Lesson Library: Pronunciation, 3rd/4th year AP

by Holly Meehan
February 15, 2018

Lesson Library image

Name: Steve Swaim
School: Ravenscroft School
Language: Spanish
Year group: 3rd or 4th year AP
Topic/module: Pronunciation and Past Holidays

Along with the obvious benefits of watching/listening to native speakers talk about a variety of aspects of their lives, I use these videos as a springboard for other discussions about the nature of Spanish itself. As I incessantly tell my students, with around 430 million Spanish speakers in 21 countries spread out over four continents, there are bound to be variations in pronunciation, vocabulary and even occasionally syntax.

For example, the young woman in video 5157 is from Colombia, and after listening to her video and determining what she said (using the comprehension questions), we explored other aspects of her Spanish. Toward the end of the video, she stumbles a tad over a word. She says: “donde todos particiban… participábamos” This is an opportunity to talk about the difference between competence and performance. Does the fact that she trips over “participábamos” mean that she’s an incompetent speaker? Not at all. Do we speak and pronounce English to perfection with every utterance? Not at all! Getting tripped up over a word (but eventually getting it out right) has nothing to do with underlying competence, but rather it’s just a transient error of performance. This helps the students feel much better about their own occasional verbal stumbles, and leads to the idea of successful self-correction in their oral work, which IS an effective demonstration of competence.

I asked the class to listen closely to her pronunciation—is there anything that sounds distinctive? They responded that she tends to draw some of her words out, especially when she says “también”. I told them that in my experience in Colombia, an “n” sound especially at the end of a word often comes out as an “ng” sound (ŋ) and as we listened again, indeed her pronunciation sounds more like “tambiéŋ”. Similarly, “en el colegio” sounds like “eŋel colegio”. This is simply a phonological feature of many Colombians, and is interesting to note.

Indeed, as we listen to the various speakers, we become more attuned to variations of pronunciation, and hence develop strategies for accurate interpretation of “alternative pronunciation”. Another example is the fellow in video 2988. He’s from Spain, and is recorded in the Plaza Mayor in Madrid, although as he says, he’s not from Madrid. When I asked the students if they notice anything about his pronunciation, and of course they giggled about his “lisp”—oh, those wacky zany Thpaniardth! This is an opportunity to explain that this is not at all a “lisp”, but rather a predictable phonological feature of standard Castillian Spanish. He’s perfectly capable of saying an “s”: witness his “socorrista”, “piscina”, “unos amigos”, and so on. No, in Spain, they tend to use the “ceceo” when “c” comes before “e” or “i”, and every instance of “z”. I also used this same fellow in a different way. As we are diving deep into the subtleties of the past tense in Spanish, I used his video as a form of ear training. We watched it twice, and then I asked the students to make a sound (they ended up tapping a pen on the desk) whenever they heard a preterite verb. We did that twice. I then asked how many preterite verb forms they heard, and the majority of the class got it right!

The fellow in video 1530 has a slightly different Spain accent, from Sevilla in the south of Spain, as he tends to elide his word-final “s” sounds when he gets going rapidly. This can be a challenge if one is not used to hearing this, so we watch his video not for testing comprehension, but rather with the transcript up right beside it, so we can hear when he leaves out the “s” sound. The students learn that this word- and syllable-final “s” deletion is a strong feature of especially Caribbean Spanish (Puerto Rico and Cuba, most notably), and that even many speakers from elsewhere in the Spanish-speaking world have a hard time understanding the accent. So it’s okay if you don’t get everything he says. After all, if you studied Oxonian English as a Spaniard, and then listened to a Pender County tobacco farmer (I’m from North Carolina 😊) you wouldn’t understand much of what he says. Does that somehow make you bad at listening comprehension? Not for a second!

Long and short, these videos are so much more than an exercise in “can we understand what they’re saying”. It’s an opportunity to explore so many facets of normal, everyday, conversational Spanish, to get inside authentic language production, as opposed to the perfect recordings one often finds for “comprehension” purposes, to begin an exploration, however informal, of dialectology in the Hispanic world, to help the students gain a more authentic pronunciation, and in general this resource helps make what we study real.

 

Thank you, Steve!

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