Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Speech is Silver, Singing is Gold

In my previous (and first) post, I pointed out how a Scottish singer's heavy accent changes radically while singing. My intention was to find out if this accent change was a conscious choice or if it was really difficult to sing with a strong accent. In that post, I also included a study supporting the idea that you can actually sing your accent away. Related to these findings, I also asked whether this would have implications in the classroom when teaching pronunciation, keeping in mind that it might be easier to adopt a more "standard" accent when singing. In the comments, Matt Ledding wrote that he uses a three step process when teaching pronunciation.

The pattern that Matt normally uses is:
  1. singing the rhythm and intonation without the sounds
  2. singing just the vowels
  3. singing the sentence
About this procedure he says:
"Doing that makes it easier to focus on the sounds and I generally perceive a noticeable difference, especially with fossilized sounds, with many students."
 As a result, he wanted "to test his own pattern of practicing pronunciation from an absolute beginner autonomous learner point of view". He took one Turkish sentence from a dialogue and the outcome was this:

I have to say that I admire Matt's patience. He tried a lot and says that he spent 20 minutes repeating "(mis) perceived Turkish sounds" and consequently fossilizing errors.  I can say that there is some kind of a progress through the process, however, all native speakers of Turkish would agree that the outcome is not intelligible (when listened to as an isolated sentence).

So, since my take on the issue was that singing would make it easier to learn the pronunciation of words, I suggested he try a Turkish song to see if this time his pronunciation would improve and become more intelligible. I suggested a song by a famous Turkish pop band called MFÖ. The title of the song is 'Benim Hala Umudum Var", which means "I Still Got Hope". This is what happened:

What happened this time is really surprising. The outcome is something like a miracle for someone who is a complete beginner in Turkish. All words are pronounced correctly, with a little touch of a "foreign accent", but are totally intelligible to a native Turkish speaker. Matt says that he listened to it, paused to write down what he heard (why did he hear differently this time?) and recorded it once (only once!). Even when he speaks the lyrics as a sentence, they are clearly understood by a native Turkish speaker. 

What can we conclude from this experiment? Will the results be the same with other languages and other people? Is there anyone out there who would like to try? It doesn't have to be a Turkish song. You can try with other languages as well but I need volunteers who can recommend short bits of speech in a language and then songs in the same language so that we can compare the results and maybe rate their pronunciation as well.

Turkish native speakers out there, how would you rate Matt's two performances?

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Can You Sing That For Me, Please?

It has been a while since I have written a post and this is going to be my first post in this blog. My other blog (Te@ch me Tech) mainly consists of tutorials and tech tips, however, in this one, I want to write more about ELT and other issues that occupy my fragile mind. I haven't had the chance to write about IATEFL Glasgow and now I think it is about time. Glasgow was 5 days of conferencing mayhem and I think it was the ultimate ELT event. I will not talk about what I saw at the conference (there is plenty of content here), however, I want to write about my experience as an English teacher in an "English Speaking" country.  Before Glasgow, I had never been in an English Speaking country and honestly speaking, I was happy to know that finally, after travelling in many European countries, I wouldn't have to ask people if they spoke English (and trust me, speaking English to the natives in many European countries is still a problem).  Well, Glasgow did not turn out the way I imagined! In Glasgow, people are speaking a variation of English. I thought I was good in understanding accents (I have watched all Guy Ritchie movies and Trainspotting  many many times), but,  I failed. It took me a while to understand the taxi drivers' questions "Whaur ur ye frae?" or "Ur ye also gonnae th' leid conference?". And questions like "Whit woods ye loch tae bevvy loove?" at pubsAfter a while, I got embarrassed about repeating "sorrys?" and "come agains?". Once again, it felt like I was in a non-English speaking country.

All of this reminded me of the Scottish Rock/Blues/Country (?!) band Texas and their lead singer Sharleen Spiteri. When I was a student at the university, I used to listen to them. They were a nice blend of pop and rock and this is what I would hear (and still hear)You don't have to listen to all of it, the first minute will do:

Everything is alright, isn't it? You can understand almost all the lyrics  "and when I get that feeling, I can no longer run, I can no longer hide, no no no" and so on (here it gets too romantic for me!). However, now I want you to watch and listen to THIS (first 2 minutes will do):

What is going on here? What happened to that sweet ENGLISH singing Sharleen? (noticed how she pronounces "Texas"??). What's more, I think  at one point, even one of the hosts looks like he is concentrating really really hard to understand what she is saying. 

Is there an explanation to this phenomenon? There are many. One might be that the singer is intentionally adopting a 'clearer' accent so that people will understand what she is singing about. Another 'outrageous' explanation is that one simply cannot sing in a Scottish accent! A quick search on Google shows that the patterns of an accent in speech cannot be retained in singing (great explanation here) If that is the case, would I have been luckier if I had asked the drivers and bartenders to sing to me?

How about using singing in the classroom to help students of English lose their foreign accents or work on their pronunciation accuracy? One study suggests that this is possible. In a study called "Singing your accent away, and why it works", Hagen, Kerkhoff & Gussenhoven (from the Centre for Language Studies, Radboud University Nijmegen, the Netherlands; Queen Mary University of London, UK) have shown that it is possible to lose your foreign accent when you sing. They made eleven Dutch secondary school children sing and speak the lyrics of a number of popular English songs. At the end of the study, their pronunciation accuracy was rated significantly higher by  English native speakers.  

I haven't had the chance to try this in the classroom since I am teaching MBA students and singing at that age requires a certain degree of self-confidence, but I wonder if anyone out there has tried this in the classroom? Do you think it would help? What kind of an activity would you use?

Hagen, M., Kerkhoff, J. &  Gussenhoven, C. (2011) 'Singing your accent away and why it works' ICPhS XVII, 799-802