Raising our second/foreign language learners' metacognitive awareness of their vocal tract control mechanisms at play during speaking performance

Nicos Sifakis

Hellenic Open University, Athens, Greece

The paper discusses the pedagogic function of meta-awareness of certain linguistic and paralinguistic features in the second/foreign language (S/FL) teaching framework with respect to speaking performance (for parallel, but not identical, approaches, cf. Clennell (1999), Jones & Evans (1995), Pennington (1989);  also, cf. Schmidt (1990) for a review of the role of consciousness in second language acquisition) .  It focuses on the extent to which S/FL learners speaking performance is potentially enhanced as a result of raising their awareness of a number of cognitively (but not necessarily consciously) controlled vocal tract parameters.  It is claimed that the vocal tract mechanism forms an extremely intricate front-end infrastructure whose intrinsic variables are fixed at a very early (or critical) age to cope with the phonological constraints of L1 (James 1988).  Once these variables are fixed, the host mechanism forms an independent unit (or module) and is largely (and conveniently) operated on from the outside:  it serves in encoding the abstract phonological message into articulatorily and aerodynamically permissible gestures (Browman & Goldstein 1992).  It follows that control of the vocal tract mechanism during L1 performance is gross and seemingly automatic.  It is when one has to use the same mechanism to cope with the constraints of a S/FL phonology that the internal vocal tract variables have to be directly, or dynamically, controlled and finely tuned (Sifakis 1995).  It is suggested that raising learners meta-cognitive awareness of the dynamic state of their front-end infrastructure in L1 (through repetitive laboratory measurements of their speech and subsequent discussion of the results) can have positive effects in L2 performance.  Learners are first made aware of the way their vocal tract is conditioned for L1;  they can then practise changing the parameters, as it were, to account for L2 segmental and suprasegmental speech features (from controlling production of individual phonemes to co-articulating 'properly' in the target language to applying the appropriate pitch contours in questions, etc. - cf. Esling & Wong (1983) and Neufield & Schneiderman 1980, for reviews).  The paper ends with discussing methodological implications for the S/FL classroom, in the form of suggestions for getting learners to acquire and practise the skills and strategies (Field 1998) necessary for achieving precision in L2 speaking.
Browman, C. P. & Goldstein, L. (1992) 'Articulatory phonology: an overview', Phonetica, 49, 155-180.
Clennell, C. (1999) 'Promoting pragmatic awareness and spoken discourse skills with EAP classes', ELTJ, 53/2, 83-91.
Esling, J. H. & Wong, R. F. (1983) 'Voice quality settings and the teaching of pronunciation', TESOL Quarterly, 17, 89-95.
Field, J. (1998) 'Skills and strategies: towards a new methodology for listening', ELTJ, 52/2, 110-118.
James, A. R. (1988) The Acquisition of a Second Language Phonology: a Linguistic Theory of Developing Sound Structures, Tubingen: Narr.
Jones, R. H. & Evans, S. (1995) 'Teaching pronunciation through voice quality', ELTJ, 49/3, 244-251.
Neufield, G. & Schneiderman, E. (1980) 'Prosodic and articulatory features in adult language learning', in R. C.
Scarcella & S. D. Krashen (Eds.), Research in Second Language Acquisition, Rowley, MA: Newbury House, 105-109.
Pennington, M. C. (1989) 'Teaching pronunciation from the top down', RELC Journal, 20, 20-38.
Schmidt, R. (1990) 'The role of consciousness in SLL', Applied Linguistics, 11/2, 129-158.
Sifakis, N. C. (1995) 'Cognitive Phonetics: a Formal Metatheoretical and Representational Account of Speaking Behaviour', unpublished PhD thesis, University of Essex, Dpt of Language and Linguistics.