talkingEFL interviews: Mark Hancock & Taylor Veigga

Pronunciation has always been present in conferences, round tables, webinars; It is an endless source of inspiration for books and activities and academic study. However, inside the classroom, pronunciation is quite often followed by anxiety and uncertainty both from teachers and students perspective which frown upon the idea of working with it.


That happens sometimes because of myths in terms of pronunciation models or standards and it is one of the teacher’s responsibility to raise students’ awareness of what really matters when it comes to being intelligible and effective when communicating in English.


BRELT on the road 2018 – Sao Paulo’s edition, held at the premises of Colegio Emilie de Villeneuve, has treated us to a very inspirational talk on that matter by inviting the Eltons Award winner Mark Hancock. Mark is a very successful teacher with a very consistent career and with projects and teaching experience in countries such as Brazil, Turkey, Spain and Sudan. Mark recently won an award thanks to his series of book Pronpack. You can know more about him at Hancock MacDonald and Pronpack.com.


Mark recently teamed up with Taylor Veigga and delivered a course on Pronunciation, which one of the first modules was concluded this Sunday. Taylor is one of the moderators of BRELT and also an experienced teacher who currently provides prep courses for Cambridge exams and of course the Pronunciation for Teachers in partnership with Mark Hancock. For more info on the course, please click here.


Both Mark and Taylor, lovingly agreed to have a chat with us and share some of their views on teaching pronunciation and dealing with English as a Lingua Franca. We hope you enjoy this interview as much as we did.


TEFL: Mark, you have just won ELTons 2018, congratulations on that! Could you please explain what this is and what does it represent to you?


Mark: Thank you… well, it’s an award the British Council offers to try to incentivise innovation in English Language Teaching and there are a number of different prizes…sort of like the Oscar’s, they have different categories and one of the categories was ‘Teacher’s Resources’, that’s the one which Pronpack won. What it represents…is endorsement. If you’re working with self publishing and you don’t have the endorsement of a publishing house like Cambridge or whatever, then people don’t take you seriously without some kind of stamp or endorsement, the award represents that.


TEFL: Taylor, you have just concluded a successful course on Pronunciation in partnership with Mark. How did that start and what is your evaluation of it?


Taylor: I was already thinking of developing a pronunciation course, because I do feel that here in Brazil there aren’t many and that is really sad. Because, when you look at teacher developing programs, usually they don’t give enough attention to pronunciation, so it’s usually more on a very superficial level, so marketwise I noticed an opportunity there and it is something that I’ve studied for quite some time and I am really passionate about and then we had Pronunciation Week and Mark was super approachable and really cool so, it was something really organic, we started talking about it and then…you know. Well, I think it went really well. It’s going to end, in theory, tomorrow (07/09). Actually, some people, depending on the package they do different things, so for instance, the diamond package where you have a research assignment in which you are going to understand more your own pronunciation. So, the course is going to finish on Sunday but other things will continue. In terms of evaluation, it went really well for the first time and the feedback we that we got so far was really positive.


TEFL: T&M Brazilians students are usually harsh on themselves when it comes to pronunciation. They are constantly asking us to help them sound more British/American, what do you make of that?


Mark: Well, probably, all students have the same problem in every country and it is obviously crazy because people are not going to, suddenly, start speaking like a native speaker of another country and so… A) It is not going to happen; B) Even if it did, we would just have a world of clones, it would not specially be good either, I mean…There are model accents and not more intelligible ones, in fact, in some respects they are less intelligible and speakers like myself who have something rather close to one of those model accents, I have to learn, also how to accommodate in the big wide world because it does not make me better in understanding others, I have to learn that too, we all have to learn that.

Taylor: And specifically thinking about Brazil, there is this colonised mindset of what I do or what I have is not good enough. So sometimes, even though, the person/student is intelligible and a successful communicator, because of their accent they feel that they should improve and that there is something wrong when that is not the case. I also think that culturally speaking, Brazilians tends to value a lot what comes from other countries and I think this has changed a lot, we used to very North American oriented and I think this has got much better. I believe this is a process in which people realise that, as I said, what they have is already good enough.


TEFL: T&M why is working with pronunciation still an issue for a significant amount of teachers? Why do teachers sometimes avoid working with pronunciation in class?


Mark: I think, it is a misunderstanding. In my talk this morning (BRELT on the road 2018’s Plenary session) I mentioned that teachers think the symbols represent a very precise sound and if they can’t identify what it is, they feel permanently locked out. In fact, they are mixing up phonetic and phonemic symbols.Phonetic symbols.. yes, they are very precise, specific sounds. Phonemic symbols are something for classroom use and they are bendy, they don’t specify one particular accent. If teachers understood them that way, they would be a lot less scared of them so, I think it is a misunderstanding rather than other things.And the believe that they have to teach to a model that they, themselves, don’t speak is very disempowering, it is going to take them away from any confidence and that lack of confidence is simply going to make them not very keen to do it.

Taylor: On the other hand you have the other extreme, sometimes a teacher who has been told that they have good English and pronunciation, then they think their pronunciation is good, whatever that means, usually that means they are closer to a native speaker model and then, they don’t think it is necessary to get to know more about things and study some things in more detail. So, I believe that the opposite also does happen. Many people get away with this “I have good English” which is funny because it is not only about pronunciation it is about the profession as a whole so, because I have good English i don’t need to take this training course or I don’t need to invest in further education and this happens a lot.


TEFL: Statistically speaking, English is used as Lingua Franca over 70% of the times here in Brazil, how should that impact on teaching pronunciation?


Mark: We have to lose the model, the idea of RP or American model. They have to be pulled off the pedestal, we don’t need to work to a model at all, in fact. Because, it is where the students are coming from and not where you think they are going to and that is one of the consequences, the whole of my talk this morning was the implications of a Lingua Franca on what we do and it turns everything upside down, really. We have to demolish a building and use the blocks to build another one and this other one will be much more flexible and it will be rainbow-coloured, in the sense that the accents which emerge from it will be a range of accents and not a single standard, which is never going to happen anyway.

Taylor: When we think of English as a Lingua Franca, unfortunately, there is a lot of resistance. For instance, earlier this year we had a ELF week and then I think we managed to start a conversation about what English as a lingua Franca is as a field of studying. Sometimes, people think anything goes when you think of English as a Lingua Franca. Our area here is more focused on pronunciation but, you are talking about a lot of things when we think of ELF and then a lot of people are very resistant to that idea. I remember having this conversation with a phonetician who is a foreign published author from a very respectful publishing house and this person told me about how he felt that it wasn’t really a field of study, it something more like, the academics create so they have something to talk about and research about, which is not true. We are talking here about years of research in terms of pronunciation, we usually focus and have the work of Jennifer Jenkins as a compass but when we think about ELF this has been going on for years and years so, we are really talking about really solid research. People in general, sometimes have this resistance, they think that everyday practice is really dissociated from research and it is just another world, another reality and that research cannot and sometimes should not inform their classroom practices so, we should have this conversation on how can research influence my teaching practice.


TEFL: To finish, could you please send a message to teachers of English like suggestions, tips or anything you find useful for those who want to start working with pronunciation in a more effective way.


Mark: Choose an activity that you find on a website or a book or whatever, chose one just one, a pronunciation activity I mean, that you think you could do and try it out. But don’t worry about an invisible person watching to see if you are doing it correctly. Just do it in your own way. Try it out, see how you feel about it and if it works, move on, try it again with another variance. If it doesn’t work think about what you have to change to make it work so, starts small and grow from there.

Taylor: I agree with everything you said, but also, know your craft as teachers, many people start in our industry just like, by accident maybe because they are native speakers, maybe because they have good English, whatever that means and then they don’t really go further. So, study pronunciation from, I don’t want to say like in an academic point of view, because again, it might seem like something dissociated from what teachers do, but try to study it, there are some very good books. For instance, Adrian Underhill’s Sound Foundation is a very good entry book so you have some awareness of what is going on, the same way a teacher, for instance, have a look at a grammar book when teaching third conditional for example, maybe they can do the same when it comes to pronunciation.


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