It is customary for Brazilians to say that the year only truly starts in Brazil after our world famous Carnaval. This is a tongue in cheek remark, obviously, but I may just be getting the feeling that my 2011 is still about to begin. I’ve just returned from the US with a group of students who went there to participate in Harvard Model U.N., or, simply put, HMUN. The trip was amazing, and even though it was a lot of hard work, it was also an opportunity to take a break from the day by day routine. The feeling that I get about 2011 still being about to begin refers to my posts on this blog, though. There were just so many things to take care of before the trip, and then while we were there, it was pretty much impossible to keep up with everything that was going on both on the blogosphere and on Twitterville. I noticed I missed some #ELTChats I’d love to have participated in – if you know me you know I’m talking about the one on pronunciation.
I have to confess that I have only read a couple of blog posts ever since I came back as I brought with me an undesirable companion – the flu. Still, I’d like to add a word or two on the matter, if you will bear with me for a moment. I had the chance to visit three different cities with 25 high school students, and they can all communicate effectively in English. Most of them have already finished their English language courses as EFL learners, or are about to finish it. Our first stop was Washington D.C., and our very first meal was, guess where, at McDonald’s. That was just the beginning of the junk food route, which included lots of pizza places, Subway, Flammers’, and what have you. Language-wise, what caught the eye was how hard it was to speak to an American instead of a Latino. Anyway, after D.C., we went to New York and sent a little more time there. Students were given some freedom to go around Macy’s and Times Square to do some shopping, and I won’t even mention the Outlets. That was not a problem at all, and they could all, I repeat that, communicate effectively in all these places. They were able to buy things, meet new people and hold conversations without a problem. Their command of the language is pretty good for that. They had very little problems with accents and they all told me they could understand, if not all, pretty close to that. These are students who study in the same high school, but take their English lessons in many different language institutes, which means their teachers, coursebooks, and contact with the language was also diverse. Yet, they could all communicate.
Then came Boston, and with it, the HMUN. Now this is a situation that is a lot more challenging for English language learners as a foreign language mainly. Not only did they have to communicate, but they also had to play the role of delegates in the U.N. They had to remember to use formal language, they had to have good negotiation skills for all the unmoderated caucus that took place, and they also needed to be able to speak in public fairly well. Every time I think of speaking in public, I remember Jerry Seinfeld’s bit about it where he says that speaking in public is the number 1 fear in America. Guess how it must have felt for EFL learners to stand up and deliver a speech that had to be one-minute long in front of more than 200 teenagers from all over the world.
One of the things that struck me was that these students who had just had living proof that they could communicate quite well and even handle problems in English, suddenly were a bit self-conscious about their command of the language – vocabulary and pronunciation, mainly. I wonder what the reasons for that might have been, but it was clear that they were a bit self-conscious about their pronunciation and vocabulary, and also about their accent. Now I don’t think that the accent is a problem – having an accent is actually the norm rather than the exception, isn’t it? However, what shocked at least some of them the most and even prevented them fro asking for the floor and speaking on the mic wasn’t accent, it was pronunciation, and I’d say mainly supra-segmental features, or just connected speech. This was the first shock, for sure. And I can certainly put myself in their shoes because I once felt like that when I was learning English, and sometimes even after I had become a teacher. Looking back, I can clearly see that pronunciation was overlooked when I was studying English. It took me a long while to overcome the commonly held view that you can only become fluent in a language if you live in a country where the language is spoken. Honestly, I don’t think so, and I have many friends and fellow teachers that can easily prove me right. Just like me, they have never lived or studied abroad, and yet one of the first questions they hear is “Where did you live abroad?”
I have serious issues with taking the teaching of pronunciation lightly and thinking that students will simply pick it up. Just the same, I think that some teachers of advanced levels (B2+) sometimes see their students’ fluency in the language as a sign that students should come to class just to practise conversation skills. It is a class, let’s not forget that. Learners at higher levels can contribute a lot more to it with input and the amount of language that emerges, but they are there to learn more. Being able to communicate is enough when you are going shopping, sightseeing, or casually meeting someone. However, we can’t forget that we don’t know what our learners will be using the language they are learning for. I really don’t think it’s nice to see learners finishing their English courses and still feeling unprepared to deal with situations they might be required to face in their future. It’s been such a long time since, skipping Willis for a while, Michael Lewis published “The Lexical Approach” and talked about the plateau that learners reach after reaching an intermediate level. Yet, it seems to me that there are many teachers who still fail to push students beyond the plateau and show them there’s a lot more they need to learn. Perhaps this is why it’s getting harder and harder for us to see coursebooks being written for C1 level students. I can’t say I have seen it with my own eyes, but I have already heard of times in which students were required to pass their FCE exams before moving on to the advanced levels of certain language courses. These days seem to be gone. Nowadays it’s actually becoming rare for us to see students being able to take a prep course for CAE after they finish their English courses. Isn’t it time we raised the standards again?
*** If you’d like to see some of the pictures from this trip of mine, feel free to do so clicking here.