We’ve all been there. Admit it. And our language-learning students have, too. Being tongue-tied can be extremely disconcerting, particularly when stumbling along trying to speak in another language. Over time, repeated instances of having something you believe is worth saying but being unable to express yourself appropriately in the moment, especially with an audience of native speakers, can lead to demoralization and, eventually, silence. So, what do you do? You listen to the others. Let them talk. You’re all ears. Maybe carefully formulate some things you’d like to say, just to show you’re really there. After careful planning, you take the plunge and say something while secretly hoping that nobody asks any direct questions that you don’t have prepared answers for. Without fluency in speaking a foreign language, everyday social interaction is like working overtime in the anxiety factory, generating tremendous stress beyond the normal tensions that we generally experience when dealing with others in our own native tongue.
Yet, even situations that we usually carefully script, such as giving a presentation, interviewing for a job, or explaining our ailments to a doctor, can become just another source of embarrassment. While speaking, you become uncomfortably aware that your accent is throwing off your listener(s), who can’t follow along because your pronunciation is unfamiliar or stereotypically foreign to them, perhaps even shutting down their receptivity towards understanding anything you say. Once again, the feedback loop of frustration from not being understood ramps up your nervousness, perhaps resulting in you speaking even less intelligibly than you might actually be capable of.
Let’s keep in mind that many non-native speakers regularly find themselves in such situations, with some being able to push themselves past sticking points in their competence – managing to find other ways to communicate, often through sheer chutzpah – and others losing confidence to the point of becoming trapped in an uneasy cloister of silence. Given today’s widespread online opportunities for improving reading, listening, and even writing, our students particularly need us to help them confidently channel what they already know about our language into intelligible speech acts. Especially for lower-level learners, then, it would seem that improving their speaking competence and pronunciation should be a priority for our classes. But there are so many of them and only one of us. As individual language teachers, what can we do to encourage those who have become demoralized by their inability to speak their mind, who often feel treated like children while bumbling around with simple words in front of native speakers? Where to start? How to multiply our power as teachers so that we can solve individual problems through collective effort?
I propose that a structured program of reading aloud in tandem language pairs could be one way forward.
The goal here is enabling native speakers to help their non-native counterparts to better and more confidently express themselves in the languages they are learning. My basic idea is that two language learners – for me, this would generally mean an English native speaker studying German and a German native speaker studying English – can benefit from engaging in reading aloud sessions together. Although most competent native speakers do not usually see themselves as teachers of their own language, each of our non-native students can certainly benefit from being advised by a native-level peer. As a consequence, with each participant now being considered an “expert” in their own language, the teacher’s role largely shifts towards organizing, training, monitoring, and assessing tandem language pairs as they work together autonomously.
In a recent publication (Hank, 2022), I have explained in detail the rationale and possible method of this approach. Here I only provide a few words regarding the whys and a basic overview of how such a program could be run.
What are the advantages of reading aloud? Similar to the way that untrained muscles are usually resistant to engaging in physical activity and need to be coaxed into fluid movement via structured and programmed exercises, those learning a new language need to train their vocal apparatus to properly articulate new and unfamiliar sounds. I remember, for example, how much my throat hurt when coming to terms with the German umlaut (e.g., grün) because it involved activating muscles in novel ways. I’m sure you have your own (painfully embarrassing) memories, too. Reading aloud from prepared texts gives learners a means to actually speak at relatively high language and content levels without the stress and uncertainties of needing to simultaneously think about what they want to say, which words are best, and how they should be ordered, as that has already been done by the text’s author(s). This saving of mental energy allows learners to focus almost exclusively on how a given text should sound when transformed into speech, giving the vocal apparatus a workout in the process. Moreover, unlike the generally unconscious process through which native speakers form their own speaking voices, having time to prepare reading-aloud speech acts provides learners the opportunity to consciously mold their own identity – how they would like to sound in the new language (D. Frohning, personal communication, March 2021) – which can be enhanced through dramatic methods of voice training. Meanwhile, as native speakers, they will gain opportunities to self-reflexively reconsider their own ideas about their mother tongue and acceptable variations in speaking it.
There are many possible ways to structure and implement a tandem reading aloud program, the peculiarities of which I cannot go into here. What I have in mind assumes an educational institution where at least two languages are being taught. A university exchange program, with native speakers of two languages forming a steady supply of tandem participants, would be ideal. Nonetheless, the method is quite flexible and can be applied to many different situations and needs with respect to, for example, group size, different age or competence levels, or non-native speakers teaching non-native speakers. From my perspective, the basic components should include the following:
- Teachers from two different languages organize a group of tandem-pair partners, training participants to read aloud with feeling (avoiding rote, monotone performance) and give each other fruitful (non-threatening) feedback.
- Set baselines for each language at the beginning of the program by recording spontaneous reading of the same relatively brief text(s) by all participants, both native and non-native (see “Please call Stella” as a possible baseline text for English; Weinberger, 2015).
- For each session, pairs prepare self- or teacher-chosen texts, using a simple graphic mark-up system to indicate how they should be read aloud (e.g., pauses, emphasis, shifts in tone; see Cypert & Petro, 2019; Gabrielatos, 2002). Partners doing script markup together might be a good idea. In a pinch, texts can be read aloud by apps such as Word for learners to get ideas about basic flow, though this not ideal.
- During a session, pairs engage in two or more rounds of reading their prepared texts aloud, offering each other feedback and advice on improving delivery. This may also include free discussion of text content or other relevant issues.
- Pairs regularly meet with teachers to monitor progress and tandem functionality.
- Assess progress via participants recording a re-reading of the baseline texts, comparing them with their recorded performances from the beginning of the program.
- Interview or survey participants about whether their speaking confidence has improved.
At least some of these steps should be carried out with the entire group of tandem pairs, especially training participants in reading aloud and giving feedback as well as assessing baseline reading performance (steps 1 and 6). All steps can be done online or in-person, depending on preferences and conditions. Length of program and number of pairs is flexible. After a while, rotation of tandem partners within a group may be beneficial. Individual idiosyncrasies or cultural differences may need to be addressed for pairs to work smoothly; in this vein, dysfunctional pairs need to be identified quickly so that steps can be taken to improve their ability to work together or arrange a change of partners. Ideally, both tandem partners would be native speakers of their respective languages, but high-level non-native speakers may also be suitable for the program. It would be helpful if both teachers have at least a working knowledge of each other’s languages.
And that’s about it (for a fuller explanation, see Hank, 2022). At bottom, although modern technology for recording reading-aloud performances or meeting for tandem sessions via online platforms is strongly advised, the mechanics of this approach draw on the age-old practice of reading aloud to others and participants working one-on-one to help each other along. I assume that working with only one peer partner at a time will reduce performance anxiety while also enabling immediate feedback that goes far beyond what an individual teacher can offer in a classroom environment. Partners using their own self-created texts for reading aloud (e.g., personal profiles, application letters, course essays, or speeches) can trigger an add-on benefit of receiving advice from their partner not only regarding pronunciation but writing as well. Aside from language benefits, during their interaction partners will also reveal to each other social and cultural differences that can help learners better understand the expectations, habits, and concerns of those who speak their target language. In this manner, slowly but surely, language learners are likely to improve pronunciation and gain confidence so that they can feel more secure when engaging in spontaneous conversation or public communication in native contexts.
For a number of reasons that I won’t go into here, I have not yet had the conditions to implement this program myself, though I am looking forward to the day when I can do so. I would greatly appreciate feedback or suggestions, particularly from anyone who is already doing something similar or actually tries out some version of my proposed program. So, please get in touch with another teacher of another language and get started ASAP!
Cypert, R. & Petro, M. (2019). Prosody instruction intervention as a means to improved reading comprehension. Applied Cognitive Psychology, Volume 33, Issue 6, November/December, pp. 1305–1311. https://doi.org/10.1002/acp.3593
Gabrielatos, C. (2002). Reading loud and clear: Reading aloud in ELT. ERIC, ED477572. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/234654282_Reading_Loud_and_Clear_Reading_Aloud_in_ELT
Hank, C. T. (2022). Reading aloud in tandem pairs: A sound experiment (?). Fremdsprachen und Hochschule 98: 55–72. https://www.academia.edu/114013950/Reading_Aloud_in_Tandem_Pairs_A_Sound_Experiment_
Weinberger, S. (2015). Please call Stella. Speech Accent Archive. George Mason University. http://accent.gmu.edu/howto.php
Chris Hank teaches various classes in English for Academic Purposes at Humboldt University of Berlin (Germany). He has written a theory of political slogans and about the historical importance of spoken-word artist Gil Scott-Heron’s work. He sees the classroom as a place for promoting international understanding and fomenting political change.