¿How does the culture I live in affect the teaching of English pronunciation to medics in Cuba?

Autor: Yamila Galarraga Douglas

Formación y capacitación

29-10-2012

How does the culture I live in affect the teaching of English pronunciation to medics? I will seek to find out if there are any specific English pronunciation aspects that should be taken into account to obtain successful professionals able to understand and be understood when they speak.

This essay is based on the research I have made about how the culture I live in affects the teaching of English pronunciation to medics. I wanted to find out if there are any specific English pronunciation aspects that should be taken into account to obtain successful professionals able to understand and be understood when they speak.

It is really necessary to know the system of sounds of the language we are hearing and speaking, so we can propose a set of ideas in order to develop the English pronunciation to medics.

I teach to students whose age varies from 15 to 16 years old. I can say that they are good students, their discipline is quite good and they really love English lessons, according to the survey I have made to support my research, whose objectives were to know how important is the English language for my students and what activities they propose to improve their knowledge, but I have noticed some pronunciation mistakes that in some cases affect the methodological conception followed in my English lessons and in the Cuban schools, the communicative approach.

English is taught in Cuban schools as a foreign language subject and it is compulsory from the second grade in primary schools to twelfth grade in high schools, when students reach to the universities. English is studied as a compulsory subject in the first and second year of many disciplines, but regarding to the medical and nursing carriers it is compulsory from the first year to the end of the studies.

As English is an important subject in the Cuban Education System, it requires a certain amount of materials impossible for us to get, due to the impossibilities we have but, in my lessons I made efforts to develop good English speakers, paying attention to pronunciation, intonation, rhythm and other important aspects that need to be taken into account to obtain better professionals able to communicate in English very well. It is important to say there are many non phonemic variants of sound in the language of native speakers of English, because of the many geographic regions of the world where English is spoken.

My study is made in the English taught in our schools known as general American: with only slight variations from Ohio through the Middle West and on to the pacific coast of the USA, some 90,000,000 people speak the general American.

The idea to obtain good professional able to communicate and pronounce English as much accurate as possible may seem really difficult to achieve, because as English is an international language, it is not our mother tongue so we need to develop creative communication strategies in the classroom that help our students to think and create ideas in English and it is really important to get that, because from the moment they leave the classroom, the English language is essentially behind and they are surrounded by Spanish.

The last paragraph was an exposition of the ideas I think are really important and helpful, now I can proceed to analyze the pronunciation problems my students have in the English classroom.

I have noticed that when they have to speak about different topics there are large categories of speech difficulties which all or many of them have in common, such as the substitution of one phoneme (day /they) (plays/place)(save/safe)(sheep/ship)(leave/live) . It is important to say that these substitutions are less negative and meaningless, because they do not appear to affect the communicative process. During a specific activity the students can keep the conversation going without any problem, because the context makes the intended meaning quite clear.

These are substitution problems that really affect the communicative process and need to be tackled at the moment of speaking, but as they learn new words, the association made by word similarities increases the risk of this type of substitution.

Another pronunciation problem detected in my classroom is that my students also tend to mispronounce words, but they actually know what that word means and how to use it, I mean, when my students perform a task the idea of correcting how to pronounce has nothing to do with the word meaning.

I also noticed that there are problems of intonation and connection between intonation patterns and stress and there is not control of rhythm.

I hope this essay will provide information to teachers, like me, who are facing this pronunciation problems with their students and do not know what to do to

overcome it, the language and terms used to develop this research are suitable to all, even though I use some terms that can be only understood by specialists in linguistics, I think the importance of this essay is that teachers should pay attention to communication, but with good pronunciation because it is an important part of the communicative process.

It is important to remember that we are not only teaching English as a foreign language, we are also teaching culture and in our classrooms we need to create the best English environment. According to Byram and Rissager (1999: page no 58) the language teacher’s role is a "professional mediator between learners and foreign languages culture". The culture term I choose was in order to teach how to pronounce well.

Most English teachers become teachers because of their fascination with languages, in my case I really found it interesting deciphering what the songs are saying, the meaning of words and the way of articulation of some words, in some cases these are really strange for Spanish speakers. I think that the experiences we acquired as we were students in our schools where English was taught attracted us to the profession which I love.

I believe that focus on pronunciation work is an important part of learning to communicate, especially in a foreign language context and teaching pronunciation in the English language classroom can extend far beyond mere drills, because helping students with the pronunciation, intonation and rhythm of the English language, such as syllable stress within a sentence, will lead to increased communicative competence. Using songs or games where students emphasize words or sentences stress through clapping or some other physical movement can be helpful and funny for some of them.

I have noticed that communicative language teaching supports students using English in the classroom as a way to help them prepare to use it outside the classroom and it is really difficult to learn how to speak correctly using phonemic combinations and intonations different from one's native language without being surrounded by the target language; that is why I find it really important to expose my students to English as much as possible in the classroom, through speaking exercises, authentic language in reading, audiovisual methods that expose students to various accents, and even posters and language charts on the wall to surround the students with English.

According to Wallace (1949: page no 44-46.) "the attainment of accurate pronunciation of a second language, then, necessitates the ability to recognize and produce the distinctive sound differences in the language” however, Morin (2007: page 342-60) says that often we place such emphasis on communicating with the target language that we can forget that comprehensible pronunciation, in whatever form, is an important part of this, and should not be sacrificed.

I agree with the comments by the above authors but they were not teachers of Cuban students training to become doctors or nurses.

I believe that my experience as an English teacher, who teaches the language for this specific purpose makes this work a little bit complicated because I work with a group of students who need to acquire vocabulary and definitions given by well known authors, who use specific words and specific medical terms necessary for my students, who are not native English speakers. I also need to take into account the characteristics of the English terms my students might use in the real world, according to their needs.

The author Kenneth L. Pike (1945: page no168-169.) aptly describes the importance of all three ¨legs¨ of pronunciation, signifying that without one of these elements the entire ¨tripod¨ will collapse, that is, the pronunciation as a whole will not be accurate; the tripod of pronunciation, the sound, intonation and rhythm, must be included in any materials for the teaching of pronunciation and the author Gilbert (1994: page no 36-48) explains that. ”Understanding and being able to apply linking word rhythm, melody and emphasis are all important aspects of communicative competence”. These studies gave me the evidence that despite the fact that many authors have studied this topic through the years none of them have discussed the importance of pronunciation in English classes like mine.

Teaching these specific groups of students who need unmodified texts or materials related to medics and unpredictable real life situations that suits doctor-nurse-patient relation, taking into account the peculiarities of this task, I propose to familiarize my students with some symbols of the international phonetic alphabet because there is a symbol for every sound and no more than one for any given sound. The system of phonetic symbols I propose is almost entirely phonemic and the norms presented are phonemically defined by Kenyon and Knott’s Pronouncing Dictionary of American English as my authority, however some medical terms and words come from Latin and Greek in the English language and there exist certain rules for forming the plural of those foreign words because they keep their foreign plurals; such as (hypothesis/hypotheses), (bacterium/bacteria), (therapy/therapies), (ganglion/ganglia), (cervix/cervices). It is important to say that the pronunciation of these words can be made in their original form.

Having exposed the pronunciation difficulties my students have I decided to do a more detailed observation of their difficulties. Over a period of a semester I took note of their responses when interacting with one another in English classes and while they were doing an English communicative activity outside the classroom. I noted that they seem very comfortable speaking English but they do not pay the necessary attention to pronunciation issues. This kind of research done in the natural setting of my work place is known as ‘Action Research’. Action Research allows professionals to observe the activities in their normal work situations while still carrying out their duties. It is a qualitative approach to research where results are tentative and in this case I am exploring possibilities. Qualitative research methods are well suited to the education setting as it allows for interaction between groups of people.

Having described the pronunciation issues which affect my students I can proceed to explain how these problems can be overcome in different ways. I noted for instance that the substitution seldom seemed to result in a misunderstanding, and any pronunciation text which highlights exercises almost exclusively to phonemic differences, concentrates on what is most obvious and most easily acquired through simple imitation because when an individual begins the study of a foreign language, the new phonemes are often immediately obvious to them, and they therefore tend to learn the sounds rather quickly. However it is necessary to be careful with the amount of new vocabulary, new phonemes and sounds presented in a lesson, because it is a challenge for the students the acquisition of vocabulary from passive to active knowledge, and we as teachers want them to be able to recognize words and create their own speeches without the teacher's guidance.

My students have some problems regarding to the pronunciation of the English vowels, and they tend to make substitutions taking into account the slight differences between some of them. As English vowels are produced by different positions of the tongue within the mouth and by the unrounding and rounding of the lips; the difference in position of the tongue is the primary cause of the sound differences in various vowels. My students can avoid the vowel substitution, a common mistake among them, by making associations and identification of the vowels within the International Phonetic Alphabet. I explained to them that they can classify vowels into back, central and front taking into account the rounding and unrounding of the lip position and can also classify them into high, mid and low, according to the position of the tongue. I realized how difficult it was to explain this in isolation, without a context, that is why I explained this classification in a specific activity within the English lesson. It is important to clarify that this classification was made taking into account the one given by linguistic experts who have studied the International Phonetic Alphabet. The International Phonetic Alphabet is well known in the entire world, it was developed through the cooperative efforts of some of the world’s leading linguistics scholars, and it is universally used in serious works on pronunciation, in speech courses, and in pronouncing dictionaries.

My students also fail with the pronunciation, aspiration, and lengthening of some consonants. Having noted these problems I can proceed to explain that the consonant sounds in English are produced by the obstruction of the air stream as it comes from the lungs through the mouth or the nose. These obstruction or changes in the shape of the air stream are caused by the movements of various parts of the vocal apparatus: the jaw, tongue, lips for instance, it is really important to develop exercises that encourage them to associate and identify the sounds within the International Phonetic Alphabet.

Consonants can be classified into voiced and voiceless according the vibration of the vocal cords. This way will help my students to familiarize the sounds and the pronunciation of the English language inside and outside the classroom, so they can give and receive an effective feedback to others than the teacher and their classmates. The most remarkable mistakes my students have are trying to aspirate initial consonants such as (pig) for (big), because when they speak a little faster that makes it difficult to differentiate if the initial consonant (p) is aspirated or not, another example can be the type of combination in which the second word begins with an initial (s) followed immediately by another consonant like, (United States) or (Great Spirit), such combinations never occur in the Spanish language. They also made great aspirations at the end of words like (save∕ safe) (debt∕ dead) etc. The problems highlighted above can be overcome in different ways; the teacher should create different exercises in order to achieve a correct pronunciation of the students.

The intonation is based on the rise and fall of the pitch of the voice, these changes in pitch levels make up the intonation of the language.

Languages have different intonational patterns, but dealing with the English pronunciation it is necessary to understand some characteristics of its intonation.

The pitch levels are relative because it has differences in age and sex; for instance a child has a much higher pitched voice than an adult, and a man has much lower pitch than a woman. It is the relative difference between the pitches which is essential in making distinctions in English intonation.

Intonation is the tune of what we say; it is the combination of musical tones on which we pronounce the syllables that make up our speech. It is closely related to sentence-stress.

The rhythm of English sentences is characterized by the regular recurrence of stressed syllables at relatively uniform intervals of time. English speakers will maintain the same rhythm, the same beat, throughout the sentence in order to do this with greater ease and smoothness, they often use contractions.

The problems my students have with the English consonants can be solved by a set of exercises and some rules easily developed within the lesson. The aspiration of consonant (s) can be overcome by thinking that the consonant is part of the other word or by trying not to aspirate the sound with which the first word of the combination ends, we as teachers can show them how to differentiate if the vocal cords vibrate or not by touching themselves at the throat, and some other exercises that need further research.

The above data shows the importance of this topic which I believe is a problem that can really affect the teaching learning process. The research has validity in that it was conducted in a natural setting and is also reliable because I observed my students over a reasonable length of time after having noted the problem. However this evidence is based on a very small sample of my own class and more research would have to be done for definitive conclusions to be derived from these findings.

Bibliography

Byram, M, S; and. Risager K. (1999) Language Teachers, Politics and Cultures. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters

Clifford H. Prator (1975) jr: Manual for American English Pronunciation.

Ed. Pueblo y Educación.

English Teaching Forum, Volume 49, Number 1, 2011.United States Department of State.

Gilbert, J.B (1994) Intonation: A Navigation Guide for the For the Listener and Gadgets to Help to Teach it. In Pronunciation Pedagogy and Theory: New Views, New Directions, ed. J. Morley, 36_48. Alexandria, VA: TESOL,

Morin, R: A (2007) Neglected Aspect of the Standards: Preparing Foreign Language Spanish Teachers to Teach Pronunciation, ed. Foreign Language Annals 40(2):342-60.

Wallace, Betty J (1974): The Pronunciation of English. For Teachers of English as a Second Language, ed. Pueblo y Educación.

Westbrook F (2011): Lessons from the Other Side of the Teacher's Desk: Discovering Insights to Help Language, ed. English Teaching Forum, Volume 49, Number 1, 2011.United States Department of State.

Yamila Galarraga Douglas - douglascampbellarrobainfomed.sld.cu

Profesor de la facultad “Calixto García”.

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