Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Teaching Speaking (1) by M. S. Thirumalai, Ph.D.


How do you get a second/foreign language learner to speak English? You may just ask the student to speak, ask him to say something in English. You can even tell him what to say. He may or may not understand the meaning of the utterances he is asked to produce, but he will imitate what you told him to repeat.
Another way is to ask the student a question. He will try to answer if he realizes that he is being asked to answer a question. For this, he should understand what the question is, and he should have some mastery over the English phonology, grammar, and lexicon necessary to frame an appropriate answer. This is a more difficult task.
Asking and answering questions is an essential part of teaching, learning, and using any language. Asking questions and eliciting answers may be used for various purposes. First of all, asking questions enables the student to practice what he has learned. Secondly, you may ask questions to find whether the student understands the new vocabulary and the structures, and whether he is able to use them appropriately.
As Bowen et al. (1985) points out, “successful learners should be able to produce their thoughts in a way that will make their message accessible to native speakers of English who have no special training in linguistics or in the native language of the speaker.” You are a good speaker if you do not attract the attention of your listeners to how you say something, but to what you say.
Remember also that our goal in teaching speaking in English is not developing accuracy of pronunciation. There are several, almost insurmountable, problems that an adult second or foreign learner of English will face if he or she aims at perfect pronunciation like a native speaker of English. It is not accuracy of pronunciation but adequacy of fluency and communicative effectiveness that becomes the focus of speaking skill.
Despite a heavy accent, if the speech of a second/foreign language learner can be comprehended by a native speaker of English without forcing the native speaker to speak in shorter sentences than he normally does, with greater repetition and paraphrase of what he says for the benefit of the second language learner, we may consider the second or foreign language learner to have adequate efficiency in English speech. However, this is only an impressionistic evaluation, at the mechanical level of speaking. Speaking skill in English includes more than adequacy of pronunciation, as already pointed out. The ultimate goal of the speaking skill in English is to enable the learner to communicate his or her thoughts, ideas, and feelings via oral language to meet the needs faced by him or her.


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