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Knowledge Co-Creation - Profiles of researchers

English Sound Acquisition– In Search of a Bridge between Theory and Practice

Mamiko Orii
Associate Professor, Faculty of Education and Integrated Arts and Sciences

Knowing how difficult it is to teach people

My area of specialization is research into second-language acquisition, with a particular emphasis on English sounds. Through education practice, I have researched what kind of study methods are more effective for Japanese learners to pick up English pronunciation and listening.

I am a graduate of the Department of English Language and Literature in Waseda University’s School of Education, where I now teach. In my undergraduate years, I was an active member of the English club WESA (Waseda English Speaking Association), which I joined having been impressed by the English speech given by the club’s president at my department’s freshman orientation meeting. By my third year I had become one of the club’s senior members, and gave junior members guidance on speeches and pronunciation became the catalyst for my entry into research on sound acquisition.

Although my compulsory English phonetics course had given me a basic knowledge of the subject, that knowledge could not be applied to my pronunciation training and so for a whole year I felt powerless at being unable to help my junior fellows. Around that time, my third-year seminar teacher Hiroshi Matsuzaka told me about the academic field of second-language acquisition research. Hoping to study the subject more deeply and combine it with effective pronunciation training, I decided to go on to graduate school in the UK.

My next four and a half years were spent at Durham University studying for a master’s degree and doctorate. For my doctoral thesis, taking a group of Japanese students studying in the UK as my subjects, I studied how their listening comprehension and pronunciation ability changed month by month for a year. Although their pronunciation of individual sounds and syllable structures improved relatively quickly if they were in an environment where they could hear English often, I found that other sound changes such as accent and rhythm, coupling and omission, that is to say, their prosody, did not improve so easily. I attempted to describe this phenomenon using underspecification theory.

Photos: (left) Cityscape of Durham, North East England; (right) In front of Durham Cathedral

Seeking a bridge between theory and practice

At graduate school I conducted theory-oriented research, but after returning to Japan my main work became education practice, teaching listening, phonetics and pronunciation at university. The language education field is broadly divided into people whose focus is theoretical research and people whose approach centers on education practice in the classroom, and there is little interaction between the two. I decided to conduct research linking these two approaches, and have set myself the dual goal of improving the quality of my lessons and contributing to sound acquisition theory.

At first, I applied different methods of teaching to some ordinary English conversation classes and compared their levels of improvement. For several years, as a Grants-in-aid for Scientific Research project, I investigated the degree of progress in pronunciation and listening comprehension in three classes, one where I taught individual sounds (r and l, etc.), one where I taught prosody, and one where I taught sounds implicitly by dictation. According to the results of pronunciation evaluations by native English educational experts, and as previous research in the UK had shown, prosody was the most difficult pronunciation field to master, but explicit teaching of prosody was the most effective instruction method.

Excited by my results, next I looked carefully at methods of prosody instruction. But it was a disaster! The reason was that my students got bored of my persistent teaching method. In classroom questionnaires, some students wrote that they wanted improvement results in things like listening, expressions and vocabulary. So I obtained a Grant-in-aid for Scientific Research to develop listening materials for travel English, and even now I am looking for ways to add to these materials such as by inserting some pronunciation training.

Recently, I have also actively adopted listening strategies. Whether in their mother tongue or a second language, people can fully understand content more quickly by utilizing background knowledge and context information to imagine what it means. In their mother tongue they are able to do this naturally, but listening to a foreign language there is a tendency to focus only on the sounds they can pick up. In listening strategy instruction, students practice by consciously guessing the content from key words, or grasping meaning by paying attention to typical paragraph structures and discourse markers (words or phrases that show a logical connection such as contrast, exemplification, etc.)

Lately I have come to realize that combining these methods well can produce excellent results. Understanding words and sentences from phonemes, getting the whole meaning gradually from details, is called bottom-up processing, whereas understanding the details from the whole, as in listening strategies, is referred to as top-down processing. In English education, the emphasis used to be on a bottom-up approach using teaching methods such as dictation, but later the emphasis was shifted to a top-down approach focusing on strategy teaching. More recently, a combined approach is said to produce better results, as using both methods concurrently facilitates listening comprehension more effectively. However, verification from education practice is important, and there is still insufficient proven data to fully support this hypothesis. In 2012, therefore, I conducted one-year experimental courses and compared their educational effects. At an international conference in Canada in May of this year, I announced my research results that combined-method teaching is more effective than teaching by an individual method.

Research into second language acquisition is a relatively young field, having emerged in the late 1960s. Research into second language pronunciation was particularly slow to appear and finally became established in the 1980s, although even now it is in the minority. There is a unique international conference called New Sounds, where only researchers in this field gather. I announced the above research results at this conference. It takes place in a different country once every three years, and the conference after next will be held in 2019 at Waseda University, which I am really looking forward to.

Combining work and motherhood, with support from around me

In fact I have been struggling over the last few years to combine my work with giving birth to and bringing up my first child. It is only with the cooperation of my family, the people in my department, and others around me that I have been able to get through, and the staff members in particular have been a reassuring presence, showing sympathy and listening to my problems.

Waseda University has a teaching support portal website called Course Navi. It is an indispensable tool for running my courses efficiently, as it lets me do things such as sending out notifications about lessons, calculating grades, putting up listening comprehension assignments, and transmitting on-demand lessons. For the English Phonetics course, I video record academic lectures beforehand and transmit them as part of the course. Within the course, I have been able to place importance on practical pronunciation training, and even had time to insert listening and shadowing activities for more integrated sound training.

The pronunciation tests held once a year have until now taken an immense amount of time because of the need for individual interviews, and making time for feedback has also been difficult. But from this year, thanks to the full cooperation of the staff concerned, we have managed to switch to a computer-based simultaneous recording system. With the sudden drop in workload, we can now hold multiple tests and have more opportunities to give feedback. In the future, I will devise new ways of providing feedback and so on in the pursuit of even more effective pronunciation training.

Screenshot from an English Phonetics on-demand lesson

The students responsible for the lessons are all my junior fellows (although we are far apart in age.) In the twenty years since my failed attempt at pronunciation training for my junior fellows in my university club, I have, through a process of trial and error in my research, gradually introduced various techniques for pronunciation training. I intend to continue addressing the question of how to tangibly improve the English pronunciation of my junior fellows, given the constraints of pronunciation training in classroom teaching.

Mamiko Orii
Associate Professor, Faculty of Education and Integrated Arts and Sciences

Graduated from the Department of English Language and Literature, School of Education, Waseda University in 1995, and in 2001 gained a PhD in Linguistics and English Studies from the Faculty of Arts and Humanities, Durham University. She held positions as lecturer (visiting) on the Faculty of Education, Chiba University from 2000, lecturer (full-time) at the University of Electro-Communications from 2001, full-time lecturer at the Department of English Language and Literature, School of Education, Waseda University from 2003, and assistant professor at the same department from 2006 before taking up her current post in 2007. She has been an educational board member of Suginami City since 2012.