This post accompanies the workshop Laura gave on 7 November 2015 at the English UK conference in London. You can view the presentation slides here. (You may also have seen or heard about this workshop earlier this year, at the IATEFL conference in Manchester; and you can also watch a recording here of the webinar Laura gave for Cambridge English Teacher, explaining how to conduct this 5-step listening lesson.)
Why help learners understand different accents – and why L2 accents in particular?
English is used by millions of people around the world. They do not all sound the same, and very few sound like the recordings featured in popular published ELT materials. To be successful communicators internationally, students need not only to make themselves understood, but to be prepared to listen and understand the truly vast variety of voices they’ll encounter in the world outside the classroom.
How can I develop these skills in class?
In the aforementioned workshop, we looked at a 5-step lesson structure which can be adapted using any video* which you’ve selected as suitable for your students (in terms of level, subject matter, relevance to students’ interests, etc.).
Here’s an example of Javier Bardem, a Spanish-accented speaker of English, which we used in today’s workshop (from 18 seconds in – where the interviewer asks “Do you think you’ll ever explore your acting abilities to their furthest limits?” – to 1 min 20 secs, where he concludes “…and I’m lucky enough to make a living out of that.”). In the lesson structure outlined below, I’ve included suggestions of which features of pronunciation you could look at which occur in part of this clip.
*You could use audio, but video is ideal for working on pronunciation because part of listening comprehension is actually visual – seeing the speaker’s mouth and face gives extra information to your brain which helps it make sense of the stream of sound!
- It’s important to establish context for, and interest in, the clip.
- It’s important that students have a good idea of the speaker’s main message before focusing on specific features of his/her pronunciation.
- First, get students to listen for a general understanding, then for more detailed understanding. You can create your own questions for this.
- Once context and interest have been established, give students a selection of words from the clip which show one particular feature of the speaker’s L1-influenced accent of English. In this Javier Bardem example, I suggest:
- “when I was 18 years old”
- “for several reasons”
- “sometimes you lose it”
- These phrases all contain words with the /z/ phoneme (“reasons” contains it twice!), which Spanish speakers often substitute /s/ for (because /z/ is not a phoneme of Spanish). Do not tell the students this yet!
- Students listen to the clip again and tick (or grab – if you prefer to a kinaesthetic version of the activity, you can put the words on slips of paper) each word/phrase as they hear it.
- Once the students have ‘found’ them in the clip, ask the students how they themselves would pronounce these words/phrases.
- Play the appropriate moments of the clip as many times as necessary for students to contrast this speaker’s pronunciation with their own. Make sure they’re just contrasting – not passing judgment or correcting. Here are the relevant time markers in this clip of Javier Bardem:
- “when I was 18 years old” (0:29)
- “for several reasons” (0:36)
- “sometimes you lose it” (0:43)
- Prompt them to identify patterns. (In this case, you’re hoping they’ll notice that he always replaces /z/ with /s/.)
- Prepare more examples of words that follow these patterns – ideally, these should be examples which come from the clip but which you haven’t already used. In our Javier Bardem example, I suggest:
- “what it was” (0:51)
- “easy choice” (0:57)
- Students predict how this speaker would pronounce these words. Remember to ask them (without confirming if they’re right yet) what they’ve predicted. This will help you actually observe the development of their listening skills!
- Play the clip again so they can check their predictions.
5. Reflection & discussion
Get students to reflect on both the purpose and process of this activity, i.e.:
- Why is it so important to understand many different accents of English? And why not just focus on native-speaker accents? (Answer: see the beginning of this blog post!)
- Is it easy to develop this aspect of the skill of listening? (No, but it’s not impossible, either. The important thing is that exposure alone isn’t enough to develop your ability to understand others’ pronunciation. Sometimes you need to examine more closely what they’re doing. We do this naturally in our first language, but it takes some conscious effort at first when learning a second language.)
- How can students increase their exposure to a range of accents? (If you’re in a multilingual classroom, this is easy – there will be a range of L2-accented speakers sitting right beside you. If you’re in an English-speaking country and want to understand those speakers, try to engage in conversation with people outside class, such as in shops or in your host family. If you don’t have easy access to such human resources, or aren’t confident enough to do these things yet, then look online for clips like the YouTube one in this blogpost.)
Some very important things to remember
Development of these skills takes time. Contrary to what many students and teachers perhaps wish, learning is not fast or easy! Don’t expect miracles – but don’t give up too quickly, either. It’s worth developing your ability to understand others’ pronunciation, as intelligibility is a two-way street. Speakers need to make themselves understood, and listeners also need to make an effort to understand.
There are lots of videos out there but they’re not all appropriate. Use your common sense and discretion when selecting video clips to show your students. Think about possible cultural taboos or other areas of potential sensitivity, try to find clips that reflect students’ interests, and – above all – try to find clips of speakers who represent the people your students will really need to understand. If, for example, a student works in an international company where all his/her colleagues are Italian and French, prioritise understanding of Italian-accented and French-accented speakers of English!
Proficient L2 celebrities make good role models. Not only is it helpful that such people often give interviews which end up online and can be used as authentic material in class, but these people are also excellent examples of L2 speakers of English whose pronunciation has clearly not held them back in life! Many students will aspire to native-like pronunciation, and some will have good justification for this – but other students will find this unnecessary and potentially demotivating. For these students, seeing a real-life example of somebody who they admire and who has also gone through a similar learning process to them (from the same L1 background), this is a much more realistic and appropriate model to aspire to than an anonymous native-accented speaker on a coursebook CD.
Analyse; don’t mock. Studying accents is a sensitive business. Although some generalisations are possible, beware the risk of stereotyping and never ridicule others’ speech: it’s not good scholarship. There are countless people out there, celebrity and otherwise, who are very proficient L2 users of English with successful lives and careers. For the speakers listed below, for example, features of their L1 pronunciation do not appear to hinder their international intelligibility – an encouraging message for your students!
Where can I find more examples of L2 accents?
The internet is jam-packed with people speaking English. YouTube is a helpful resource, though it can take time to find appropriate clips. In addition to the clip of Javier Bardem which we watched in this workshop, here are some more suitable examples we’ve found, with accompanying notes on characteristic L1 pronunciation features which you could look at in steps 3 and 4 of the lesson structure above:
1. Chinese: Shen Wei (choreographer)
Note: the relevant part of the clip starts at 1 minute, 31 seconds.
Dropping consonants at the end of syllables:
- “my childhood”
- “at that time”
- “no art schools”
- “a lot of Western concepts, ideas into China”
- “after that, once we learned all the traditional…”
2. Japanese: Takashi Murakami (artist)
/l/ and /r/ pronounced similarly:
- “original story”
- “really childish”
/b/ and /v/ pronounced similarly:
- “have to move”
/f/ pronounced like /h/:
- “have to move”
- “finally a big monster is coming”
3. French: Jean Dujardin (actor)
Note: the relevant part of the clip starts after 13 seconds.
Dropping /h/ at the beginning of words:
- “he is”
Dropping /s/ at the end of words:
- “sometimes he’s a joker”
- “a team of art specialists”
Finally, an appeal…
It can be very time-consuming to find clips and create accompanying questions/materials like those above, though of course this hard work is worthwhile! If you use this 5-step lesson plan with your own clips, please do share those examples with other teachers. If you’d like to share them with a wider audience outside your own staffroom, we’d be happy to host a guest blog post here – just get in touch. We’d especially like to find more examples of female and older/younger speakers than those in the examples given here.