This is the second part of a series of articles. Please see the first part here.
Ideally you should return to basics by beginning with the phonetic alphabet and teach the sounds of English. As teachers you will quickly become aware of the particular articulation problems facing your students. However we do not live in such a world where we are afforded the luxury of time to implement the ‘ivory tower’ phonology/communication ideologies so masterfully displayed in the vast array of training and teaching textbooks. We therefore have to find a halfway compromise between our learning environment and student wants, sometimes at the sacrifice of their phonetic needs. Therefore pronunciation practice is likely to be remedial, as in-depth instruction might detrimentally affect student confidence.
How To Proceed
Know Pronunciation Specifics
Students utilize Japanese Katakana, a syllabic alphabet, to transcribe the foreign language being studied and this compounds the problem making the vocabulary they use sound unintelligible and negatively affecting communication. Phonemic restructuring of loan words substitutes the nearest match from a syllable inventory often changing the word beyond recognition, or alternatively the word is shortened or undergoes semantic change e.g. coffee alters to ‘kohi.’ Religious adherence to these equivalents by Adult Learners creates language interference thus slowing the entire process of English phonology acquisition. Their perception and production of Katakana must be effectively banned in class, if at all possible. Be strict in your approach and correct mispronunciations immediately, as it will aid the improvement of fluency in the long-term. As Katakana based vocabulary errors affect spelling, the number of syllables and pronunciation, you must try to wean your students away from these frustrating malpractices. Let your students speak pure Japanese if you so desire as there is a time when their mother tongue has validity and they are not children, but not Katakana.
Methods of Teaching Pronunciation
Teach self-developing pronunciation methods showing the required height and action of the tongue tip – see How to teach ‘R’ and ‘L’ sounds on busyteacher.org. Students will enjoy minimal pair work but keep it limited and you should also do extensive drills and get them to guess meanings from the surrounding words in sentences whenever feasible. To use the analogy of the popular BBC1 cooking show in the 1990’s – “Can’t Cook, Won’t Cook” some students have a mental block in learning how to listen, as the sounds differentiation does not exist in the Japanese language. Therefore if they can’t hear or won’t hear, you should never concede defeat, but must often give priority to more demanding problems in pronunciation.
As pitch range and stress is different they are sometimes unable to catch all the words in sentences when English is spoken. Practice raising and lowering pitch levels to indicate that new topics have begun or to show contrast. Get them to focus on natural connected speech, linking and reduced vowel sounds.
The feeling and rhythm of the two languages is intrinsically different. Japanese is more timed in pacing and therefore utterances are produced at roughly equal time intervals. However English is stress-timed with more emphasis on important words. Students tend to speak in an abrupt and disconnected way adversely affecting their comprehensibility by others. You therefore need to alert them to elision, liaison and assimilation and use board work to clearly illustrate examples and listening exercises to help eliminate such errors.
Adult students need to appreciate that they are not just studying a subject, but a spoken language. Through role-plays you should emphasize the importance of trying to be realistic, rather than being and sounding mechanical. Emotion, intonation and gestures are vital in communication. However communicative methodology per se is not always the answer. Mix it up with tasks, PPP for targeted grammar points and lower level classes etc. Be eclectic and experimental in your teaching approach.
Areas to Focus on
Try to instill spontaneity and build confidence with lots of teacher prompting. Encourage risk-taking and volunteering questions and answers, as their cultural background is very orchestrated and deliberately planned. Do lots of expansion activities as responses and language practice is often too brief and curtailed on the part of the students. Use your personality and teaching skills to overcome language shyness. Spoon-feed to build vocabulary and enhance correct pronunciation. Get students to ask questions; share language use through conversations outside the classroom. Reiterate the importance of the message, its purpose and how it is conveyed. Promote group interaction and discourage listening to others purely as a learning mechanism. This is easier said than done and will necessitate all your sensitive supportive techniques at times, as they may find participation is uncomfortable.
Skills learned in the TESOL scenario can easily be practiced in the real world, but in the TEFL set-up it really is language learning in a vacuum. There are some textbooks specifically designed for Japanese learners, but they tend to be more ‘teacher-friendly’ than ‘student-oriented’ as many Japanese never have the experiences/conversations envisaged simply because they generally don’t interact/behave in the manner so imaginatively outlined.
Try to get them to develop an English ‘persona’ to promote extroversion, or you may be surrounded largely by culturally impeded subdued personalities in your class. Receptive skills are weak. Often a recording is just not worthwhile given the time constraints and it is better to read dialogues aloud, at least until they are accustomed to your voice. You might then like to introduce other speaking voices periodically, but don’t expect miracles overnight.
Set challenging tasks that appeal to their Japanese ‘Samurai spirit’ and use lots of educational fun learning games. Use the grammar and vocabulary you know they already have, as few post classroom initiatives will be forthcoming unless homework is specifically assigned.
Get students to do 1-2 minute presentations, initially with back-up notes allowed. Teach the importance of appropriacy for different audiences – this is something they are accustomed to in their own language.
Use the board a lot
Adult Japanese students like to have something tangible to evidence their learning i.e. a textbook, a handout, something written on the board that can be copied. If you are talking to the students, practicing ad-lib conversations, drilling or doing correction techniques, you are teaching on your terms, but perhaps not to the satisfaction of all your students. They can’t visibly see or ‘show’ such learning to friends or family and there is a tendency for them to believe that this is wasted or idle time. It lacks relevance on their part, and surely cannot be important as otherwise the teacher would make them copy it down. Never forget that that old practices die hard.
Never assume they have understood. Do ‘eliciting’ and ‘concept checking’ always, as you can always guarantee that someone has misunderstood, or is simply too reticent. Sometimes it may seem like a Sisyphean task, but please persevere as teachers must never capitulate or become disillusioned in their roles as English Language “missionaries” working within or outside the educational system.