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10 ways to train students to cope with authentic speech

We all know how often our pupils struggle to understand authentic speech when they encounter it for the first time. "It's not like the language we hear in class." "They speak so fast!" "The accent is really weird." "They seem to miss words out."

In this post I'm not going to argue that we should be presenting and practising a total diet of fast, authentic speech. I believe this goes against some basic principles of learning which involve our scaffolding new language, slowing things down to make them easier, moving from easy to harder, avoiding cognitive overload and so on. However, it's quite possible that we neglect preparing students for some of the more frequent cases where the natural spoken form is unlike the "correct" grammatical or written form. This typically occurs when speakers elide from one sound or word to the next, drop redundant words or omit some sounds completely.

In English, if you say "Do you know what he does for a living?" it might actually sound something like this (I'll avoid IPA phonetic symbols in case you don't know them): "Dje know wha' 'e does fer a livin'?" Imagine the difficulties this can create for a novice learner of English.

In French look what happen to this sentence: Tu n'aimes pas ce qu'il a fait il y a deux ans? It would probably sound something like this: T'aime pas squ'il a fait ya deux ans? Or how about this example: Je ne sais pas si tu as fait tes exercices. (Chai pas si t'as fait te zercices.) Or Ils t'ont vu hier aux Invalides. (Y t'ont vu hier au Zinvalides.)

This kind of perceptual difficulty confronts students all the time, especially in languages like English and French where there are so many mismatches between sound and spelling and so many mute sounds, liaisons between words, de-stressed words and syllables and omitted words or sounds.

This might be a bit obvious to you so far, but I only mention it to go on to suggest that we can do some classroom activities which help students adjust ton these problems of perception. How about these;

1.  Dictate short sentences, slowed down or at natural speed, with examples of perceptual difficulty. Students have to write down what they hear using their own phonetic code (assuming you haven't taught them the basics of the IPA).

2.  As above but get students to write down correctly spelled versions of the same utterances.

3.  Target frequently occurring examples of mismatch between authentic speech and "correct" forms. In French these could include:

Omission of "ne", e.g. Je sais pas, je pense pas, je crois pas or before imperatives ("fais pas de bêtises")
Omission (elision) of the "u" sound before verbs beginning with vowels as in: t'aimes, t'adores, t'écoutes.

 3. Get students to transcribe pairs of sentences with identical meaning, some with phrases or chunks which have optional liaison. (Liaison between vowels and consonants is often optional in natural spoken French - liaison can also sound too precious at times to some speakers), e.g.

Vous aimez aller, Venez-ici, Un prix trop élevé, assez intelligent, vous pouvez aller, vous voulez avoir, je vais aller, très habile

4. Teach samples of some common differences in accent in various forms of French, e.g. alternative pronunciations of the "r" sound (uvular or otherwise), variations of nasal vowels (including the common addition of the "ng" sounds after nasals in the south of France), the Canadian accent - or at least one form of it, variations in the pronunciation of "ait" (é or the more open "ai").

5. Do choral and individual repetition of all the above to help embed these forms in students' memories. Make it fun!.

6. Make occasional use of non-text book authentic audio, e.g. from snippets on Audio Lingua or authentic videos from This is Language (£). Do targetted gap-fill focusing on "non-standard" examples of the target language.

7. Be prepared to use natural-sounding French in your own speech to help students get up to speed, e.g. when practising likes and dislikes let them hear both Qu'est-ce que tu aimes faire? and Qu'est-ce que t'aimes faire? 

8. Mix up your pace of delivery in teacher-led oral work, e.g. question-answer or oral drills. I'd say your default should be a bit slower than normal, but not artificially very slow.

9. Teach aspects of grammar through listening, e.g. introduce the future tense in the traditional way using pairs of pictures, one column depicting events in the present, the other events in the future and enabling students to hear the spoken form first many times before they see a written form. In this way they clearly hear that, essentially, the first person future is marked by the sound "erai". Although this does not specifically relate to authentic forms of speech versus "correct" forms, it provides useful ear training to cope with all speech.

10. Focus on intensive input/output work of shorter audio examples, rather than general comprehension of longer extracts. The latter approach may produce poorer long-term benefits (too much incomprehensible language to take in - cognitive overload - demotivation")

To conclude and reiterate, it's hard to prepare students for real-life speech since you simply don't have the classroom time to build up the necessary skills, but you can take some steps to make things a bit easier. Slightly slowed down speech makes total sense in general, but I'd advise providing plenty of more authentic listening too provided there is some intensive practice associated with it. The most able pupils do develop the necessary decoding skills quite naturally over time, but many students would benefit from more targeted practice.


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