When I started English teaching, staff rooms were sometimes dotted with actors, often colourful characters who would be making ends meet by teaching EFL while they were ‘resting’. (Is that still the case?) And perhaps because they weren’t following the same career goals as the mainstream, I think it may have been easy to overlook the unique skills they were bringing to the classroom.
I was reminded of this last week when we videoed Jason R Levine (aka Fluency MC) interviewing Rachel of Rachel’s English. If you haven’t checked out Rachel’s website yet, do. She also has a Youtube channel that has tens of thousands of subscribers for whom she’s teaching English pronunciation very effectively, despite the fact that she hasn’t had any EFL/ESL teacher training. Really! Rather than following what many would view as a traditional CELTA, DELTA, and applied linguistics MA route, (like me and countless others), Rachel trained as an opera singer.
Something to understand about opera singing: diction is a hard and technical discipline. In order to sound convincing as an opera singer, you need to be able to get to grips with the sounds of Spanish, Italian, German, French, or whatever language it is you’re singing in. And if you work on it for ten years or so, like Rachel, you become very aware of things like your breath, your tongue placement, rhythm and melody – and probably more importantly for TEFL, you develop language that enables you to talk about it.
So Rachel has some very cool skills. She has an excellent ear so when her students say something, she’s good at imitating it. And then after she’s done that, she can identify what needs to shift to make it sound English and then she can articulate what adjustments they need to make to their lips, tongue, voice or whatever.
I learnt something on Rachel’s site last week that I wish I’d known before. Like many British English teachers I suspect, when teaching ‘can’ and ‘can’t’, I’ve been highlighting the longer vowel sound in ‘can’t’. This works for British English, but what I was unaware of was ‘can’t’ is shorter in ‘merican because of the stop. And that’s after 14 years living here and paying attention. (Though obviously, not nearly enough!) Thank you Rachel!
So the next time you find yourself sitting next to an actor or opera singer in the staff room, make sure to tap into some of their pronunciation knowledge and ask them what aspects of pronunciation they think you should work on most with your students and why. (Rachel reckons rhythm is often crucial.)
If you’d like to watch the interview, you can sign up to see it here on June 20, 2013 at 6 pm EST.
Ah – nearly forgot! Here’s a trailer for the interview.
and here’s the full interview: