YONGSHUN, HUNAN — I have participated in who-knows how many teacher workshops, training sessions and in-service days during 25 years of teaching. Last week, I approached the task from a new angle — as an in-service teacher — and it went better than I expected.
Several weeks ago, my foreign affairs officer, Cyril, asked me if I was going to be around during the summer. The Xiangxi Prefecture foreign experts bureau (the people who hand out our teaching licenses) was organizing a one-week oral English workshop for local middle school teachers. The job actually sounded like fun, although the pay was also decent, so I agreed to do it.
I was joined by Michael, an American teaching in the Foreign Language College in Zhangjiajie. Our duties were to teach pronunciation and intonation, useful expressions, and the differences between American and British English. Michael took the expressions assignment, and I did the nitty-gritty pronunciation/intonation tasks.
Our students were 37 teachers from Yongshun, Huayuan, Luxi, Baojing, Fenghuang and Jishou — all counties or cities in the Xiangxi Tujia and Miao Autonomous Prefecture. Most were between the ages of 24 and 40 and, I am happy to report, had really good English speaking skills already.
Having sat through endless training sessions where the trainers read Powerpoint slides to us and talked in pointless generalities, and having enjoyed fruitful and well planned workshops where we actually learned shit, my aim as a leader was to focus on the practical side. After all, I am now an English teacher, too, and I know what I wish my students had learned before they come to university.
[It is a sad fact that some teachers tapped to be workshop or in-service leaders do a crappy job of teaching teachers. I have no clue why or how such people end up as invited speakers or trainers, unless it’s the Peter Principle at work. I was determined not to be one of them, in any event.]
As part of my own self-training, I came across a book by Ann Cook, American Accent Training. Cook’s premise is that American speech patterns are like jazz — Americans have a distinct jazzy rhythmic and tonal quality to our speech. She promotes the idea that a second language (L2) learner has to capture this tonal quality to improve his or her oral English. Pronunciation (making the vowels and consonants sound right) is only one part of the equation.
To be sure, some of my students have really bad pronunciation, and not just of the problem sounds like th, r, l and the oo in foot or /ae/ in cat. Their tongues just don’t move around quick enough to reproduce the sounds (ok, ok, phonemes) of English. But most of them have intonation that is either very Chinese (a tone on each word and a very constant rhythm), completely atonal, or slightly random. I had spent the last term working with my sophomores on their intonation for these reasons. It was their last chance to have oral English classes.
I’m going to put my Powerpoint slides online later, but here’s a few highlights for folks without a burning interest in teaching oral English.
- There are about 20 vowel phonemes in British English (Received Pronunciation — BBC speak), largely because Brits don’t pronounce r’s at the end of syllables or words, as in “nurse” or “mother.” American English has about 14 vowels, depending on whether you use Cook’s West Coast American English or my Mid-Atlantic English (does your “cot” rhyme with “caught” or “thought” — if it doesn’t, you’re probably from the East).
- Brits and Americans pronounce all the consonants identically, except for final /r/ of course.
- However, Americans turn /t/ in the middle of words into a soft /d/ sound, which runs contrary to every English pronunciation guide in China. We Yanks don’t say “Betty bought a bit of bitter butter” with very precise and proper t’s. We say “Beddy boughda bidda bidder butter.” Imagine you’re an L2 learner hearing that sentence for the first time — “What did he say?”
- Some Chinese have trouble distinguishing between /l/ and /n/, even in Mandarin, because the tongue is in almnost the same place. Likewise, some confuse /h/ and /f/, and /v/ and /w/, for similar dialect reasons.
- The American /r/ is really hard to teach. So is the zh sound, as in measure.
- English is stress-timed. Stressed syllables stand out and are spoken at a regular rhythm, while unstressed syllables are said quickly to maintain the rhythm. To use an example from Cook, “How are you?” has the rhythm “dada dum” (like 8th note 8th note quarter note, if you’re musically inclined). Chinese is not stress-timed, so speaking Engish with a strong Chinese rhythm sounds staccato, like a machine gun firing.
- Our students were eager learners. They don’t get many chances to speak English with native speakers, or anyone else, really, in our part of the boondocks.
I had so much to teach in my first sessions that I went too long. No one bothered to tell me we should take an hourly break. Oops. I also lectured more than I wanted to. We had only two days scheduled for lectures, so I packed a lot of information in. Maybe too much, as some teachers admitted they needed to review my presentation to understand all of it.
So, I guess I can forgive some of my previous in-service leaders for their errors. But not the ones who read their Powerpoint slides verbatim. Those people deserve their own circle in Hell for the pain and suffering their delivery inflicts on their audiences. I don’t plan to join them.