Speech role models

John Murphy of Georgia State published an article about using non-native speakers, and specifically the Spanish actor Javier Bardem, as models for teaching English as a Second Language (ESL) or as a foreign language (EFL). Mura Nava tweeted a blog post from Robin Walker connecting Murphy’s work to similar work by Kenworthy and Jenkins, Peter Roach and others. I tried something like this when I taught ESL back in 2010, more or less unaware of all the previous work that Murphy cites, and Mura Nava was interested to know how it went, so here’s the first part of a quick write-up.

When I was asked to teach a class in ESL Speech “Advanced Oral/Aural Communication” at Saint John’s University in the fall of 2010, I had taught French and Linguistics, but I had only tutored English one-on-one. My wife is an experienced professor of ESL and was a valuable source of advice, but our student populations and our goals were different, so I did not simply copy her methods.

One concept that I introduced was that of a Speech Role Model. When I was learning French, I found it invaluable to imitate entertainers; I’ve never met Jacques Dutronc, but I often say that he was one of my best French teachers because of the clever lyricists he worked with and his clear, wry delivery. He was just one of the many French people that I imitated to improve my pronunciation.

This was all back in the days of television and cassettes, and most of the French culture that we had access to here in the United States was filtered through the wine, Proust and Rohmer tastes of American Francophiles. As a geeky kid with a fondness for comedy I found Edith Piaf and even Gérard Depardieu too alien to emulate. I found out about Dutronc in college through a bootleg tape made for me by a student from France who lived down the hall, and then I had to study abroad in France to find more role models.

With today’s multimedia Internet technology, we have an incredible the ability to listen to millions of people from around the world. At Saint John’s I asked my students to choose a Speech Role Model for English: a native speaker that they personally admired and wanted to sound like. I was surprised by the number of students who named President Obama as their role model, including female students from China, but on reflection it was an obvious choice, as he is a clear, forceful and eloquent speaker. Other students chose actresses Meryl Streep and Jennifer Anniston, talk-show host Bill O’Reilly and local newscaster Pat Kiernan.

One notable choice, hip-hop artist Eminem, gave me the opportunity to discuss covert prestige and its challenges. Another, the character of Sheldon Cooper from the television series “The Big Bang Theory,” was too scripted, and I was debating whether to accept it when I discovered that it was just a cover so that the student could plagiarize crowdsourced transcriptions.

In subsequent assignments I asked the students to find a YouTube video of their role model and to transcribe a short excerpt. I then asked the students to record themselves imitating that excerpt from their Speech Role Models. Some of the students were engaged and interested, but others seemed frustrated and discouraged. When I listened to my students and comparing their speech to their chosen role models, I had an idea why. The students who were engaged were either naturally enthusiastic or good mimics, but the challenge was to motivate the others. There was so much distance between them and the native English speakers, much more than could be covered in a semester. That was when I thought of adding a non-native Second Speech Role Model. I’ll have to leave that for another post.

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