For the last couple of years I’ve been teaching the Unknown Language component of the Trinity TESOL certificate course.

This basically entails teaching four hours of a new language to the trainees in the initial stage of their course to give them a taste of what it feels like to be in a language classroom. I teach Welsh. I don’t use any published materials for the class. I have a few flashcards and simple worksheets and I have a fairly clear mini syllabus. The contents are not negotiated. It isn’t a real course after all, it’s more a chance to display a range of activity types and interaction patterns. What the trainees actually learn from a language point of view is pretty much irrelevant. In order to give the lessons a shape I work towards a final speaking task – a chat-up scene in a pub – as an accumulation of the four hours.

This experience has really helped in the first few lessons with my new class and I’ve noticed I’ve transferred quite a few basic skills. One of the things I really emphasise in the Welsh classes is the sound and the sounds of the language. To a lot of trainees it’s completely alien. They may never have heard it before. (If you've never heard it either, you can check it out here if you want). It has a reputation of being unpronounceable. Once we’ve got over the initial niceties (Hello, how are you? What’s your name? Pleased to meet you) I use Welsh names (Dafydd, Ffion, Llew, Llinos etc) as a way to introduce some of the more difficult consonant sounds and the basic sound/spelling rules. The great thing about names is that you can concentrate on the sound without worrying about meaning. The only task I set is for them to listen to the names and guess whether they are male or female. And they feed nicely into further practice of the basics of introductions.

With a recent English A1.1 class I did something very similar and it was only later that I realized that I’d brought it over from my Welsh classes. English, of course, is not an alien language to people in the south of Spain. They may not speak or understand it, but they know what it sounds like (see the short film Skwerl on what English sounds like to non-English speakers). But pronunciation is still an issue – in fact more of an issue, because instead of introducing something that’s completely new and fresh with no (or hardly any) preconceptions, there are a lot of ingrained (fossilized possibly?) attitudes to how English words are sounded. So in this case rather than supplying the names myself, I asked the class to supply the names. They were clichéd and classic (John, Mary, Arthur, Elizabeth) but gave a lot of scope for looking close-up at some problematic sounds for Spanish speakers: the /d3/ sound in John – being able to point out this sound-spelling relationship and contrast it with the sound-spelling relationship in Spanish (where a J is aspirated rather like an h) set up a great short cut for corrections later on; the /z/ sound in Elizabeth and Liz and Lizzy -in fact Elizabeth was a real gift –there’s the /b/ sound, the schwa, the final th – all problem sounds for Spanish speakers, and being able to isolate them in the names was great. The names were familiar and we hammed up making them sound as English as possible. We threw the names in a bag and they fed back into the practice of the basic language of greetings and introductions that had kicked off our first lesson.

I don’t think I’ve ever given so much attention and importance to sounds in a first lesson before – this is definitely something I’ve developed since teaching Welsh. Some of the names from that lesson have carried over from lesson to lesson and become virtual members of our class. My focus on pronunciation has focused the class’s attention too and there’s a lot of “how do you say that?” being used in the classes.

Other ways I've experimented with of looking at sounds and the "voice" of a language include:

  1. Looking at how English speakers "mangle" the pronunciation of L1 names (including place names).
  2. Contrasting the pronunciation of international/borrowed words in L1 and English (e.g. tennis, spaghetti, karate)
  3. Contrasting the pronunciation of brand names in L1 and English (e.g. Pink Lady apples, Adidas or J&B)

Maybe you have some more to add to the list?

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