I SINK YOU’RE LIGHT

2011年11月、私は「全国中学高校教員による英語弁論大会」に出場し、 “I SINK YOU’RE LIGHT” と題して、発音の大切さを訴えた。以下はそのスクリプトである。

“I sink you’re light.” More than half of my students say this when they want to agree with me. They don’t mean to say, “I go down below the surface of the water, but you float because you aren’t heavy.” Japanese people are notoriously unable to pronounce the dental fricatives, namely the [th]-sounds, and distinguish the alveolar lateral from the retroflex, in short, [l] from [r]. My students are no exception. As a result, some of them are reluctant to speak English in front of others. Particularly, those in their late adolescence tend to be too self-conscious and shy to speak up. With their affective filters so high, they’d rather say nothing than risk embarrassment. Perhaps, they too will become typical Japanese ‘wallflowers’ at international gatherings. To improve this situation, I have tried various strategies to encourage my students to read aloud. In my class I ask my students to repeat after me instead of after recorded materials because they read with more spirit when they read with me. Also, I make it a rule to praise my students every time I notice even a slight improvement in their pronunciation. This is probably what most English teachers do in their classes. One other thing I have been practicing these past few years is what I call a “Reading-Aloud Test.” Let me explain what I do. Two weeks before every mid-term and final exam, I choose a sentence or a passage for my students to practice. For example, one I use for my seventh-graders is: My phone number is 345-7891, which contains a dental fricative, labio-dentals, and nasal-vowel liaisons. Another example is the first stanza of Robert Frost’s “Stopping By Woods On a Snowy Evening.” In addition to its renowned beauty and profundity, I tell my students to pay attention to the first line that goes: Whose woods these are I think I know, because many students have difficulty pronouncing the [hu:]- and [wu]- sounds of the first two words. To remedy this, I advise my students to practice it until they can say it naturally. On exam day, I write the sentence or passage on the board in large letters and record my students’ readings. They listen attentively to their peers while getting ready for their turn. After that, I always have the students listen to their recorded performances. When they hear their own voices, they get excited and embarrassed, but they never fail to say, “Please let us try again!” And I never fail to allow them to try again. This is a really fun activity and my students love it, partly because they are curious to listen to recordings of themselves and their peers, and partly because I give them better scores on this test. Here’s the trick. By giving my students higher scores on the Reading-Aloud Test than on the written test, I can push them to be more confident in themselves. More often than not, I’ve encountered negative opinions or “so-what” attitudes among Japanese teachers of English toward teaching pronunciation. Some of them might argue that no one is free from first language interference, which I admit is true. I, for one, am a living example of it. And then there’s the scary second language acquisition theory called the critical period hypothesis, which formidably discourages late starters’ efforts. Others might insist that, even without specific pronunciation teaching, many students sooner or later acquire serviceable pronunciation in the course of their studies, and as long as their pronunciation is intelligible enough, they can communicate. All of these arguments are plausible and I’m not dismissive of their importance. However, I have seen that those students who develop confidence in pronunciation start to improve other skills such as reading and writing. Teaching pronunciation is nothing to be made light of. On the contrary, it can make a tremendous difference. By helping your students acquire better pronunciation, you can motivate them to like English more. It may well improve your students’ holistic attitudes toward their school lives, and eventually I hope more and more students will be able to say with confidence, “I think I’m right.”

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