Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Brushing Up on My British Pronunciation

Now that Sapporo Symphony Chorus is aware of my amazing credentials (since I made sure they did!), I was asked to make a CD of pronunciation for "Peter Grimes," the opera we're performing in September.

After the absurdity (and agony) of sitting through an English pronunciation lesson by a Japanese professor (selected, apparently, because his area of expertise is Shakespeare), I simply couldn't sit back and be quiet any longer (which is one reason I make a terrible Japanese person). One reason they may have been reluctant to ask me for more help with pronunciation may be that, because I'm American, they assumed I would only teach so-called American pronunciation. What I decided to do is write to the contact person for the Symphony Chorus letting him know about my background in theatre, including acting in, directing, and teaching British drama.

In composing my message, I was fortunate to have an American friend advise me in the tone of the message and how to convey a sense of wanting to cooperate, in the best Japanese spirit. She made sure I understood how important it was not to undermine the Japanese professor, and to say how valuable the lesson was, even though I actually thought it barely adequate. Most importantly, I let them know that my services would be free!

The contact person responded to my email (which was almost like a resume, including all the universities where I've taught and the fact that I've taught pronunciation as well as other aspects of English to students from over 60 countries), with the following:

Thank you very much for your sincere proposal.
I will convey your mind and career to the chorus members, Osanai sensei and Oshima sensei.
I think your help will be valuable for us to advance our English pronunciation.
And I hope the comunication around you will develop fellowship and friendship between the chorus members.

Not only that, but he asked if he might forward the message to the contact person for the Sapporo Symphony Orchestra, to which I immediately responded that it was fine. A few days later I got a message from her including the following:

I'd like to express to you my deepest gratitude for thinking about Sapporo Symphony Chorus. Since we started singing P.G. I've been thinking that I want to learn English pronunciation from CA-san. Actually, Prof. H________' lesson was a lucid, so we understood the basis. I think he is excellent,and I enjoyed his lesson.But,there is a limit to everything… . Nobody pronunces English like you.So we have to learn real English pronunciation from you. Fortunately,you are in our chorus. Please contrivute to our concert's success. I really hope so!! I want you to help the conductors and us as a professional teacher of ESL.

I was ecstatic because it was the first time my expertise had been openly acknowledged. I was so glad I had sent an email because I feel that it has opened up a line of communication for the first time. It was also interesting that, although hardly anyone speaks to me in English at rehearsals, except for a friend who lived in England for a year, both contact people are able to use English. I guess they just needed a bit of a nudge.

Now everyone has a copy of the CD, with my best approximation of British pronunciation. Although the Sapporo Academy Chorus conductor has been asking me to check pronunciation during rehearsals, it remains to be seen how much the Sapporo Symphony Chorus conductors will acknowledge the presence of a native speaker of English in their midst. At least other members of both choruses have already started feeling more comfortable asking me questions about pronunciation.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Minimal Pairs

Ha! I just came across the abstract of an article which reinforces my opinion of the use of minimal pairs in teaching pronunciation.

According to Adam Brown in his essay, “Minimal pairs: minimal importance?”,

Minimal pairs spring to many teachers' minds when the topic of pronunciation teaching is raised. They also form the focus of many course-books on pronunciation. This article [in the ELT Journal] argues that minimal pairs do not merit this attention. There are other aspects of pronunciation which are of greater importance, and there are other ways of teaching vowel and consonant pronunciation.

ELT Journal 1995 49(2):169-175
Retrieved March 12, 2008, from http://eltj.oxfordjournals.org/cgi/content/abstract/49/2/169

Unfortunately the entire article is not available to those without a subscription to the ELT Journal. I, for one, plan to do further research into this area.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

CA Learns English Pronunciation (Part II)

“She sells sea shells by the seashore.” Oh, yeah, repeating that nonsensical tongue twister is going to be really valuable in helping members of the chorus improve their pronunciation for the opera “Peter Grimes” that we're doing in September.

Or how about, “Enter sir [sic] Ferdinand; his face is stern, his words are terse, his nerves are worse, he speak in verse.” How is that supposed to help with a line from the opera such as, “Yet only such contemptuous springtide can tickle the virile impotence of man.”?

Minimal Pairs - Certainly there's a place for minimal pairs, and I use them in my pronunciation classes. It's not exactly a new concept. But rather than perfectly useless pairs such as “easy/weasy” and “earl/whirl,” a much more effective use of minimal pair practice would have been to use words from the actual lyrics such as “ship/sheep,” “slip/sleep,” and so on.

And while explaining that the spelling of Japanese words using “si” is invariable mispronounced as “shi” (there being no “si” sound in Japanese), why not apply that to a word such as “gossip,” where the S's convey a sense of gossip, especially in the full sentence, “When women gossip, the result is someone doesn't sleep at night” (the first line sung by the chorus in the opera), which is full of sibilants.

OK, so once again, I'm fuming that, as a native speaker of English, I had to sit through a pronunciation lesson from a Japanese speaker. [See CA Learns English Pronunciation (Part I) for details on the first time.]

This time the sensei's credentials are that he teaches Shakespeare at Fuji Women's University. Well, how about someone who has a Master of Arts in Theatre, has performed Shakespeare, has an M.A. in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages, and has been teaching pronunciation to non-native speakers for some 25 years. I suppose there's no comparison.

I hope you notice that my comments on this evening's pronunciation lesson are dripping with sarcasm. Once again, it was humiliating for me to sit through a lesson in English pronunciation, especially since I could have taught it just as well but in a more dynamic way than simply lecturing and having people parroting my words.

The point where I really felt the absurdity of it all is when someone was consulting a dictionary to help the “sensei” check on the pronunciation for the first vowel sound in “languishes” as I, as native speaker, sat there silently mouthing the word.

Let's reverse the situation. A native Japanese speaker is participating in an American chorus that is rehearsing a song in Japanese. An American who has studied in Japan in brought in to teach Japanese pronunciation. The Japanese person sits there with absolutely no one checking with him/her on how to pronounce the words. I simply can't fathom such a situation.

My biggest gripe is that anything I say doesn't seem to be taken seriously. The Sapporo Symphony Chorus conductor barely acknowledges that I speak English, and I feel dismissed whenever I attempt to bring up a point about pronunciation. People were crowding around the “sensei” after the lesson with all sorts of questions, whereas only a few people have asked me a question now and then. I feel as though my authority has been undermined. And if the conductor won't even acknowledge me as a professional in the field, who else is going to?

My rant will probably continue, but I'm going to publish this much. YOUR COMMENTS ARE WELCOME!