Habit formation

H At the 2014 IATEFL International Conference in Harrogate, there was a veritable buzz of excitement among members of the Pronunciation Special Interest Group. Pronunciation was about to leap forward into the 21st century – ‘listen and repeat‘ was dead. In part, because it was boring (or so we were told), but dead principally because it failed to take into account that with pronunciation there can be significant differences between what a fully competent speaker perceives when a word or phrase is spoken, and the perception that the learner has of the very same word or phrase. Same acoustic signal, but two different perceptions. Sounds impossible, but it happens all the time.

The buzz at Harrogate was infectious, and the greater part of me agreed with the need to move on. The limitations of the ‘blind imitative drills’ advocated in the 1950s (Crowell Trager & Henderson, 1956: iii) had become apparent to anybody drawn to the Communicative Approach in the 1980s. And by 2014, I had long stopped seeing my learners’ mother tongue as an obstacle to their pronunciation, which in turn left me feeling uncomfortable with the voices of behaviourism who, back in the 60s, had championed the very same repetitive drills we were about to abandon because:

‘[t]he main problem of English pronunciation is to build a new set of boxes corresponding to the sounds of English, and to break down the arrangement of boxes which the habits of our native language have so strongly built up. … Unfortunately, it is never easy to establish good habits, it is always the bad ones [my italics] which come most naturally’ (O’Connor 1967: 3). 

So yes, ‘listen and repeat’ needed moving on. But did it need abandoning altogether? ‘I’m not entirely sure,’ said Mark Hancock, also at Harrogate. ‘We certainly need to be sure that what our learners perceive is what we’re perceiving as expert speakers. Imitative drill can’t start before that, and of course it can’t be blind. But there still seems to be a place for repetition. How else do you form an automatic habit?’

Synchronised swimming. Coordinated skills.

Mark’s comment got me thinking. The year before at the IATEFL annual conference in Liverpool, I’d given a talk on using technology for teaching pronunciation. Preparing the talk had taken me into the field of the acquisition of skills. This is an area more frequently associated with sports or music than with second language acquisition, but because of the psychomotor component of pronunciation, there are lessons to be learned from how sports people and musicians attain and perfect the complex skills they need in order to perform.

One common model of skills acquisition, applied here to pronunciation teaching, contemplates three stages:

In the first stage, the cognitive stage, the learner receives explicit information and/or instructions about the target feature, together with a clear model to aim at. Production in this first stage is slow, conscious, and deliberate, and requires the learner’s full attention. (Goodness, we’ve all seen this in class!)

In the associative stage, learners slowly convert what they know into what they can do. At this intermediary stage, they need opportunities for abundant repetition of the target feature within a narrow context. Games, tongue-twisters and drills (yes, drills) can provide this abundant repetition.

In the autonomous stage, the production of the target feature has to become more and more automated and rapid. With pronunciation, production has to come about without speakers having to think about what’s happening inside their mouths. 

(Click here if you want a fuller treatment of skills acquisition and language teaching).

So what does this mean in terms of habit formation and our learners pronunciation? Well for me, the key is in what we do with our learners during the cognitive stage, and what our learners do for themselves at the associative stage. I remember perfectly, for example, when I was told that the way I was pronouncing /t/ and /d/ in Spanish was not the way it was done. I was quite confused by this announcement. I’d been in Spain for a while, and it seemed to me that I was doing the same as the Spanish (which in itself is an example of the learner-perception-versus-competent-speaker conflict I mentioned at the beginning of this post).

‘What am I doing wrong, then?’, I asked. ‘Well, in Spanish /t/ and /d/ are dental,’ my colleague began. The rest I won’t bore you with, but if you need to remind yourself of the difference between a dental and an alveolar plosive, go to the post on dental consonants and take a look at the tongue position in the diagram for English and Spanish /t/.

With careful guidance from my colleague as to the tongue position required, within less than an hour I was able to imitate the Spanish, dental /t/ and /d/, although not without some difficulty and a lot of focused trial and error. But eventually, Success! I’d just got through the cognitive stage. Needless to say, the minute I stopped concentrating I slipped straight back into O’Connors ‘bad habits’ and returned to my very Engish alveolar /t/, the one that my Spanish friends found so amusing, but whose days were clearly numbered.

Lets take stock. My colleague had given me a memorable route to my target feature. What’s more, in doing so, he had ‘educated’ my ears as to the difference between a dental and an alveolar plosive. In fact, with a bit of effort, I could do ‘tetera’ (teapot) in a Spanish accent or an English one (i.e. with dental or alveolar plosives). In other words, I was ready for the next stage, and the abundant repetition of the target feature within a narrow context.

The abundant repetition? A narrow context? Teachers laugh at me on courses I run on teaching pronunciation when I tell them what I did, which was to decorate the fridge door with Spanish words containing /t/ or /d/.

tele, tiempo, té, tetera, tentación, tanto

Then each time I went to the fridge I had to say them aloud, ensuring the correct dental articulation. I had something similar going with word lists on the dashboard of the car, which I’d use in order to give myself repetitive practice every time I got stuck at a traffic light. This is the associative stage, and as long as learners arrive here able to detect and correct failed attempts at their pronunciation of the target feature (i.e. to self-correct), then it’s just as good to leave each learner to devise their own ways of getting enough practice, as to try to provide it in class.

The end of the road, the autonomous stage comes without the learner realising it. It’s the same as that first time that you go out in the car having only recently passed your driving test, and you get a couple of kilometres from home without noticing that you’ve changed gear multiple times. The abundant practice has given way to automatic performance. The (good) habit has been formed, and your pronunciation of the target feature is so subconcious that you’re not really aware of just how good it is. In fact, as happened to me with more than one feature of the pronunciation of Spanish, it can transfer subconciously through to your L1, and then it’s your birth family that starts looking at you quizzically, and not the waiters in your new home town.

Where does this all leave us? Well …

  • ‘listen and repeat’ isn’t dead, but it’s not what it used to be.
  • ‘listen’ is key at the beginning, in the cognitive stage, with clear guidance and help from the teacher until the learner ‘hears’ with target-language ears. The gap between the competent speaker’s perception and the learner’s perception has to be minimal.
  • the associative stage can be done in class, but is better left to the students on their own, in their own time, at their own speed.
  • practice during the associative stage has to be abundant, but doesn’t need to be communicative. The learner’s attention now should be on form not meaning.
  • Practice makes perfect. Well, not quite. But practice makes for improvement and automation.
  • The skill has been acquired when the learner is no longer conscious of the skill they’ve got.

Crowell Trager, E. and Cook Henderson, S. (1956). Pronunciation Drills for Language Learners. Rockville: English Language Services.

O’Connor, J.D. (1967). Better Pronunciation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


3 thoughts on “Habit formation

  1. I feel like the real eureka moment in the cognitive stage is not just hearing it, but hearing it coming from your own mouth for the first time. Hearing it through your own bones, not just the airwaves, and making a connection between sound and sensation. One student of mine could simply not ‘hear’ /d3/ (as in George) until at one memorable moment, she managed to utter it for herself, and then it was, ‘Oh, I get it!’


  2. Yes, you’re right Mark. The stupid thing is that we know this from our own experience as language learners (I can remember perfectly my first trilled ‘r’ in my beginner’s Spanish), but we all too often forget to work towards this eureka moment in our classrooms when we’re teaching the pronunciation of English. Helen Fraser and Graeme Couper have written some good stuff on this and on the (re–) conceptualisation of the target feature that the learner has to achieve. And the name ‘cognitive stage’ is misleading in some ways because the eureka moment seems to be anything but cognitive.


  3. Pingback: Kenworthy, J. (1987: 4–9) | englishglobalcom

Comments are closed.