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Saturday, March 28, 2009


Practicing for the Olympics

My grandmother used to reminisce about spending the first five minutes of Spanish class practicing rolling her r's. My grandmother would be proud — the ESL classroom doesn't just spend five minutes on English pronunciation, we spend an entire class on it.

This is because in Japan, repetition is the main strategy for teaching kids. Like writing kanji over and over, it is thought that if one practices pronouncing a word over and over, it will eventually become pronunciation perfect. But I believe students would benefit more from targeted pronunciation exercises that isolate the foreign sounds they have to make than just from repetition.

The problem with teaching pronunciation is that you're trying to teach students unnatural sounds, kind of like attempting to teach them to bark or sing like a bird.

Not only are the words unfamiliar to them, but how to make the sounds is equally daunting. For example, to make the "w" sound, as in "widget," you must round your lips or else the word will come out as "idget." And whoever heard of an "idget?"

But most Japanese students never learn how to make the "w" sound and instead try to say it with clenched teeth and unrounded lips. Repeatedly.

I try to show my students that your mouth is like a Play-Doh Fun Factory where you push sounds through your mouth and the sounds come out on the other side shaped as different words. If you don't change the shape of your mouth for each word, your Play-Doh will come out looking all the same.

But I think my grandmother, who was also an English teacher in Cuba, was on to something with her pronunciation exercises. Think about it — five minutes a day to perfect pronunciation! We could have workout videos encouraging English learners to "pump up your pronunciation." Cardio linguistic workouts would make strong lungs and strong pronunciation.

You see, one thing I have noticed is that people take sporting activities very seriously. Look at the Olympics. Who doesn't love Olympic sports? Thus, the way to get students and schools serious about pronunciation is to make it a sport.

After all, English has been practiced competitively in Japan for some time now via speech contests, translation contests, recitations, debates and spelling bees. Announcing is in itself a profession — one often related to sports. So we're pretty close to the "English as a sport" concept already.

If we could get English pronunciation recognized as a sport, think of all the things we could develop to facilitate our athletes' performance. Dentists experienced in making mouth guards for athletes, could make mouth pieces for students to help them make the shapes of English sounds: round mouth pieces to produce w's, bucktoothed ones to make f's.

Yoga experts could give breathing sessions and enunciation instructors would lead us through daily five-minute sessions of "Aspiration and Glottal Stops," "Voiced Consonants and Sibilants," and even a one-hour special session dedicated entirely to "Labials."

After a few years of practice, our students would be ready to compete at the national level. Of course, we'd have to name our new sport something more exciting than "pronunciation," which sounds more like something professional nuns do. I recommend calling it instead, "linguistic gymnastics."

The Japan Linguistic Gymnastics event would be a heptathlon with the following seven disciplines:

1. Linguistic Rowing: Teams sing, in rounds, the song "Row, row, row your boat."

2. Gecko Voice Projection Discus: Students who have learned how to throw their voices compete by throwing their voice the distance of a heaved discus.

3. Tongue Twister 60-meter Dash: Students recite a tongue twister while running the 60-meter dash. Both the race and the tongue twister should start and finish at the same time.

4. Volleyball: Two teams of nine compete, volleying diphthongs back and forth across a net, careful not to repeat any one diphthong twice during play. Unless it's on the serve, in which the same diphthong may be used up to three times.

5. Archery: Students are assessed in the skill of arching the tongue to produce a perfect "l" sound when pronouncing words like lascivious and salacious.

6. 110-Meter Hurdles: This contest measures one's ability to flawlessly run through a list of the 11 most difficult English words for Japanese to pronounce, such as "world" and "rural."

7. Long jump: A contest to prove who can best jump over long vowels, such as those in the words "tree" and "wood."

If the Japan Linguistic Gymnastics fail to be a success, we can give up hopes that it will be a demonstration sport in the 2012 "Orympics in Rondon."

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