IATEFL 2015: Swimming and Pronunciation – Wayne Rimmer

Floor space only for this talk! A very small room and lots of eager participants…

Wayne starts by connecting swimming and pronunciation:

Why the connection with swimming? 

  • They rely on basic principles – once someone has them, they can swim/pronounce better.
  • The physical nature also brings these two disciplines together.

With swimming, you need to expend a lot of energy but you also need good technique. You can’t get anywhere without good technique in swimming. Wayne thinks it’s the same with pronunciation. Pronunciation is about what you do with your body, how you experience things.

When we give students information, does it help them to produce the language? Maybe not. It’s about what the body esp. oral cavity is doing.

  • They are both individual efforts. You swim by yourself, you pronounce by yourself.
  • Both are difficult to observe – e.g. front crawl, all you see is the arm coming out of the water, the actual work is happening under the water. All the skill is happening under the water – you have to get it behind you. You can’t learn about swimming by watching people swim – there is nothing to see. Pronunciation is similar – some more visual than others but how they are pronounced is very subtle.
  • Both are teachable and learnable (some may disagree!) Wayne has personally got results with both, however.
  • There is variation in performance.

With swimming, if you go to a pool or a lake, and watch people swimming, you will see lots of different styles, lots of variations in technique. There isn’t just one way to swim, we all have different bodies so the same way won’t suit everybody. With pronunciation, we all have different bodies and speak in different ways – if someone phones you, know who it is because their register, how they pronounce is very specific. There is also variation in accents. E.g. Manchester, northern vowel sounds. Both within anglophone countries and across countries.

Less than 5% of the population produce RP. It doesn’t represent the global reality. And it’s not possible for everyone to reach “native speaker standard” (loaded term). There is a ceiling effect. To get beyond your ceiling, you are going to have to allocate so much time to it that what happens to everything else? Teaching is all about priorities and time.

  • Non-imitative: even if you could mimic it in the classroom, will you be able to produce it naturally outside? (This morning’s plenary comes back to mind…) Just like with swimming, you can’t become a good swimmer by watching others swimming.
  • Both are, or should be, fun! Perhaps not with listen and repeat minimal pairs.
Feel the water! Image taken from Google Images search, licensed for commercial use with modification

Feel the water! Image taken from Google Images search, licensed for commercial use with modification

Feel the water

Personal anecdote from Wayne: He was always quite a good runner at school, went to university, wanted to go to the next level so did as much running as possible, but realised it wasn’t possible without injury. So he needed another aerobic activity. Eventually settled on swimming. He went three times a week and got nowhere, had no technique, got dispirited. He tried copying everyone else, but it didn’t work. He got quite stressed about the whole thing, about getting nowhere. He even spoke to a few people to get advice, but it didn’t work. One day when he was getting out of the pool, an old guy asked him if he was ok, he said he was but couldn’t swim, and the old guy said “Just feel the water”. So next time, he went and decided to concentrate on what he was doing, not worry about what everybody else was doing, not worry about speed, and try out a few things by himself. Over a period, all these things fed into each other and he started to swim more efficiently and faster.

The principles are very basic, you just have to put them into operation and it clicks into place. BUT not overnight. Not in a single lesson. As a coach, it takes a lot of time to get people to that click into place point. But you need the principles. The better your technique, the easier it will feel. It also becomes automated. Like walking. But that takes a long time. To start with, you have to think about every moment, takes cognitive energy.

The principles of pronunciation are also relatively straight-forward but you need to have them before you can move with it:

  • Egressive airflow: air comes out of your mouth (very few are ingressive, air coming in)
  • Modulation of airflow: if you just blow out, nothing happens. It comes out through your lungs, through your voice box, the glottis. The folds can be open or closed, vibrating or not. That shapes the texture of what comes next. Then the oral cavity, you have a powerful muscle i.e. the tongue. (If your arms were as powerful as your tongue, you’d move through the water twice as fast!) It can change shape, direction, block airflow etc.
  • Automation of process: we don’t have to think about where our tongue is in order to articulate, but learners initially do. Until it becomes automatic.

Once you get a feel for what is happening there, then anything is possible. You have to experience pronunciation. With your body.

<Now we have to do things with our tongues, following instructions. Then produce sound. Then glides (diphthongs).>

So the idea is to get students to experience what they are doing with their tongue and where the sound is going.

For pronunciation, we need coaching not teaching:

  • Not a one style for everyone approach. We need to accommodate different styles.
  • We need to set realistic goals. And set different goals for different people. So that we don’t burn anybody out/disappoint them. In swimming and pronunciation, it is physical, will-power is not enough.
  • You have to feel it to do it. Most students aren’t interested in high linguistics, they just want to use the language.
  • You cannot swim/pronounce for someone. It’s up to them. A lot of what happens is irrespective of us. In teaching there is very little evidence of particular methods of teaching having particular results. E.g. which method is more effective? Hard to find such studies. We like to overestimate our role but… (again echoes of this morning’s plenary!)

Key resource for learning about pronunciation in this sense:

Catford, J (2001) A practical introduction to phonetics. Oxford: Oxford University Press

It was a very interesting talk. I would have liked more on the practical activities to do with learners front, but then it was a talk rather than a workshop. I’d really quite like to attend the workshop version…! 



2 thoughts on “IATEFL 2015: Swimming and Pronunciation – Wayne Rimmer

  1. I’m enjoying reading your detailed IATEFL posts, Lizzie! I watched the opening plenary yesterday online. I’d be really interested to hear what you thought on the myths of teaching and what we can do to unfreeze (?) defrost (?) our teaching in practice. Some of Donald’s talk (the myths of direct causality and sole responsibility) reminded me of your interesting and useful posts on promoting learner autonomy inside and outside the classroom. Anyway, keep up the good work and look forward to your updates today!

  2. Pingback: IATEFL 2015: All my posts indexed! | Reflections of an English Language Teacher

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