How Should We Talk to Our Students?

If we’re serious about providing the input that our students need to acquire language, then we should be talking to our students—a lot. We know that we need to focus on communicating real messages and ensuring that our students are hearing words in meaningful contexts. But how exactly should we speak when we provide that input? Do we talk at a “natural” pace, like we would when talking to other fluent speakers of the language? Do we talk to our students like babies, using slow, high-pitched voices? Do we pause in between every word to make sure they understood everything?

First, I think it’s important to speak slowly to our students—though, of course, the exact speed we use will depend on our students’ level. With absolute beginning-level students, I speak very slowly, but, with intermediate-level students, I try to speak only a little more slowly than I normally would when talking to other fluent speakers. Learners have a slower processing speed when listening to the target language, so they need more time to listen and process what they’re hearing. Talking at a normal speed sounds extremely fast to lower-level learners, and it will be very difficult for them to understand anything. AndImage result for i don't understand funny picture if they can’t understand, they won’t be able to pick up new words. Plus, it’s a lot easier for students to zone out and disengage from class when they don’t understand much. Listening to someone speak at typical native-speaker speed and trying to figure out what they’re saying takes a lot of intense concentration for learners. But if we talk slowly and make our language comprehensible to the students, they will be more likely to stay engaged during class because it’s easier to pay attention and it’s more interesting for them.

Gradually, over time, as learners hear more and more of the language, they will become faster at processing it. I know that this has happened to me in Spanish, the language I’m working on acquiring. When I first started learning Spanish, whenever I heard native Spanish speakers talking, it seemed like they were speaking incredibly fast. I couldn’t understand anything, or maybe only one or two words here or there. But, over time (over the last two years), I’ve gotten better at understanding these native-speed conversations. Now, the conversations don’t sound nearly as fast to me as they used to. I haven’t done any special exercises or anything—I’ve just listened to a lot of Spanish. I started out listening to slowly spoken language (such as watching videos of Spanish teachers using TPRS, Dreaming Spanish, or other similar videos online), and I have gradually moved up to watching authentic movies and TV shows in Spanish. Now, when I hear native Spanish speakers talking, they don’t seem to be speaking nearly as fast, and I can understand a lot more than I used to. I think every language learner can relate to this. We all start out thinking that native speakers are talking extremely fast, but, over time, as we get more and more exposure to the language, we get faster and faster in processing it.

It’s important to speak slowly to students—but, of course, we still want to speak in a natural way. One of the dangers when talking to language learners is to become too accommodating to their language level and to speak in a way that is completely unnatural. Using overly clear, overly simplified speech can become a problem if we want our students to get accustomed to hearing natural language.

I mostly notice this problem with pronunciation. Sometimes, we are so eager to make our speech understandable to students that we over-enunciate to the point of pronouncing words in an unnatural way. To give one example, I caught myself doing this a few years ago when some students mentioned the difficulties they have in saying and understanding numbers like “thirteen” and “thirty,” “fourteen” and “forty,” etc. I was trying to be helpful and was pronouncing the different forms slowly and deliberately to help them hear the difference. But after a few minutes, I noticed that I had been pronouncing the “t” in thirty, forty, etc. as an aspirated “t” sound. However, in American English, the “t” in these words is almost always a “flap t,” which is pronounced more like a “d.” So in my attempt to pronounce the word clearly, I was actually pronouncing it unnaturally. This particular example is especially problematic because not only is it unnatural American English pronunciation, it also creates more confusion between the words “thirteen” and “thirty.” The “t” is usually aspirated in numbers like “thirteen” and “fourteen” but not in numbers like “thirty” and “forty,” so it is one of the main features that helps us differentiate between the two similar-sounding numbers (along with the different syllable stress). So my attempts at clear pronunciation actually made the two forms sound more alike than they usually are in natural speech, thereby increasing my students’ confusion. This is just one small example, but there are of course many other times when it’s easy to over-enunciate to the point where our speech becomes unnatural and, consequently, unhelpful to our students.

Contractions and reduced forms are another example. In a language like English, we use a lot of contractions and reduced forms, so it’s important for students to hear them often. One example is “going to.” In spoken speech, we rarely say “going to,” pronouncing each sound individually. We almost always say “gonna.” So when I’m talking to students, I try to use “gonna” regularly, even if I’m speaking slowly.

One tip for keeping our speech comprehensible but still natural is to pause frequently—however, we should pause between sentences and phrases, not between each individual word. Bill VanPatten mentioned this on his podcast in the episode “Input in the Classroom.” As he says, pausing between each word is very artificial and distorts the language.

To be more specific, pausing between each individual word changes the natural intonation and rhythm of the language, and it can cause us to stress syllables and words that are typically unstressed. Our students need to hear the natural rhythm of English from the beginning so they can eventually use it themselves. Therefore, if you are saying a sentence like, “Last weekend, I went shopping at Target and I bought a new TV,” you could break it up as: “Last weekend (pause) I went shopping at Target (pause) and I bought a new TV.” This gives students the extra processing time they need but still maintains the natural rhythm of the language.

To find areas for your own improvement, I highly recommend recording yourself while you teach class. When we’re teaching, we’re often thinking about so many other things that it can be hard to pay attention to our own speech. It’s easier to notice if you record it and listen later. I’ve started occasionally recording myself during class, which has helped me to notice how I talk and what I’m doing to make my language more comprehensible for my students. I know it feels scary to record yourself, and I know that everyone hates listening to recordings of their own voice, but I think it’s totally worth it! I just take a video using my cell phone set up on a small tripod like this one. I can watch it later and notice the things I did well and the things I need to improve.

When talking to students, striking that balance between comprehensible and natural can sometimes be difficult. On the one hand, we want to make sure we are speaking slowly and clearly so our students can understand us. But we also don’t want to speak so slowly and clearly that we speak in a way that is completely unnatural and that changes the pronunciation and the rhythm of the language. With practice, we can get better at it. And we should keep doing our best to provide that steady stream of input, always keeping in mind that it takes a long time (years!) for students to be able to understand regular speech spoken by native speakers. If we continue giving them input they can understand, and if they listen and listen and listen some more, they will improve over time.

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