In the world of online language learning, have you come across the field of « accent reduction » and « accent reduction trainers »? When I see this I’m concerned about false advertising on the one hand and false hopes on the other. The notion of « accent » is extremely subjective. Most of the English learners I spend time with have what many might consider a « French » accent, but although there are some common features in the sounds of their speech, there are as many « French » accents as there are students. Which « French » accent are we referring to? Furthermore, is it necessarily a « bad » thing to have French-sounding English (or German, Chinese, Hispanic…)? A French accent may grate on the ears of another French English-speaker, but to native English speakers it can sound exotic and sophisticated.
Rather than talking about « accent » it is more helpful to distinguish between clear and unclear pronunciation. Often it is not « accent reduction » that is required, but rather training in how to produce sounds that do not occur in the learner’s L1 (native language) and how to speak with English-sounding intonation. The latter is certainly more difficult to achieve.
Taking the example of French learners (the example I know best), it is not usually mistakes in pronunciation that hinders communication, but rather unusual intonation. French and English intonation are very different, and I find this one of the hardest areas in which to help learners. French speech is timed by its syllables – every syllable has the same value (think machine gun). English, rather, is timed by stress: the rhythm of words is determined by the stressed syllable, and the rhythm of a sentence by the words that are emphasised (think Morse code). Native English speakers are good at adapting to non-standard pronunciation because of the huge variety in world English. But we are not so good at adapting to differences in intonation. Try saying an English sentence giving every syllable the same value and not stressing any particular words. The result is likely to be unintelligible.
This is where shadow-reading comes in as a useful technique for intonation and pronunciation training. Not every learner catches on to the value of this immediately as it seems counter-intuitive, but once you « get » it, it’s almost guaranteed to improve your speaking if it is done regularly.
Prerequisite: learners need to be good at sourcing audio material on the Internet on subjects that interest them, downloading podcasts, and need to have regular listening integrated into their language-learning programme. This is a must for students anyway, and the possibilities are endless. To get you started:
Talk About English (BBC Learning English)
Audio material with transcripts works best, and monologues (talks, reports etc.) work better than dialogues (conversations, interviews etc.). The speech should be somewhat slower than normal conversational speed, but not unnaturally slow.
The lower the level, the more assistance the learner will need to source appropriate materials. It is not essential that the learner master all the vocabulary in the material, however, the more they understand, the more motivating the activity.
There are two ways of approaching shadow-reading.
1. Listen to the material once or twice to understand the gist of the article.
2. Listen again and this time try to highlight or underline the stressed words in each sentence, and any pronunciation that is unexpected.
3. Play again and this time read along with the speaker, trying as much as possible to mimic their intonation.
4. Finally, practice reading the text aloud without the audio. Ask a trainer for comments if you have one available.
5. (Optional) Record your reading of the text using Audacity. As a follow up activity you can then listen to your own voice, and then the original audio, and note any differences you hear.
Without script (for more advanced learners).
1. Listen to the material once or twice to understand the gist of the article.
2. Replay the audio and this time, speaking aloud, try to « shadow » the speech by repeating what is said immediately after you hear it, trying to mimic the speaker’s intonation.
3. Repeat the activity until you can shadow the whole article without missing words (you may need to check the script for any unknown words).
4. (Optional). You can easily turn this into a writing or speaking activity. After you have listened a few times, rewrite the speech in your own words according to what you remember, OR practice giving the speech in your own words without any support from the text. This can be recorded using Audacity, and played back to your teacher/trainer or a native speaker for comments.
These activities don’t have to be done with a trainer (doing myself out of a job here!) However, one disadvantage of doing it alone is that we don’t always notice our own pronunciation or intonation errors, especially if they are bad habits that we have developed over time. Live online language training gives you this opportunity, in your own time, and without having to leave your home. Contact us for more details.
One of the problems using the Internet to improve language learning is « where do you start? » You can easily be overwhelmed with the number of language-learning tools and sites available.
Google has a number of tools that can help you get just the information you need for second language learning, and we will be posting some ideas of how to set up these tools to help your language learning.
I use Google Reader as a web page that I can personalise to bring the specific information I need for teaching and language-learning directly to me, without having to surf the web to look for it.
Let’s say you are a business English student trying to improve your language skills to get a better job. The first thing to do is to create your own Google Reader site. If you don’t have a Google account you will need to create one.
You have probably seen a little orange icon on many websites, often accompanied with the label ‘RSS’ which stands for ‘real simple syndication’ but you don’t need to know that (unless you want to impress someone in Trivial Pursuit!). This is the link that will allow you to subscribe to the content of a website or blog in an ‘rss feed reader’ such as Google Reader. The ‘feed’ is simply a data format used to provide users with content that is frequently updated.
Try it out with this blog. Click on the « subscribe » tab above and see what happens. You should land on a page that looks something like this. You can see that Google Reader is not the only option, so experiment to find one that suits you best. They all function in similar ways. If you select Google, it will return you to your Google Reader page, and Englishonthe.net should appear in your list of subscriptions:
What tends to happen with a feedreader is that it gets so filled up with subscriptions that information overload soon sets in. One way to avoid this is to organise your subscriptions into folders. As you study Business English you may discover some great podcast sites to help you with listening comprehension. A good example is Business English Pod. You could just bookmark the site for future reference, but then you have to check the site regularly to make sure you don’t miss any good new content, and this is time-consuming. So, subscribe to the feed in Google Reader following the instructions above. You can organise your study time better by separating your subscriptions into folders. You do this by selecting « manage subscriptions » at the bottom of your list of subscriptions. The following screen should apear :
Selecting « Change folders » will enable you to create an appropriate folder for your different feeds. For Business English Pod you may choose the title « Podcasts ». Select categories that correspond to your learning needs, and use them to organise a powerful weekly study programme, where you can select different areas to focus on each day (listening, reading, grammar, writing, vocabulary etc.)
In the next post in this series we will look at how to use Google News to improve your reading skills and increase your vocabulary.
Subscribe to Englishonthe.net for more updates on more language learning strategies with Google tools.
For fun listening exercise, you could also watch this subtitled video entitled RSS in Plain English.
Most of the information I think I might need or want to keep either gets thrown in my Evernote « drawer », or subscribed to in Google Reader, but the reality is that there are few sites that I read in detail. I said in a recent post that I don’t save bookmarks to my browser any more because there are too many to manage, but that’s not quite true. The few sites that I know I will want to refer to regularly and read in detail have the honour of being saved to my Firefox bookmarks.
Openculture is one of them.
Open Culture explores cultural and educational media (podcasts, videos, online courses, online books etc.) that’s freely available on the web, and that makes learning dynamic, productive, and fun.
This site is all about learning. It is a labour of love that provides links to audio, video and text resources in English for no cost other than the time you invest to study them. Rather than having to Google these resources separately, Openculture conveniently groups them together in one place. Most of the material is appropriate for listening and reading comprehension practice for higher level (B2 +) students of English. Here are just a few of the possibilities.
In the free audio books section you can download great online books from a variety of sources (Librivox, iTunes…), and in different formats (mp3, m4p…) Although some of the works are downloaded whole, many are formatted into chapters for easier handling. The books are categorised into fiction and literature (Jane Austen’s Emma, The Wizard of Oz, Canterbury Tales, Great Expectations …) non fiction (Aristotle, Descartes, Roosevelt …), poetry (Blake, Coleridge, Tennyson…) plus links to a number of specialist audio-book sites.
There are free online university courses and lectures in fields as diverse as archaeology, economics, geography, history and literature.
Language-learning has its own section, with courses in 34 different languages, including English and French. There is also general material on language learning skills.
If you have spent any time on YouTube, you have discovered that there is a lot of junk in online video land. However, Openculture provides links to a variety of « intelligent video collections« , touching on a large range of general subjects, as well as university collections.
Podcast collections include ideas, books and writing, film, music and museums, news and current affairs, science, travel, technology.
If you prefer reading to listening, the « life-changing books » section will give you some ideas, although these online books are for purchase, not free download. If you were hoping for a free book, you can click through to a number of free fiction and non-fiction e-books, which, while not life-changing, will no doubt give you food for thought.
There are also links to a huge number of culture-related blogs.
Most days the Openculture blog has articles featuring new content which is a must for the feedreader.
You could spend hours just looking through it all. As for me I’m working my way through a list of 15 free Spanish courses on the foreign languages page.
What are you going to start with? So much free learning to be had! For some specific ideas on using Open Culture resources for language learning, try the following:
Newspapers aren’t dead – yet – how to use a pdf version of front page news for tried and true newspaper activities for language learners.