Category Archives: Speaking

My skype trial lesson: a student’s perspective

I saw an advertisement for a free trial lesson in Chinese by Skype and I just couldn’t help myself. I booked it straight away for Sunday morning and then completely forgot about it. I woke up to my ipad ringing and introduced myself to my new teacher. The conversation went a little something like this:

S: Good morning Kirstin. My name’s Sally.

K: Nice to meet you Sally. Is that your real name, or do you have a Chinese name?

S: Yes I do, but it’s too complicated.

I was a little surprised that they would have this system of replacing Chinese names with western ones, when people are signing up for their lessons to have some authentic Chinese contact. I thought it would make business sense to use the teachers authentic name. If I started calling myself Camille I think it would make students suspicious of my English expertise!

Anyway, ‘Sally’ went on to tell me how beautiful I was (in spite of the fact that I was straight out of bed and had pillow-creases on my face). Throughout the class, she always told me that I was doing a great job and that I was a natural. Whether all of this is Chinese culture or the dynamic of any trial lesson I cannot say. But coming from New Zealand’s  ‘everyone-wins’  school system, this teaching style really resonated with me. But am I the exception? I know that many of the French students I teach would have taken this praise as mockery.

Pedagogically the class was sound; we covered basic introductions and talked about my job and family. I listened and repeated, then we did some rolepalys and ‘Sally’ gave me some feedback on my pronunciation. Sally is completely bilingual and so a large part of the class was in English. It would have been interesting to see a CELTA-style introductory lesson exclusively in Chinese, but perhaps that would be more complicated by Skype than face to face?

For the moment I won’t be continuing my online Chinese lessons: the time difference makes the timing a little complicated and I can’t guarantee that I’ll be up early every Sunday morning. I do, however, encourage you to take a free trial lesson and share your impressions. You can find the information here.

Language drills – why I love them

drilling means listening to a model, provided by the teacher, or a tape or another student, and repeating what is heard

Drilling is something that I first encountered during my teacher training, which is quite surprising in retrospect, as I have been learning languages since I was a kid. Since then, I have become an enthustiastic language-driller, finding the most useful language that a student needs on a particular topic, and having them learn and retain the correct intonation and pronunciation of the utterance.

A lesson that I recently taught centred on exchanging contact details. This was for business English students, at a pre-intermediate level.

Stage 1 – Email symbols, alphabet

  • Ensure student(s) are familiar with @, . , – and _ , and that they don’t have any problems with the alphabet (often French students have problems with ‘i’ and ‘e’, and ‘j’ and ‘g’).

If you find that students are having real difficulties understanding/saying letters, it can be a good idea to teach them the spelling alphabet.

Stage 2 – Elicit vocabulary

  • Tell students that they would like the email address of a colleague, that you are that colleague and that they will need to ask you some questions in order to get this information.
  • Elicit ‘Can I please have your email address?’
  • Now give them an example email address (without spelling any words)
  • Elicit ‘Can you please repeat that?’
  • Now, ask them how you could help them to understand.
  • Elicit ‘Can you please spell that?’
  • Spell the address to the student(s) very quickly.
  • Elicit ‘Can you please say that again more slowly?’
  • Repeat more slowly.
  • Now tell the students that they will have to check the information, as the email address is incorrect the email won’t go through.
  • Elicit ‘So, that’s……’

Stage 3 – Drill the questions that you’ve elicited

Stage 4 – Put the students in pairs, and have them exchange email addresses using the above questions (or if you have one student, give them another email address and then have them give you theirs).


So why is drilling great for skills like exchanging details?

  1. Drilling focusses on accuracy, which is very important for the exchange of specific information.
  2. This drilling will get the students used to hearing these particular phrases, which are routinely used in this particular context.
  3. Students are given ample opportunity to practise their pronunciation and intonation of the utterances, to prepare themselves for the following activity and the real-life situation.
  4. It gives the teacher the opportunity to correct any errors before they can be learned.
  5. Students seem to remember things better when they have been drilled.
  6. My students (especially lower level learners) love drilling. When they are speaking spontaneously, they often have to search for their vocabulary, and are unsure about their grammar and pronunciation. Drilling gives them an opportunity to follow a speaking model and develop their confidence speaking.


How can I get rid of my accent? Or Is it really necessary? – Some thoughts

In my second year of university, I was lucky enough to win a scholarship to spend my summer studying French at the University of New Caledonia. The trip was great, but the teaching and learning wasn’t. At the time, I felt completely uninspired by what was happening in the classroom. We were in such a culturally rich and vibrant country, and we were spending far too much time in the classroom, doing lessons on translation, (of nineteenth century English texts that I didn’t understand, into French of course), watching long lectures on various subjects and – my worst experience – the speaking class.

Highlights of the class (taught in two-hour sessions, in a classroom filled with hot computers, and no air-conditioning) included learning the the phonetic alphabet, reading tongue-twisters such as the one I photographed below and looking at diagrams of where our tongue should be when making sounds.


So what did I learn from this class? At the time, not very much. I could already pronounce all the sounds the teacher asked us to when we began. I struggled with phonetics when I started, and I struggled equally as much when I was tested on it at the end. I simply was not invested in the class. In retrospect, however, it gives me an image of how I don’t want to teach. I learnt that it is not very interesting to learning pronunciation in isolation. The fact that there is no context also means that students find anything they might learn more difficult to remember. I also learnt that, like in all things, not all language learners are created equal.

I have met very few people who have absolutely no accent when they speak a second language. Sometimes people can get away with saying short utterances without being noticed, but after awhile something usually gives them up. But obviously, some find it easier than others. A student of mine has shared the theory with me that people’s ability to produce native-like pronunciation in a second language, follows their ability to learn music. For more information on this, check out Lorraine Gilleece’s thesis on the correlation between attitudes for music and foreign languages here.

As well as being unable to hear the different sounds produced in a second language, I believe that a fear of sounding ridiculous while producing unfamiliar sounds prevents students from having a more native-sounding pronunciation. While I’m not sure that this was the case when I was teaching multilingual groups in New Zealand, (made up of Chinese and Spanish speakers), I feel that this is definitely the case in France. This suspicion increased when I heard some of my students doing ‘Speedlingua ‘ lessons (online individual learning, focussing on natural pronunciation and intonation. Their pronunciation sounded much more natural than it did in class, and they were speaking louder than they usually would. Perhaps this was because they thought nobody was watching.

But at the end of the day, is accent really that important? Yes and no. Yes, because people need to understand you. Language is a means of communication, so it is useless to speak a language if others can’t understand you. As an English language speaker, (and I’m sure that others out there feel the same), I find it much easier to listen to someone who has less of an accent. So there could also be some interest in ‘improving’ your accent if you’d like people to be more attentive when you’re speaking. However, variety is the spice of life. Our accents are showcases of where we’re from, and give us a bit of individuality. They make us interesting, and give us a talking point when someone asks us where we’re from (I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard “Vous avez un petit accent mademoiselle. Vous êtes de quelle origine?‘. So to ahead and do some pronunciation work, but don’t get in a pickle because it’s not the end of the world if you still have an accent!