Thursday, September 06, 2012

teaching writing, teaching pronunciation

I found an interesting parallel in two of my three new jobs here in Texas (I teach Anthropological Linguistics, teach English to International Teaching Assistants, and tutor in a writing lab). I thought I'd write about it quickly, while it's on my mind, and I can express it clearly.

In higher-level pronunciation, I've noticed, over the years, that pronunciation takes the rap, so to speak, for a number of wider and more serious problems that the native listener can't put his finger on. For example, a teacher with rough intonation, or especially with a monotone, will rub the student the wrong way, yet, because we Americans process intonation on the right side of our brains (it's emotional), and language on the left, the analytical side of our minds fail to identify the problem. We know there's a problem; we're frustrated; we want to do something about it, but rarely can we actually tell the teacher or speaker that intonation is the problem. So, we tend to criticize the pronunciation. I once saw this clearly with a bright American student who boiled over with frustration at a v/w problem with a Turkish teacher. I wondered: how could you get so angry about this? A wowel is obviously a vowel, etc. I was surprised to find out later that the problem really was an intonation that left students feeling frustrated, and cut off their emotional stability as they were trying to process.

In the same vein, I think it's fair to say that many Japanese speakers, with years of trying to fit in and speak well and smoothly, blame their pronunciation for whatever issues they have, when in fact, on an absolute scale, their pronunciation is not that bad. Sure, they have problems with lice/rice. Or fahst/first. But these problems are not the root of their communication problems with Americans, generally. They make friends, do things with us, and fit in successfully in many ways. A larger problem seems to be that a monotone intonation is at discord, in the listener's ear, with what we are hearing. If we sense that they care about something, yet their intonation does not show it, it's like saying one thing and meaning another. But, unlike grammar, or pronunciation, where we can say "no, you meant lice but you said rice", we can't do that with intonation. Even their best friends can't tell them what the problem is.

Now I state this as a general rule, which doesn't apply to everyone (some, shrewdly, master the intonation before any of the words); others have such severe pronunciation problems that any criticism of pronunciation is entirely justified. But, on teacher evaluations and in general interaction with native-speaker Americans, you see pronunciation taking the rap for problems that are in fact wider, and often more serious.

So we were sitting in the writing lab talking about problems of the writing lab tutor; this includes internationals, but really far more of the clients are Americans. We were talking about meeting the perceived needs of the client even when what we perceive might be wider or different. So for example they request editing of fine points of grammar (tutors wince here), and tutors realize fairly quickly that there are far more serious problems in the work. The tutors of course are resistant to correcting fine grammar points when larger revision will be required anyway. The client has the problem of often not being able to put a finger on the larger, less clear problems, like organization, cohesion in the support, etc.

But the problem extends farther than the client's mind. You can sit with the client and say, look, here are a few issues with what you wrote, and clients will either react or not, but possibly learn something in the process. The problem may exist with the teacher at the receiving end of the paper, who, not being a writing teacher (and in fact being part of an entirely different discipline) does not really recognize, and cannot identify, those wider, more serious issues. This teacher, who may be in the writer's past, or may be the teacher of this particular assignment, ends up criticizing the student's grammar, thus focusing a wide range of kinds of dissatisfaction on the single most salient issue.

If, upon receiving a graded paper back from this teacher, the student sees a low mark and a paper marked up with grammatical correction, what are the chances that the student blames the grammar for the grade? Or believes that his/her single most severe problem is with the grammar? I'd say that there's a tendency here to overrate the editing, a tendency that could be played out over a string of teachers and a number of years.

You'll notice, by the way, that my grammar isn't perfect. Remember, I've retired, and while I'd like to share my shrewd observations before my mind turns to mush, I no longer hold myself to the strict standards I held for myself at the peak of my career. This, after all, is a blog. Take it or leave it. It's me,

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At 2:16 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great post, made me feel I´m not completely crazy. I´m sharing this with colleagues.


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