Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Tongue twisters

Tongue twisters are often a challenge to eager students but occasionally, teachers get students who pour acid down on such so called ‘kindergarten’ approach. How does one prove to unconvincing students on the effectiveness of tongue twisters for improving speaking?

One way is to change their mindsets. I often tell the story of how Winston Churchill, who despite his lisp and stammer rose to be a world renowned orator. (I read his story umpteen years ago in Reader’s Digest).

Then I tell them how some of the best Hollywood actors recite tongue twisters to help them perform their lines more fluency. Following which, I bring home the point that if native speakers need tongue twisters to improve their speaking, how much more learners of the language.

To further impress my unenthusiastic students, I would explain the role of the tongue when we say certain English alphabets. For example, the different positions of the tongue when we utter the sounds of ‘l’ ‘r’ ‘th’ and ‘t.

When I present ‘Betty Baker’ in class, I give both the British and American rendition to emphasize the differences between British and American English. You will find that once students are convinced of the helpfulness of tongue twisters to their speaking, they will become more eager.

There are different versions of the Betty Baker tongue twister. This is the one I use.
“Betty Baker bought a bit of bitter butter to bake a bit of bitter butter cake
A bit of bitter butter cake did Betty Baker bake.”

Telling stories to improve speaking

One of my assignments for my Masters in TESOL course was to write an analysis of a high stake examination. The task required me to observe how such an examination was conducted, to assess its strengths and weaknesses and to interview the candidates to obtain first hand response. I chose IELTS because many of my students were future candidates for the examination. The security surrounding any high stake examination is always tight and IELTS is no exception. So after several weeks of email correspondence, followed by phone calls, I was finally permitted to observe one such examination being conducted, subject to stringent conditions.

I asked the candidates what worried them most about their Speaking Interview. Their response was: “poor grammar,’ pronunciation and fear of being tongue tied.” Their anxieties sum up the general feeling of most ESL students preparing for the IELTS. The main cause for their worries is the lack of exposure to an English speaking environment. This implies that they speak and learn English only within the confines of the classroom but once out in the market place or at home, they revert to their mother tongue.

In order to improve students’ speaking proficiency, I often tell them inspiring stories taken from 'Chicken Soup for the Soul’ or from other reading sources as well as TV programs. Then I make them repeat the stories in their own words.
They continue to rehearse the same stories or stories of their choice as they go about their daily business and to present them in class or to willing listeners. At the same time, they are encouraged to maintain a constant dialogue with themselves in English based on potential IELTS topics. This approach has been very effective in improving spoken English.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

First Language Interference

When I first started using a cell phone, everything about it was strange and almost intimidating. Isn't it the same for everything new, including language? Just as I needed time to go beyond the basics of handling the new technology, my students had to get used to speaking the English language. Often, their first language slipped into the new one. One case I remember, glaringly, to this day, was a sentence a student made. It was something to the effect of :

"My dry father visited us during the holidays."

"Uh, my dry father?" I repeated, eyes blinking.

At that point of time, my Mandarin vocabulary was limited and I didn't understand that it was a literal translation of the Mandarin word for 'godfather.' Luckily for me, a more advanced student came in to the rescue.

This illustration shows how helpful it would be for an ESL teacher to understand the language of students in order to help them correct their errors.

Here's another illustration to support my case. I used to literally grit my teeth whenever my students apply gender terms 'he, she' or 'they' interchangebly with no care for the actual gender in consideration. Then I found out that there are no gender equivalents for these personal pronouns in Chinese. Once I realised it, the irritation I felt dissipated. I knew right away, the source of their problem and was in a better position to guide them.