Stephanie Peterson - Project Implementation Podcast Blog Entry

Stephanie Peterson - Project Implementation Podcast Blog Entry Transcription
My TechQuest is about increasing oral proficiency, and learning and using proper French
pronunciation. The thing to remember about this project is that the desired end result cannot be
accomplished in one lesson or unit. This sort of thing is a process that would take place over a
duration of time. For my classroom, I would hope to lay the groundwork of listening skills,
pronunciation, and phonetics over the course of a year or more, in levels one and two. Later
levels would build upon those skills and increase oral proficiency, but again, this is a process.
Listening activities would be consistent throughout. Phonetics would be taught and practiced
symbol by symbol. Speaking in French would expand from short, simple sentences to full
paragraphs and conversations, but again, this takes time and practice. Often times students are
daunted by French; they are intimidated by the seemingly nonsensical spelling of the words and
the many sounds that are unlike those they know in English. This intimidation prevents them
from feeling comfortable speaking in French. They worry so much that they might be saying a
word incorrectly instead of focusing on the meaning of what they’re saying. To increase oral
proficiency, we must first improve pronunciation, and to improve pronunciation, we must teach
about sounds and spelling and how to connect the written words with what the student will hear
and say.
To help acclimate a student’s ear to French and connect what they hear to orthography, many
teachers who teach phonetics start with minimal pairs, which are two words that differ in only
one sound and have two separate meanings. In English, an example of that would be “pat” and
“bat” or “rice” and “rise”. These words are different in meaning, but nearly identical in
pronunciation with the exception of only one sound. Having students differentiate between two
minimal pairs allows them to become familiar with the different phonemes that a language is
made up of. In the first listening activity, students are given a list of minimal pairs in French.
The teacher says one of the words and the students must decide which word was said based on
what they heard.
I was both surprised and delighted that the majority of my students were able to pick out the
correct spoken word from each pair with over 80% accuracy. Many students had 100%
accuracy. This was surprising because I had used this activity at the beginning of French I, so the
students had not yet had much exposure to spoken or written French in general. Ideally, in the
future, I would do this activity twice: the first time, listening to me, a nonnative speaker, saying
the words. Then, a native speaker would say the words (some answers would be different, some
the same), which would allow the students to hear native speech. After checking answers, we go
over all the pairs, discussing pronunciation and practicing saying the words.
After this basic listening activity, I re-taught the basic vowels using phonetic symbols. The basic
vowel symbols are nearly identical to the French orthography that the students had already
learned (“ah” = /a/ “ay” = /e/, “eee” = /i/, etc), so this was not confusing to them. Then, I used
another similar listening activity, this time with the words written in phonetics, using these basic
vowel symbols. (Just so you know, if you do not have the International Phonetic Alphabet
installed on your computer, some of the phonetic symbols on the worksheet will not show up
correctly). Again, these words were minimal pairs, differing in only one sound and meaning.
And again, students had to decide what word was pronounced. The students did even better on
this activity than on the previous one. I believe the reason for this is that writing a word in
phonetics simplifies the “spelling”. Many words in French contain numerous vowels which may
only be pronounced as one sound. For example “eau” is pronounced “oh” or /o/. A beginning
language student would see these three consecutive vowels and most likely be confused about
how to say the word correctly. Phonetically “eau” is written as one symbol, /o/, which is far
simpler to understand, pronunciation-wise. Again, a change I would like for this exercise would
be the addition of speech from a native speaker.
The important lesson students learn from minimal pairs is how important pronunciation is.
Mixing up a single sound can change the entire meaning of a word. For example, a preferred
example is the two phrases “J’ai pu” and “J’ai poux.” These two phrases differ in only one vowel
sound, but have two very different meanings. “J’ai pu” means, “I was able”, whereas “J’ai poux”
means, “I have lice.” Imagine the confusion that could arise if the wrong vowel was used!
Obviously this is just the first of many exercises and activities used to familiarize students with
spoken French. The students would go on to learn additional phonemes, and how to string them
together from monosyllabic words to full paragraphs. In addition, they would learn how those
phonemes relate to orthography and vice versa. Although there are, of course, exceptions to
every rule, the important thing is that students understand how the spelling connects to the
sounds they hear and say. Once they have this down, their pronunciation is greatly improved, as
is their oral proficiency.