an accent?
- Would you like to be a wizard or a vampire?
- Do you know anyone on Tumblr in real life?
- End the audio post by saying any THREE words you want.
How was this used in the workshop?
- As you can see, the language level is quite high, so we went through the list of words and questions before listening. It was also useful for the students to try saying the words in the list to prepare for their task while listening, which was to think about the following question: “Do the people in the video say any sounds differently to you?”
- After watching the video, the students picked up on some quite specific points, e.g. the use of /d/ in ‘the’, and other comments were more general like ‘they go up and down a lot’. It was also interesting because the speakers in the video answer the question ‘Do you think you have an accent?’ with ‘No’, which the students thought was funny, because to them the Indonesia teenagers had quite distinctive accents. They said they’d never heard Indonesian accents before.
- This was a useful springboard into talking about the students’ own pronunciation because it helped them to appreciate how people in Indonesia might feel about their Thai accents. I gave them a list of pronunciation features from the Lingua Franca Core that often affects the intelligibility of Thai L1 speakers’ English. You can download the handout here and adapt it as necessary. I asked the students to rate how clearly they think they can pronounce each of the features. In doing so, they were saying the words aloud and practicing them at the same time. Then we focused on the areas they felt they wanted more help with. We also talked about the importance of being aware that these features could lead to breakdown in communication, so you can choose different words if it seems that one particular word is not clear to your listener.
- Then we worked on interrupting people to say you don’t understand. First, we brainstormed phrases you could use (there’s space to do this at the bottom of the handout). This was unproblematic because knowing what to say is not the problem – actually saying it is another thing! Interrupting someone is culturally quite uncomfortable for Thai people to do, so it took a lot of practice. I spoke too quickly and the nominated student had to interrupt and ask me to speak slower. Then we also tried asking someone to explain one specific word they couldn’t understand. So I deliberately spoke about a topic they understood but inserted one difficult word.
The students responded very enthusiastically and I could see some real ‘lightbulb’ moments. These students were aged 16 and 17, so much older than I currently teach, and therefore able to discuss language variation and issues surrounding accents in a mature way. There were only seven of them and they had been selected to go on the trip. This was quite a different experience to my usual teaching, which is far more limited by time, large numbers of students, and exams. Still, it was an exciting project to be a part of, very briefly, because this is ELF in action. Maybe next time they’ll take me with them… !