Friday, October 20, 2017

Bedside manner in (pronunciation) teaching: the BATHE protocol
Sometime the doctor-patient metaphor does work in our work!

Recovering from recent surgery here at home, and especially recalling the wonderful way that I was treated and prepared prior to the operation by the nurse in pre-op, this study, "Inpatient satisfaction improved by five-minute intervention," summarized by Augusta Free Press, published originally in Family Medicine by Pace, Somerville, Enyioha, Allen, J, Lemon and C. Allen of the University of Virginia really hit home, both as an interpersonal framework for dealing with problems in general and (naturally) pronunciation teaching!

The research looked at the effectiveness of a training system for preparing doctors better for talking with patients, bedside manner. In summary, patient satisfaction went up substantially, and time spent per patient generally went down. The acronym for the protocol is BATHE. Below is my paraphrase of what constitutes each phase of the process:

B - Start with getting concise background information with patients
A - Help them talk about how they are feeling (affect)
T - Together, review the problem (trouble)
H - Discuss how the problem is being handled.
E - Confirm your understanding of the situation and how the patient is feeling (empathy).

That is a deceptively elegant protocol. Next time you have a student (or colleague) or friend approach you with a difficult problem, keep that in mind. That also translates beautifully into pronunciation work, especially where there is appropriate attention to the body (like in haptic work, of course!) Here is how the acronym plays out in our work:

B - Start with providing a concise explanation of the target, also eliciting from students what their understanding is of what you'll be working on.
A - Anchor the target sound in a way that learners get a good "felt sense" of it, i.e., awareness and control of the sensations in the vocal track and upper body
T - Together, talk through the "cash value" and functional load of the target and practice the target sound(s) in isolation and context. 
H - Discuss how the student may be handling the problem already, or could, and what you'll do together going forward, including homework and follow up in the classroom in the future.
E - Finally, go back to brief, active, "physical" review and anchoring of the sound, also providing some realistic guidance as to the process of integrating the sound or word into their active speaking, especially the role of consistent, systematic practice.

One remarkable feature of that system, other then the operationalized empathy, of course, is the way it creates a framework for staying focused on the problem and solution. How does that map on to your own "BATHE-side manner?"

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Empathy for strangers: better heard and not seen? (and other teachable moments)

The technique of closing one's eyes to concentrate has both everyday sense and empirical research support. For many, it is common practice in pronunciation and listening comprehension instruction. Several studies of the practice under various conditions have been reported here in the past. A nice 2017 study by Kraus of Yale University, Voice-only communication enhances empathic accuracy, examines the effect from several perspectives.
What the research establishes is that perception of the emotion encoded in the voice of a stranger is more accurately determined with eyes closed, as opposed to just looking at the video or watching the video with sound on. (Note: The researcher concedes in the conclusion that the same effect might not be as pronounced were one listening to the voice of someone we are familiar or intimate with, or were the same experiments to be carried out in some culture other than "North American".) In the study there is no unpacking of just which features of the strangers' speech are being attended to, whether linguistic or paralinguistic, the focus being:
 . . . paradoxically that understanding others’ mental states and emotions relies less on the amount of information provided, and more on the extent that people attend to the information being vocalized in interactions with others.
The targeted effect is statistically significant, well established. The question is, to paraphrase the philosopher Bertrand Russell, does this "difference that makes a difference make a difference?"--especially to language and pronunciation teaching?
How can we use that insight pedagogically? First, of course, is the question of how MUCH better will the closed eyes condition be in the classroom and even if it is initially, will it hold up with repeated listening to the voice sample or conversation? Second, in real life, when do we employ that strategy, either on purpose or by accident? Third, there was a time when radio or audio drama was a staple of popular media and instruction. In our contemporary visual media culture, as reflected in the previous blog post, the appeal of video/multimedia sources is near irresistible. But, maybe still worth resisting?
Especially with certain learners and classes, in classrooms where multi-sensory distraction is a real problem, I have over the years worked successfully with explicit control of visual/auditory attention in teaching listening comprehension and pronunciation. (It is prescribed in certain phases of hapic pronunciation teaching.) My sense is that the "stranger" study actually is tapping into comprehension of new material or ideas, not simply new people/relationships and emotion. Stranger things have happened, eh!
If this is a new concept to you in your teaching, close your eyes and visualize just how you could employ it next week. Start with little bits, for example when you have a spot in a passage of a listening exercise that is expressively very complex or intense. For many, it will be an eye opening experience, I promise!

Kraus, M. (2017). Voice-only communication enhances empathic accuracy, American Psychologist 72(6)344-654.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

The shibboleth of great pronunciation teaching: Body sync!

If there is a sine qua non of contemporary pronunciation teaching, in addition to the great story of the first recorded pronunciation test in history that we often use in teacher training, it is the use of mirroring (moving along with a spoken model on audio or video). If you are not familiar with the practice of mirroring, here are a few links to get you started by Meyers (PDF), Meyers (video) and Jones.

There are decades of practice and several studies showing that it works, seems to help improve suprasegmentals, attitudes and listening comprehension--among other things. There has always been a question, however, as to how and why. A new study by Morillon and Baillet of McGill University reported by not only suggests what is going on but also (I think) points to how to better work with a range of techniques related to mirroring in the classroom.

The study looked at the relationship between motor and speech perception centers of the brain. What it revealed was that by getting subjects to move (some part) of their bodies to the rhythm of what they were listening to, their ability to predict what sound would come next was enhanced substantially. Quoting from the ScienceDaily summary:

"One striking aspect of this discovery is that timed brain motor signaling anticipated the incoming tones of the target melody, even when participants remained completely still. Hand tapping to the beat of interest further improved performance, confirming the important role of motor activity in the accuracy of auditory perception."

The researchers go on to note that a good analogy is the experience of being in a very noisy cocktail party and trying focus in on the speech rhythm of someone you are listening to better understand what they are saying. (As one whose hearing is not what it used to be, due in part to just age and tinnitus, that strategy is one I'm sure I employ frequently.) You can do that, I assume, by either watching the body or facial movement or just syncing to rhythm of what you can hear.

As both Meyer and Jones note, with the development of visual/auditory technology and the availability to appropriate models on the web or in commercial materials, the feasibility of any student having the opportunity and tools to work with mirroring today has improved dramatically. Synchronized body movement is the basis of haptic pronunciation teaching. We have not done any systematic study of the subsequent impact of that training and practice on speech perception, but students often report that silently mirroring a video model helps them understand better. (Well, actually, we tell them that will happen!)

If you are new to mirrored body syncing in pronunciation teaching or in listening comprehension work, you should  try it, or at least dance along with us for a bit.

McGill University. (2017, October 5). Predicting when a sound will occur relies on the brain's motor system: Research shows how the brain's motor signals sharpen our ability to decipher complex sound flows. ScienceDaily. Retrieved October 6, 2017 from

Friday, September 29, 2017

The "Magpie Effect" in pronunciation teaching: what you see is (not necessarily) what you get!

Wow! I knew there had to be a term for flashy, beautiful visual aids in pronunciation teaching, and education in general, that may (best case) contribute very little, if anything to the process: the Magpie Effect.

One of the fundamental assumptions of materials design is that visual salience--what stands out due to design, color, placement, etc.--is key to uptake. In general, the claims are far stronger than that. Brighter colors, striking photos and engaging layouts are the stuff of advertising and marketing. Marketing research has long established the potential impact of all of those, in addition to seduction of the other senses.

A new study by Henderson and Hayes of UC Davis, “Meaning-based guidance of attention in scenes as revealed by meaning maps', as reported by, provides a striking alternative view into how visual processing and visual attention work. Quoting from the summary:

"Saliency is relatively easy to measure. You can map the amount of saliency in different areas of a picture by measuring relative contrast or brightness, for example. Henderson called this the “magpie theory” our attention is drawn to bright and shiny objects.“It becomes obvious, though, that it can’t be right,” he said, otherwise we would constantly be distracted."

What the Henderson and Hayes (2017) research suggests is that what we attend to in the visual field in front of us has more to do with the mental schema or map we bring to the experience than with the "bright and shiny" object there. Of course, that does not exclude being at least momentarily distracted by those features, or even more importantly the visual "clutter" undermining the connection to the learner's body or somatic experience of a sound or expression.

There have been literally dozens of blog posts here exploring the basic "competition" between visual and auditory modalities. Hint: Visual almost always trumps audio or haptic, except when audio and  haptic team up in some sense--as in haptic pronunciation teaching! The question is, if the impact of glitz and graphics may be a wash, or random at best, what do optimal "maps" in pronunciation teaching "look" like to the learner? The problem, in part, is in the way the question is stated, the visual metaphor itself: look.

Whenever I get stuck on a question of modalities in learning, I go back to Lessac (1967): Train the body first. Anchor sound in body movement and vocal resonance, and then use that mapping in connecting up words and speaking patterns in general. (If you are into mindfulness training, you get this!) The reference to the learner is always what it FEELS like in the entire body to pronounce a word or phrase, not it's visual/graphic representation or cognitive rationale or procedural protocol for doing it!

So, how can we describe the right map in pronunciation teaching? Gendlin's (1981) concept of "felt sense" probably captures it best, a combination of movement, touch and resonance generated by the sound, combined with cognitive insight/understanding of the process and place of the sound in the phonology of the L2. But always IN THAT ORDER, with that sense of priorities.The key is to be able to in effect "rate" or scale the intensity and boundaries of a sensation in the body, still a highly cognitive, conscious process. From there, the sensation can be recalled or moderated, or even associated to other concepts or symbols.

In other words, in pronunciation instruction the body is the territory; designated locations,  measured sensations and movements across it are the map that must be in place before words and meanngs are efficiently attached or reattached. Setting up the map still requires . . .  serious drill and practice. Once done, feel free to channel your "inner Magpie", glitz, color, song and dance!

Original source: 
“Meaning-based guidance of attention in scenes as revealed by meaning maps” by  Henderson. J. and Hayes, T.,  in Human Nature. Published online September 25 2017 doi:10.1038/s41562-017-0208-0

Monday, September 18, 2017

Killing Pronunciation 9: Reappraising negative attitudes toward pronunciation
 Maybe the most consistent finding of research on pronunciation teaching is that (at least from instructors who have yet to recover from structuralism, "communicative language teaching" or cognitive phonology) there are a lot of negatives associated with it (e.g., Baker, 2015 and many others). My approach has always been to stay calm and train teachers in how to do pronunciation well, figuring that success will eventually get them past all the noise out there.

I may have to reappraise that line of march, especially with my Chinese students. Maybe I could do more to attack those negative feelings and perceptions directly. But how?

New research by Wu, Guo, Tang, Shi, and Luo reported in Role of Creativity in the Effectiveness of Cognitive Reappraisal suggests a way to do just that: a little instructor-directed and controlled creativity, something I suspect that only a team from the Beijing Key Laboratory of Learning and Cognition, The Collaborative Innovation Center for Capital Education Development, Department of Psychology, Capital Normal University, Beijing, China and the Key Laboratory of Mental Health, Institute of Psychology, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing, China--could possibly pull off!

In essence, they confirmed that subjects recognized creativity as a potentially powerful antidote to negative emotions, something that has been established empirically for some time. What was fascinating, however, was that subjects negative feelings about the targeted video scenes could only be "affected" substantially by being led through creative exercises. In other words, they couldn't get past the negatives by doing something creative on their own, themselves, without help. Wow.

Instructor-conducted / creativity-driven / negative attitudes /  toward pronunciation teaching repair/reappraisal (INPRR pronounced: In-P-RR). What a concept! Well, actually, much of what passes for creativity training is instructor-centered, not designed to provide you with the tools but to guide you in thinking outside of the box so  you know what it feels like when it happens. I was really into that for a couple of decades in pronunciation teacher training, in fact. There are still those in the field, like Marsha Chan, who do that well, the "there are all kinds of really creative, fun things you can do when teaching  pronunciation" shtick. Working with kids, that plays well; with adults, on the whole I have always thought it is at best counter productive.  (The reasons for that have been developed on the blog extensively.)

However, I may have it wrong. But rather than training teacher trainees in creative techniques to use in the classroom, I should be doing creative activities with them that address their underlying negative feelings (fear, self doubt, etc.) directly. Some suggestions, most of which I have seen over the years at conferences or on the web. I'll get things started with a few that are research-based (and reported on the blog recently) and then you help by adding to the list your best INPR:
  • Have them list all those negative pronunciation-induced emotions on the top of cookies or in chocolate and eat them.
  • Lead them in doing your basic OEI switching technique to defuse the emotion if it is really strong. (Done with only one student at a time, in private, however.)
  • Have them talk about themselves fearing pronunciation in the 3rd person (See Gollum Speak)
  •  Lead them in coming up with a list of all the ways they might overcome such emotions and then have select students read out each expressively and dramatically in their heaviest L1 accent (I like that one!)
  • Have them share with each other in pairs their negative feelings toward pronunciation holding a hot beverage. That one is incredibly powerful.
  • Then have them report back to the class in pantomime, having the rest of the class guess what it is. 
  • You stand up in front of the class and begin listing verbally the unrealistic fears your students may have about pronunciation or those that they may have now but will be "gone" at the end of the course. Also have a list on the board of epithets appropriate for shouting down goofy ideas which the students produce after you state each, possibly accompanied by gesture. 
  • Come to class dressed as Sigmund Freud or your neighborhood therapist. Sit in a comfortable chair and answer their questions chewing on a pipe, suggesting hilariously funny solutions to their fears. (I sat in on one of those in Japan that was priceless and exceedingly effective, I think.)
  • Have a "Love me, love my accent day" in class where students intentionally speak with stereo-typically heavy accent. (Have seen that recommended a number of times.)
Your turn! I'll award a set of the v4.5 AHEPS DVDs to the contributor of the best one!

Retrieved September 18, 2017 from

Thursday, September 14, 2017

To thrive (but not arrive) in a second language: socio-cultural capital
Yesterday morning I met an immigrant Chinese cashier at a Korean supermarket who had been here for a couple of years.  In her early 30's, she seemed quite positive, fashionably sport-dressed and looked very fit--she had just signed up for Orangetheory, in fact. As we talked she struck me as somebody who at least at first glance is thriving in her new culture. She seemed an almost perfect fit to the first half of the profile just produced in a meta-analysis of what it means to "thrive" by Brown of the University of Portsmouth,, reported by Sciencedaily. Brown defines "thriving" as

" . . . an individual experiencing a sense of development, of getting better at something, and succeeding at mastering something"

The list of qualities of a "thriver" are: 
  • optimistic,
  • spiritual or religious,
  • motivated,
  • proactive,
  • someone who enjoys learning,
  • flexible,
  • adaptable,
  • socially competent,
  • believes in self/has self-esteem.
That's her; fits her to a tee, but her English, both her general competence and pronunciation had stalled about a year in. She was engaging, had a wide range of conversational strategies to draw on, but she was at times very difficult to understand, especially when she became animated, which was often. She was very conscious of that and had a reason: her dead-end job. She suddenly shifted into her cashier persona, running through some of the very limited repertoire of phrases she uses every day at work. Her pronunciation and grammar became nearly impeccable!

What a demonstration!

What she seems to lack for her English to improve substantially is socio-cultural capital, the opportunity and network of resources to grow and practice more advanced and sophisticated in her L2. 
Again, according to Brown, (quoting the Sciencedaily report) the thriver has:
    • opportunity
    • employer/family/other support
    • challenges and difficulties are at manageable level,
    • environment is calm
    • is given a high degree of autonomy
    • is trusted as competent.
    Being here alone, as a single woman in this cultural context she has virtually none of those. She did comment half in jest that joining the Orangetheory community and all the beautiful, cut gym rats might be the answer. She may be right. Being a fan of TheoryOrange, myself, I encouraged her. She promised to get back in touch with me after a few months. And I'll report back to you, too.

    Sunday, September 10, 2017

    Killing pronuciation 8: Unproductive goals and their "goalees!"
    The goal (of this) post is to at least partially relieve you of the burden of meeting many of your pronunciation teaching goals--and suggest a better way to reach them! Or at least "Clear-ify" them!

    How would you describe your students' personal goals in terms of their English pronunciation, or their L2 learning in general? What would they tell you? Where did they come from? Do they work? Do they make sense? How do you work with them? Are they clear? Are you clear? Good questions. More research needed . . .

     One of the apparent "problems" with pronunciation teaching we are told is unrealistic or "utopian" goals (Derwing, 2010). There is certainly some of that, to be sure.

    The actual problem, however, based on a new piece by James Clear, Forget About Setting Goals. Focus on This Instead: Continuous Improvement, may be the practice of (unproductive) goal setting in the first place. (If you, personally, have defective goals, that is a great piece for sorting things out. Clear is good, very good.) Clear's basic point: progress is generally best achieved by following a method, not by simply "keeping your eye on the prize", not by ad libbing your way along with exercises and practice decisions. Good advice, but how do we do that? What's the method?

    I am always interested in what pronunciation teaching books recommend to students and instructors regarding goals. Here is a typical example from Learning  English VOA News that really doesn't say much but is actually about half right (The sentence in italics!):

    "Start by setting a reasonable goal. Choose one or two sounds that are difficult for you to pronounce. Then, work to improve those sounds. When you have improved, study other sounds. Progress might be slow for you, but don't give up!" There is no clue there or on the website as to HOW you work or practice, but the idea that you commit to an ongoing process of improvement is what Clear is referring to. 

    That VOA prescription is still at least as helpful as the typical, high-level, intelligibility-centered goal approach:
    • "Aim for intelligibility, not accuracy"
    • "Model yourself on an articulate educated L2 speaker of English from your L1"
     Or the more entertaining accent reduction approach:
    What Clear is talking about, based on research in physical training, motivation and discipline development, is that what works is commitment to a method, in effect letting the method take over and (get ready!) . . . following it consistently. Hence, the conundrum in contemporary teaching, in general.

    On the one hand we want students to take responsibility and control over their learning; on the other, we want them to do what we know is best for them. Short of handing it off to the computer, which is on the horizon to be sure, what do you do? The answer is "clear", a method. Here is a little check list, based on Clear's general framework, of what that method should probably include. You don't need all the pieces but probably most of them, depending on your available "tool kit!"
    • Clear sense of what needs to be done.
    • Clear, relatively complete procedures for working on the problem sound/sound process, including recommended time-on-task instructions.
    • Clear feedback from something/body periodically
    • Clear guidelines for out-of class or independent practice and exploration
    • Clear reporting or journaling on work/progress.
    • Clear signs of progress becoming evident.  
    • Clear criteria as to when the goal is achieved.
    • Clear understanding and trust between the learner and the instructor.
    • And, of course, clear commitment to ongoing progress as "the goal", not just some unattainable model. 
    Are we clear on that? If not, ask your local haptician (instructor trained in haptic pronunciation teaching) or personal trainer at the gym about her method.

    Derwing, T. M. (2010). Utopian goals for pronunciation teaching. In J. Levis & K. LeVelle (Eds.), Proceedings of the 1st Pronunciation in Second Language Learning and Teaching Conference,

    Sunday, August 20, 2017

    Good listening (and pronunciation teaching) is in the EYE of the beholder (not just the ear)!
    Here is some research well worth gazing at and listening to by Pomper and Chait of University College London: The impact of visual gaze direction on auditory object tracking, summarized by

    In the study, subjects "sat facing three loudspeakers arranged in front of them in a darkened, soundproof room. They were instructed to follow sounds from one of the loudspeakers while ignoring sounds from the other two loudspeakers. . . . instructed to look away from the attended loudspeaker" in an aural comprehension task. What they found was that " . . . participants’ reaction times were slower when they were instructed to look away from the attended loudspeaker . . .  this was also accompanied by an increase in oscillatory neural activity . . .

     Look . .  I realize that the connection to (haptic) pronunciation teaching may not be immediately obvious, but it is potentially significant. For example, we know from several research studies (e.g., Molloy et al. 2015) that visual tends to override or "trump" audio--in "head to head" competition in the brain. In addition, auditory generally trumps kinesthetic, but the two together may override visual in some contexts. Touch seems to be able to complement the strength or impact of the other three or serve to unite them or integrate them in various ways. (See the two or three dozen earlier blog posts on those and related issues.)

    In this study, you have three competing auditory sources with the eyes tracking to one as opposed to the others. Being done in a dark room probably helped to mitigate the effect of other possible visual distraction. It is not uncommon at all for a student to chose to close her eyes when listening or look away from a speaker (a person, not an audio loudspeaker as in the study). So this is not about simply paying attention visually. It has more to do with eyes either being focused or NOT. 

    Had the researchers asked subjects to gaze at their navels--or any other specific object--the results might have been very different. In my view the study is not valid just on those grounds alone, but still interesting in that subjects' gaze was fixed at all.) Likewise, there should have been a control group that did the same protocols with the lights on, etc. In effect, to tell subjects to look away was equivalent to having them try to ignore the target sound and attend to it at the same time. No wonder there was " . . .  an increase in oscillatory neural activity"! Really!

    In other words, the EYEs have it--the ability to radically focus attention, in this case to sound, but to images as well. That is, in effect, the basis of most hypnosis and good public speaking, and well-established in brain research. In haptic pronunciation teaching, the pedagogical movement patterns by the instructor alone should capture the eyes of the students temporarily, linking back to earlier student experience or orientation to those patterns. 

    So try this: Have students fix their eyes on something reasonable or relevant, like a picture or neutral, like an area on the wall in front of them--and not look away--during a listening task. Their eyes should not wander, at least not much. Don't do it for a very long period of time , maybe 30 seconds, max at the start. You should explain to them this research so they understand why you are doing it. (As often as I hammer popular "Near-ol'-science", this is one case where I think the general findings of the research are useful and help to explain a very common sense experience.)

     I have been using some form of this technique for years; it is basic to haptic work except we do not specifically call attention to the eye tracking since the gestural work naturally accomplishes that to some degree. (If you have, too, let us know!)

    This is particularly effective if you work in a teaching environment that has a lot of ambient noise in the background. You can also, of course, add music or white noise to help cancel out competing noise or maybe even turn down the lights, too, as in the research. See what I mean?

    Good listening to you!

    UCL (2017, July 5). Gaze Direction Affects Sound Sensitivity. NeuroscienceNew. Retrieved July 5, 2017 from
    Molloy, K, Griffiths, D.,  Chait, Lavie, N. Inattentional Deafness: Visual Load Leads to Time-Specific Suppression of Auditory Evoked Responses. Journal of Neuroscience, 2015; 35 (49): 16046 DOI: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.2931-15.2015

    Sunday, August 13, 2017

    Motor-mouth language (and pronunciation): learning through "sleep napnia"

    "Give me a break!" (This is your brain talking after a hard day of learning.) One of the fundamental
    principles of hypnotherapy, and many similar frameworks, is that at critical points in the process, conscious attention to learning must be suspended. Unless it is, little or nothing will be retained or integrated. One of the ways we do that, of course, is sleep. (In hypnosis that is done very intentionally.)
    A fascinating "rat" study, summarized by Neuroscience News, “Neural reactivations during sleep determine network credit assignment” by Gulati, Guo, Ramanathan, Bodepudi and Ganguly of University of California - San Francisco, explored how the brain consolidates motor learning during sleep. Let me translate the conclusion hidden in that title for you. 

    They found that deep sleep was required for the brain to, in effect, sort out what was relevant and functionally important in learning a complex motor task, separating out and discarding all the false starts and exploratory moves required to finally get it "right." They could actually watch the motor area of the brain "playing" with the new pattern repeatedly in sleep. Upon waking, if the rats who were allowed to "sleep it through", their performance was correct. If the deep sleep activity was, in effect, injected with a little static that did not let the extraneous "moves" be backgrounded efficiently, the pattern was not readily available to the rat when conscious again. 

    Hope that long "unpack" did not put you to sleep! The research on the function and necessity of sleep for learning is long established. Here is one takeaway for pronunciation teaching, or the use of gesture in language teaching in general

    In our highly physical, "motorized" experiential work in haptic pronunciation teaching, we long ago recognized that learning how to use the pedagogical movement patterns (specifically created gestures tied to sound patterns) took time--and time off. In other words, you work on the movements for a few minutes and then set it aside, without even THINKING about mastery. That comes later, days later, pretty much without you even thinking about it. For the perfectionist and control freak, the haptic system can be quite a challenge initially.

    We can't require that students get a good night's sleep or even a nap occasionally. There is also probably no feasible way right now to research that, but the principle is important. At least efficient, simple motor learning requires sleep to sort things out. In addition, the learning experience has to be relatively free of extraneous static being encoded or absorbed along with it as it is happening.

    One of the primary contributions of touch in the haptic system is strong, temporary focusing of attention on the coordinated sound and gesture being learned. That should include enhanced body awareness and decluttering of the visual field. When the brain then works on the pattern that evening in the sack, it should have even a little less interference to play with and work through.

    Pronunciation, as motor-based as it is,  is certainly nothing to lose sleep over!

    Definitions of motor-mouth!

    "Napnia" (a neologism) defined: Taking a nap to learn in or by!

    Original source:
    UCSF (2017, August 11). Deep Sleep Reinforces the Learning of New Motor Skills. NeuroscienceNew. Retrieved August 11, 2017 from Sleep Reinforces the Learning of New Motor Skills/

    Monday, August 7, 2017

    Gollum Speak: Making language improvement less stressful by talking about me

    Bill is impressed with a new study by Moser et al at Michigan State University, reported by Science Daily, entitled Third-person self-talk facilitates emotion regulation without engaging cognitive control: Converging evidence from ERP and fMRI. In fact, he finds himself talking about himself thinking about it in the 3rd person constantly . . . He has even given it a name: Gollum Speak. If you are not a fan of Tolkien, you might want to go here, to get a sense of what that sounds like! One implication of the study is that you can use Gollum-like grammar to control emotion--without interfering with "cognitive" functioning. (Really?) The longer term effects of becoming gradually more "Gollum-like" by talking like that are not examined, however.

    Bill's local psychotherapist informs him that some form of that technique, making the patient temporarily distance themselves either verbally or visually is a long established trick in the field. Works well sometimes but should NOT be just tossed out as an option for those not supervised or not  up on how to "talk themselves out of it", too. In other words, do NOT try that at home!

    On the other hand, Gollum Speak used with language learners may have possibilities. It is, in effect, after all not all that far from role play and drama work, taking on not just the language of the character but the "voice" or perspective as well. Even in working metacognitively with learners on their progress or problems, being detached and "objective" has it merits--although that type of talk can easily devolve into deeper "Gollum": neurotic, uncontrolled self-reflection and . . . doubt. 

    Bill has tried a bit of that already and will do it again with a class in a couple of days. His current read on the use of Gollum in the classroom is that students so far have found it hysterically funny--and grammatically a great game-- but were also apparently able to talk with a little more ease about themselves, just as Moser et al would predict. See just how "Gollum-able" you and your students are!

    He looks forward to his follow up report--and yours!


    Michigan State University. (2017, July 26). Talking to yourself in the third person can help you control emotions. ScienceDaily. Retrieved August 7, 2017 from

    Thursday, July 27, 2017

    Killing pronunciation 7: Talking learners (and instructors) out of pronunciation change

    Credit: Anna Shaw
    How do you persuade students to work on their pronunciation--or sell them on it, especially pronunciation-related homework?  If you are using more "distal senses" such as sight and/or sound, according to a new study by Elder, Schlosser, Poor, Xu of Brigham Young University, summarized by Science Daily, you may not have the right approach. If, on the other "hand", your method evokes a more "proximal" sense experience (such as movement, touch and/or taste), you are probably on the right track. (I'm sure you can see where this is headed!)

    The BYU study dealt with the impact of advertising on what type of pitch and/sensory imagery seems to get you to make a commitment to buy sooner, rather than later. The actual journal title, So Close I Can Almost Sense It: The Interplay between Sensory Imagery and Psychological Distance, describes the research well. What they found, not surprisingly, is that imagery connecting to or evoking a "felt" somatic response from the body, in effect, draws you in faster, and more effectively.

    That does not mean that you DO something physical, only that the imagery on a screen in this case, may get the customer or learner's brain to respond AS IF actual touch or taste was involved, generating a very real feeling or taste-related memory. That mirroring effect, in part entertained by "mirror neurons" in the brain, is well established in brain research. To the brain under most circumstances the distinction between how we feel when we observe and do can be minimal. Turns out our metaphors are more than metaphors, in other words.

    Some of the variability here may have to do with our personal instructional style in bringing learners' attention to, in this case, what they need to do outside of class. How do you do that? A list somewhere in the syllabus? An oral announcement? Something written on the board? A brief oral run through of what is to be done? A brief rehearsal w/students of what is to be done? What is very important here is not the actual classroom activity but the imagery that it evokes. And the key to that is what prior schema the classroom event is linking back to--and how, in the moment, it is delivered and experienced.

    Pronunciation instruction done right is both an exceedingly physical and meta-cognitive process. What haptic work attempts to do is achieve that balance consistently. There are other ways to do that, of course, but most student textbooks, for example, either don't or can't, in part because the activities are presented and taught in a purely linear fashion. Haptic is ALWAYS simultaneous--sound, movement, and cognition (haptic) engagement, in effect, communicating more intentionally with learners in pronunciation change in and with somatic (body-based) imagery.

    Still not sold? Try rereading the blog in the hot tub or on an exercise ball . . .

    Full citation from
    Brigham Young University. (2017, June 28). Now or later: How taste and sound affect when you buy: The way ads play on our senses influences the timing of our purchases. ScienceDaily. Retrieved July 23, 2017 from

    Thursday, July 20, 2017

    Students' pronunciation bad? It's important but not your fault!

    Hot off the presses. Large scale study relating to what teachers think about teaching "pronunciation".
    (The blog post was actually inspired by a comment from a neighborhood ESL practitioner recently.) Some conclusions, summarized by Science Daily:
    •  . . . it's important that students have strong PRONUNCIATION skills, and they (teachers) have a role to play in fostering them.
    • PRONUNCIATION learning supports need to be personalized to meet students' different needs. A formulaic approach may not benefit all students.
    • . . . many educators do not have support or know how to allocate time to helping students develop PRONUNCIATION skills
    • Professional development and resources for PRONUNCIATION learning should be available to educators who will be responsible for teaching these skills
    • Many factors outside the school's control influence students' PRONUNCIATION learning, and it is not clear which interventions have the greatest impact on students. Thus, schools and teachers should not be penalized for factors outside their control.
    • (Paraphrasing here) Teachers should not be judged or evaluated based on their students' PRONUNCIATION.
    I lied, sort of. Those conclusions come from a large study of emotional intelligence work in public schools in the US. I just substituted in PRONUNCIATION for SOCIAL-EMOTIONAL DEVELOPMENT  OR INTELLIGENCE . . .

    But the connection between social and emotional development or intelligence and success in developing adequate pronunciation in an L2 is well established in research in this field. I find the last two bullets intriguing. Evading responsibility for bad student pronunciation seems to be a standard (or at least implicit) objective in many L2 teacher education programs--and for pretty much the reasons indicated above.

    Absolved of guilt and responsibility with lowered expectations, anything passing for individual intelligibility is fine. To paraphrase Gandhi's comment on Christianity: Pronunciation teaching has not been tried and found guilty (of messing with learners' identity,  social and emotional development, etc). It has just been found difficult and not tried.

    Or an even better analogy is the great scene between John Belushi and Carrie Fischer in "The Blues Brothers"  . . .

    I feel better already.

    Friday, July 14, 2017

    Why using music helps learning pronunciation even when it doesn't!
    How did we ever teach or solve problems before neuroscience--or as we occasionally refer to it here: "near-ol'-science"? It is axiomatic that even when an experiment or study goes no place, or worse, it is still scientifically valid as long as it was well designed. (Try telling that to your tenure and promotion committee, however, or try and get a "no results" report published sometime, although that is changing when it comes to replicating well-known studies.)

    Neuroscience has certainly added a new dimension to our work. Sometimes, for instance, it highlights a change in brain structure related to some experimental process, even if the treatment in the study didn't work as predicted.

    Here's an example with particular relevance for pronunciation teaching, a "no discernable difference in main effect but related changes in the brain anyway" study, relating sound and movement. To misquote one of my favorite quotes from Bertrand Russell: A difference that doesn't make a difference . . . DOES make a difference in this case. Perhaps significantly.

    In the study by Moore, Schaefer, Bastin, Roberts and Overy, summarized by Science Daily, Diffusion tensor MRI tractography reveals increased fractional anisotropy (FA) in arcuate fasciculus following music-cued motor training, subjects were trained in a pattern of finger movements either accompanied by music or not, and, of course, fMRI'd as well. The music treatment did not result in any significant difference in learning the skill but in the area of the brain connecting sound and movement, there was a striking increase in activity and activated "white matter". The music had still facilitated the learning in some sense, just not enough--but enough to suggest to researchers that the music-connection is indeed valuable in enhancing motor skill development.

    My guess (based on common sense and the experience of generations of teachers who use music for this purpose and others) is that had the experiment involved a more complex skill and possibly more time, the gain by the music group would have been more evident. Another possibility is that the way that the skill was measured did not get at some other aspect of the process or look at it over a long enough time period. Perhaps had a second, related skill been learned next, the enhanced sound-movement connectivity would have been more "pronounced" . . . The researchers suggest as much in their conclusion.

    The significance of the study, according the researchers was that: "The study suggests that music makes a key difference. We have long known that music encourages people to move. This study provides the first experimental evidence that adding musical cues to learning [sic] new motor task can lead to changes in white matter structure in the brain." Again, that key difference was in the brain, not in the hands. But if they are right, and I'm certain they are, it points to five important principles:
    • Music facilitates (at least motor and sound connected) learning.
    • The effect may be more cumulative, rather then evident in controlled "one time" studies.
    • Pronunciation learning, especially early in the process is in many respects is a sound-motor problem for the learner.
    • Evidence that training is consonant with brain development should be understood as more systemic, affecting and supporting other analogous processes in language learning as well.
    • There is much we do now that we lack clear empirical evidence for but experience argues strongly for it. Before abandoning it, connect up fMRIs to students and see what is actually going on in the brain. You may be making all kinds of progress that will be evident soon, or a bit later. 
    Publish it, using this study as your model! It's a (no) brainer!
    University of Edinburgh. (2017, July 6). Learning with music can change brain structure: Using musical cues to learn a physical task significantly develops an important part of the brain, according to a new study. ScienceDaily. Retrieved July 13, 2017 from

    Wednesday, July 5, 2017

    Easy pronunciation change? You'd better believe it!

    One of the most striking findings of research on teacher cognition about pronunciation teaching is that, especially those newer to field often believe it to be REALLY hard, difficult and intimidating (e.g., Burri 2017). There is less (much less) research on why that should be the case--or on how that can be best moderated, or prevented to any extent. We are talking here primarily about expectations.

    As usual, my "go to" source for understanding how to affect pronunciation change is . . . sport. Pronunciation change is a physical business, one that from my perspective is best approached from that perspective, at least initially. But here is a case where the right "metacognitive set" can be enormously important, such as in the case of a new study by Mothes, Leukel, Seelig and Fuchs titled, "Do placebo expectations influence perceived exertion during physical exercise?" summarized by

    On the surface of it, the research confirmed the common sense notion that expectations can dramatically influence performance. One feature of the study, for example, was that wearing great looking compression tights, and believing that they "work" makes exercise less strenuous or at least one's perception of effort. Being an enthusiastic wearing of that athletic placebo, I have been all in and a believer for years . . .

    But how can this make pronunciation teaching and change easier?  Easy. What students pick up from you about pronunciation change impacts more than just their perception of how difficult it is. In other words, it is at least as much the fault of the method and the instructor's personal, professional presence as it is the learner's ability and L1 meddling. To paraphrase the great Pogo observation: We have met the enemy (of pronunciation change) and it is . . . us!

    I'd recommend that you begin with some kind of compression top that gets the right message across, of course . . . probably not something like the message conveyed in the following from the forward to Orion, 1989 (quoted in Acton, 1992):

    "Acquiring good pronunciation is the most difficult part of learning a new language. As you improve your articulation you have to learn to listen and imitate all over again. As with any activity you wish to do well, you have to practice, practice, practice, and then practice some more . Remember that you cannot accomplish good pronunciation overnight; improvement takes time. Some students may find it more difficult than others and will need more time than others to improve ( pp. xxiii-iv)."

    It is "easier" from a haptic perspective, depending on the extent to which you Train the body first! (Lessac, 1967) in pronunciation teaching and project the right message both verbally and non-verbally. The key element here is the physical basis of change, not just pronunciation itself, the significance of the research to in our work. Conceptually, it is important that that distinction is kept in mind (and body)!

    So, what do your class expectations for ongoing pronunciation improvement feel like? How do you create and sustain that? I'm expecting some great comments/insights to follow here!

    You'd better believe it!

    Hendrik Mothes, Christian Leukel, Harald Seelig, Reinhard Fuchs. Do placebo expectations influence perceived exertion during physical exercise? PLOS ONE, 2017; 12 (6): e0180434 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0180434

    University of Freiburg. (2017, June 30). Sport feels less strenuous if you believe it's doing you good. ScienceDaily. Retrieved July 4, 2017 from

    Tuesday, June 27, 2017

    Distracting new research: Try some "strategic attention" or a millennial!
    This could be either a sign of things to come or at least a pleasant "distraction."

    I have done literally dozens of blogposts here (out of the roughly 1,000) that involve in some way the concept of "attention". Likewise, in our decade or so of experience with haptic pronunciation teaching, capturing the learner's attention--for at least 3 seconds--has been shown to be critical. Any number of factors may serve to seriously distract the student and undermine the process.

    Now comes a study, Selectively Distracted: Divided Attention and Memory for Important Information, by Middlebrooks, Kerr, and Castel of UCLA, summarized by, suggesting that background distraction can be overcome . . . by "strategic attention", characterized this way:

    "The ability to prioritize high-value information during study was consistently immune to the effects of divided attention, regardless of the extent of the distractions that participants faced . . . the current results intimate that divided attention did not incapacitate metacognitive mechanisms in either of the current experiments leaving participants capable of judging their memory capacity, performance, and methods by which they might compensate for additional demands on attention (p. 32)"

    Subjects were subjected to various distractions while learning sets of words, such music and having to attend to random numbers during the treatment phase. Although overall performance/recall was not quite as high among the "distracted", they were later equally successful in recalling key words in the post tests.

    This sounds like partial validation of the "hyper-cognitivist's" position that just by pointing out (pronunciation) errors or pointing to key (phonological) features in texts, for example, learners may "uptake" such focused input and effectively make use of that information later. Could be. We have all witnessed such potentially "teachable moments", but with so many other things going on in the classroom environment, what are the chances, really?

    According to the study, it all comes down to what has been prioritized by the learner, the instructor and the context. Wow. But wait . . . just who were the subjects? Any chance that they were just more naturally adept at dealing with distraction? 192 paid undergraduates, probably in introductory psychology courses, the usual guinea pigs in such studies. Interestingly, the researchers do not comment on the young millennials' social media competence.

    Any number of other recent studies have observed, seemingly to the contrary, that the "hyper-media generation" is in some respects less capable of keeping their eye on the ball. (Even the NBA has gotten the message, planning to shorten games!) Surprise . . . 

    The good news: Perhaps upcoming generations are in fact becoming more "immune" to distraction in learning and studying, especially in certain e-contexts.  If so, that has intriguing implications for instructional design and tolerance for random iPhone use in class.

    The bad news: Wonky studies like this one can easily distract us (or at least me!) from the more important work of creating classrooms where our priority, our attention is focused totally on effective teaching and learning. Just thought that I should point that out . . .

    Association for Psychological Science. (2017, June 21). Strategic studying limits the costs of divided attention. ScienceDaily. Retrieved June 26, 2017 from