Interview with Gregor Chudoba
A LOOK AT TEACHING PRONUNCIATION
Dr. Gregor Chudoba is a senior lecturer at the Department of English and has been teaching a variety of classes on pronunciation, translation, and linguistics. Recently some of his work has been focussed on literary translation and assessing pronunciation. In this interview we got to hear about comprehensibility, the hurdles of learning English pronunciation, strategies that can help students overcome them and approaching literary translation on the streets of Ljubljana.
You teach pronunciation in English and German. What methods and approaches have you found most useful in teaching pronunciation in the past?
There is such a wide range of learners, that “one size fits all” just doesn’t work. It depends a lot on the attitudes, needs, prior knowledge that learners have in the acquisition of pronunciation as well and then you try to adapt the approaches accordingly. What I find makes a really big difference is whether the approach is intriguing enough for me to trigger my full presence. There is a large factor on the side of the learners, but in teaching, what tends not to work so well is if it becomes too much of a “business as usual” thing for me and then I start teaching in a non-committal manner. A certain degree of innovation serves not so much the learners as it serves me and then, in a mediate way, that’s something that the learners benefit from. Other than that, it’s an integration of multiple channels and approaches that contain something for everyone, provided I’m not teaching a very small group or individuals. I find it highly recommendable to combine both the cognitive instruction, as in lecturing almost, and strong stretches of imitation of model speakers. That’s something I almost always do. I ask people to find their own personal pronunciation role model, we call them ‘model speakers’. I ask students to find a recording of someone that they are willing to try to emulate. We do that at the beginning of the courses at university and I ask the students to commit that speech to memory, it’s usually around one minute long, and I ask them to check the phenomena we cover in class in the speech they are rehearsing. For some students that is a great approach.
Are there differences or similarities in how you approach teaching each language?
There is a difference in the norms that we teach. We generally agree that there is something like American English and British English. There are attempts in defining these standards. In German we also agree that we’re facing a pluricentric language but there is no clear concept of the phonology of Austrian German. Even if there were, I believe that the willingness to adhere to an apparently minor standard of German on the learner’s side would be a lot lower than in English. Both languages are clearly pluricentric but the process of trying to define the different norms has progressed much further in English than it has in German. So, what we teach in German is more or less a universal standard. There are also differences in the crowds that I get to teach. If and when I teach German pronunciation, it’s usually German as a second language, meaning that the environment people live in is German speaking, whereas we teach English as a foreign language here in Klagenfurt, so people would not habitually interact in English outside of class. When it comes to the languages, the challenges are pretty much the same. It is true for both languages that learners are often not aware where the real challenges lie. If you take the pronunciation of English, a layperson would most likely think the /th/ would pose a typical challenge, when actually there are numerous substitutes, as are used in many varieties of English without impeding comprehensibility. In German, the Umlaute are believed to be the biggest challenge, whereas the vowel system as a whole is certainly demanding. We think the real challenges lie elsewhere. The first big challenge is that the pronunciation overlaps so little with the spelling.
What is the biggest hurdle for native German speakers who learn English when it comes to pronunciation?
I guess voicing in general is one of the most difficult phenomena to acquire amongst those that are relevant, simply because the phonological processes that govern this in German are subconscious. We’re not aware of what it is we do when we speak German. And likewise, we’re not aware of what we should be doing in English. This is difficult to perceive correctly and then to reproduce adequately. Again, we have orthography interfering. Moving into English from German, it’s also the vowel system. The vowel system is beautifully complex in German as well as English. In English, we have this glide effect into vowels, like in “feel” or “food”. That glide effect is something native speakers are not aware of but that you would detect if it’s not produced. And it’s hard for people to acquire that as well.
What strategies would you recommend to students for improving their pronunciation in English?
There is a very nice piece of research that is now around 50 years old by Alexander Guiora which proves that the ego permeability, which is the flexibility of our concept of identity, was increased by a slight dose of alcohol. So, a little sip of wine significantly improved people’s performance in pronunciation. I’d like to generalise that and say, whatever makes you become more flexible in this deep-rooted sense of identity will help you acquire the target language pronunciation. And that can be the model speaker task, namely a sort of role play, assuming another identity, putting on a mask. And this can be done literally. Put on a mask, realise it’s not you speaking, it’s the mask speaking. It can be done figuratively by assuming the identity the model speaker is providing. We did a very nice piece of research at our department, in which we explored the difference between the successful and the battling learners of English pronunciation. We expected all kinds of things based on literature and our teaching experience. What we found was that the two differences we could clearly prove were firstly, diligence, just hard work and practice, and secondly, the combination of imitation and cognitive structured learning. The subjects in this study were university students, so you can’t generalise this to other contexts. But for our students, the combination of understanding what they are expected to do and doing it a lot proved to be the most effective. I personally was a bit sorry to see that result because we were hoping for something like a magic wand. Make people sing and they’ll progress so much more rapidly. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to confirm that.
Do you think that watching English films or listening to English music is helpful for learners?
Yes, I believe it is. I sometimes conduct interviews with students who stand out in class, and I try to identify possible factors in their success. Just recently I asked a student, why she had such a convincing blend of accents. Her response was that she follows influencers from the countries that I’d asked about. It was an interesting mix of East Coast American English and it seemed to me like there was Australian in there and then stretches of RP as well. All of them were very natural sounding. What I would strongly recommend is combining the exposure with an inner activity and response. Don’t just let yourself be showered with language but actually do some swimming movements. Exposure to the target language is definitely more effective if we learn the way children do. If we pick up and play around with the material that’s offered. Inwardly I start imitating people or I take quotes and play around with them out loud. That will definitely lead to a much steeper progress than otherwise.
Your research focusses on the core elements of comprehensibility and the instruction of pronunciation. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
For neither German nor English do we have a clear-cut understanding of what the best progression in acquisition should be. In terms of: “What is it that I need to acquire first to ensure comprehensibility? I want people to understand me, what are the basic elements?” The difference is that there is a much bigger community researching this in English for English than there is for German. There is more research for English and yet we don’t even have answers for it, much less so for German. Let’s take the /th/ sounds. Where do they rank in order of importance? So, accordingly, where should we put them in order of acquisition or in order of teaching? We don’t have that information.
If you think about it, you realise that it’s virtually impossible to come up with a clear-cut progression or hierarchy of this kind. Why is that so? Comprehensibility relies on a combination of factors. You could balance the lack of one by increasing the other, at least to some extent. Think of a complex skill like football. If you play football you need to have great athletic control of your body, you need to be fast, but speed alone won’t do the trick. You also need to have the technique of controlling the ball. Those two combined won’t do it because you need to have an understanding of the team around you, an eye for the dynamics of the people who move around you. You need an understanding of what the duration of the game means in terms of fatigue, you need to have that tactical understanding. If you’re the greatest and fastest runner in the world but you don’t connect with the team around you, you’ll never be a great football player. Similarly, you need to have a set of skills to speak comprehensively and even if we set aside morphology, syntax and semantics and look at pronunciation only it is still true. I find that in discussing teaching of pronunciation we very often overlook that what matters most for comprehensibility is that we speak slowly and loudly. Think about a language that you don’t speak well and ask yourself how willing you would be to speak loudly in order a) to be understood and b) to give the interlocutor the opportunity to identify your mistakes and provide some kind of direction. Our natural reaction to this situation is to speak quietly. How do we teach people to speak loudly?
Essentially, there’s a mix of factors involved and it’s very hard to isolate one factor alone in a controlled experiment that will then allow us to determine the impact of that specific factor. Maybe the whole idea of designing strict hierarchies of importance and acquisition needs to be discarded. We’re still working on it and it gets a little more complex if you think about how you approach the question. We do expert interviews, we find that experts tend to substitute the question with a question they can answer more easily, without being aware of it of course. What we ask people both in English and in German is to try and place the phonemes and sounds involved on a reference level, according to the CEFR. Where do you think this aspect of pronunciation needs to be acquired in order to allow the learner to communicate successfully on that level? Do you think they need voicing on level A1 or can it wait until level A2? Those are the kinds of questions we ask. It seems that for the expert interviews, it’s very hard for them to really consider that question. They would rather consider where it is in the books we use but that is not the same thing.
So that’s one approach. Another approach is learner corpora, but they are much harder to analyse for spoken language than for written language, and testing but that involves big numbers, and we don’t have that.
The past year required a complete change in teaching – from face-to-face to online teaching. How did you approach the change in teaching mode and what strategies did you apply to make it work for you and your students?
I think the change was not as massive since the classes that I taught before all had Moodle courses anyway. The material that we deal with is on Moodle, the examples are there, people are asked to upload recordings to Moodle etc. The one difference is that we moved our immediate interaction from the classroom to BigBlueButton. Other than that, there wasn’t so much that changed. I have to say, teaching face-to-face is a lot easier than teaching online. In the last winter term, we had a face-to-face situation in the beginning. It was slightly disconcerting. I was really feeling like I was talking into a void, even though students were in the room with me. There was no feedback, no vibes. Nothing seemed to register. At some point, I tended to revert to the ‘business as usual’ kind of attitude, which I felt a bit sorry about. Then we went online, and it was amazing to observe the changes that started kicking in after around three of four weeks. A month into the distance teaching period these people started producing so much outstanding and remarkable work. I take that as an indication of their trust in the situation. We tend to identify very strongly with the sound of our voices and the sound of our language. We base our concept of identity on this much more than the grammar we use. That poses a challenge in teaching pronunciation because we’re asking people to assume an additional identity. We all know how weird it feels when we hear our voice on an answering machine. That is an analogy to what happens in acquiring the pronunciation of another language. In order to assume this additional identity, people need to feel safe, and I try to create that feeling in the face-to-face classes to allow the students to take more risks. As far as skills and not just knowledge is concerned, learning includes risk taking. No risk, no gain. We try to create an environment where the students feel safe and where they can take risks without losing face. And I was not under the impression that I was succeeding with that group, and once we went online, it appears that this distance the online teaching situation created possibly provided the security that the students needed. This is the exception to the rule that I otherwise hold dear, that face-to-face teaching appears to allow me to make much more progress with the learners.
You also teach a course on literary translation. What sparked your initial interest in translation?
I studied translation as part of a free combination of subjects I had the privilege to select when I was a student. I started off studying translating way back to complement the first subject which was linguistics. Living and working abroad I was then able to pursue that interest to some extent. There was always an active interest in literature, so I guess that’s how I grew into this.
You’ve also led an excursion to Ljubljana on translation. Do you have plans for future collaborations?
Yes. I’m still enjoying a nice cooperation with Ljubljana and that contact is still there. I also recently taught in Rijeka, Croatia, and I’m hoping to possibly build on that. The project we had in literary translation is completed. It ended in the publication of a literary tour of Ljubljana. We first selected poetry that was somehow connected to places in Ljubljana because the author’s statue would be there or because the poem dealt with that place. Our partners in Ljubljana translated those poems into English and we took it from English into German. We then had three versions of the poems in the three languages concerned. We presented that to the tourism board, and they published a nice little booklet on it. So, there are these literary walks through Ljubljana now that our students contributed to but that’s completed.
Now, we’re translating poetry by James Arthur, a poet and academic based in Baltimore, US, who was also the PhD mentor to Carina Rasse. We’ve worked our way through the first half of his first volume of poetry. The great thing about it is that we had the opportunity to discuss his poems with him directly. That, of course, is a marvellous opportunity for the student translators to go and discover the depths of the poems they’re working on. In other projects, we also cooperated with the Stadttheater Klagenfurt or the Neue Bühne Villach on plays they staged at the theatre that were translated from English into German. We attended rehearsals and we also talked to the people who had provided the translations to see how they had gone about various aspects.
Dr. Gregor Chudoba
Senior Lecturer at the Department of English at Klagenfurt University, Lecturer at Graz University and FH Kärnten. Previous staff positions at universities in Osijek, Győr, Zagreb and Rijeka.
Recent publications on word stress in Turkish, assessment of pronunciation, phonology of German, literary translation and drama in education.
Interested in organic farming and in forestry.
9020 Klagenfurt am Wörthersee
+43 463 2700
uni [at] aau [dot] at