Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Pronunciation Tools

If you have wondered where you can practice pronunciation and get some sort of feedback without paying for a tutor, there IS a site for you.  It's called English Central.   It is free to sign up.  Then you will have access to lots of materials for practicing individual sounds.  In addition, this site has numerous videos with scripts.  The nice thing about the site is that you can choose your topic and speaker, watch the video, and read the script while you're listening to the speaker.  Finally, you can synchronize your computer's microphone with the site and record yourself. When you record yourself saying exactly the same speech as the speaker in the video, you get feedback that shows how close your speech comes to matching the speaker's.  To get the highest score, reproduction of intonation, stress patterns, and the speed of delivery are important.  It's fun and easy to do.  I encourage you to try it out.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

What's a good sentence?

Without a doubt, teaching writing at any level in any language is challenging.  A primary reason for the difficulty is that most students want to SPEAK (not "write") English.  The students that I've encountered over the years find writing a pain in the.... neck but a necessary pain to get admission into a university program or a high score on a language exam (e.g., iBT TOEFL, IELTS, FCE/CAE/CPE).

With low-intermediate-level students, my job is to get them to write and control different kinds of sentence structures (simple, compound, and complex) and to organize those into one well-organized, coherent paragraph.  I've examined many ESL textbooks on writing, hoping that one of them contains another way to look at what I do.  Thus, I was pleased to run across an article in Slate about "How to Write a Good Sentence."

Having grown up with W. Strunk, Jr. and E. B. White's Elements of Style as the last word on good sentence structure and not liked what it did to my creative side and love of the sound of words, I enjoyed having someone put the latter little tome into a historical perspective.  I felt less burdened recently telling my students that "Rewriting means rethinking."

Even if I don't offer them an alternative word, I encourage them to always make an effort to use more colorful language or more varied structures in their writing.  I ask them to avoid the two-cent words (good, bad, thing...) and to use some five dollar words (extraordinary, disgusting, item...).  Alternate a short simple sentence with a ten-word complex sentence.  Read the sentence aloud.  How does it sound? Language evolved as a spoken means of communication - later people created the symbols for words.  Writing does connect to speech - but this is what Strunk and White forgot to stress in their guide.  Language is spoken.  To get good at writing (and speaking) - to be eloquent, you should be encouraged to be more than sparing - especially in the beginning.  Have fun expressing yourself!

Saturday, April 7, 2012

English is NOT enough

Although my profession as an English language instructor is being sustained by millions of people who want to learn English, we native English speakers are becoming the minority.  That is, since there isn't a lot of pressure here in the USA to learn a second language, we don't.  However, there is lots of evidence from brain-based learning research suggesting that being multilingual is a brain enhancement.  In addition, economic reports forecasting the job markets of the future say that bilingualism is better than monolingualism.

What does this mean?  It means that people who speak only English may be the dinosaurs of the future. In a recent article in Language Magazine, Kristal Bivona discusses the rise in importance of Portuguese as Brazil becomes an important economic force in the Western Hemisphere. Other reports suggest that Spanish is the language of the future.  If you see China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong as markets to tap into, then Chinese, despite its daunting script and vocal tones, is a language worth learning. Not only that, we have to consider which Chinese to learn - Cantonese or Mandarin.

While Americans are opening up to China, some don't like the idea that schools in the USA are accepting funds from the Chinese government to teach Mandarin.  Despite NCLB policy that is supposed to raise the standard of education in this country, funding for education seems to be a low priority in most city and state budgets.  I guess the Chinese see a long-term benefit to teaching young Americans their language.  Those parents who aren't worried about some hidden agenda of a foreign power may find that their children who learn Mandarin Chinese will have a distinct advantage over their monolingual age-mates when they are old enough to enter the job markets in their 20's.

If only my ESL students could understand that they're actually in a great position relative to most of their instructors because English is their SECOND language.  They've got two languages to our ONE.