She Went Out With Newman? How Seinfeld Helps Teach Pronunciation!

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Like many of you, I have taught pronunciation from some books. You know, the ones that have the schematic diagrams of where the tongue is supposed to go. I’ve even seen some teachers have mirrors in their classroom so the students can see the acrobatics going on in their mouth. Does this method work? I suppose so, but I find it really boring. I know it isn’t fun for the students because it certainly isn’t fun to teach. One day, I decided to try something different. I don’t think this would work for lower level students, although I would like to try.

I really am a fan of Seinfeld. What I like about the characters is that they are over the top when they deliver their lines, even more than most comedies. I thought I would experiment with a scene from this TV show to see how it would work with my students.

The idea of using characters who exaggerated their voices came from my difficulty in pronouncing the French letter r. It wasn’t until my pen-pal’s three-year-old nephew started really emphasizing the sound, and my imitating it, that I was able to master it.

Besides pronouncing the English sounds correctly, students from some countries have difficulty with the rhythm of the language, mistakenly inserting pauses in sentences and emphasizing important words. In Seinfeld, this is done to the extreme. Good comedy is about timing, right?

The first problem was finding the clip I wanted. I searched YouTube and decided on one where Jerry is dating a girl whom he finds went out with Newman. Of course, this ends the relationship. Here is the link: This version also has English subtitles, which is nice.

Now that I had the video, where would I get the words without having to type them all? Fortunately, you can find every Seinfeld script online.  It took a bit of searching, but I found the episode and took out the parts of the script that matched the scenes I selected.

When I had assembled all this, I broke the class into groups of four, since there are four people in the skit. If there were fewer than four students, I had somebody do Margaret and Elaine, since both parts are smaller than Jerry and Newman.

To start the lesson, I compared the voice to a musical instrument. When you play it, what are the things that can affect the sound? They came up with answers like volume, speed, variation in pitch, pauses, rhythm, character, and tone. If they had trouble with a concept, I’d do something like speak really fast, then slowly and ask them what the difference was. We can do all of these things with our voices when we speak to communicate. These variations can change the interpretation of what we are saying. I then pulled out another Seinfeld clip, one where Kramer has a line in a Woody Allen movie, “These pretzels are making me thirsty.” Jerry, Elaine and George explore different ways for him to say the line. Here is the clip: They got the idea!

I passed out the scripts, then played the scene. I had to explain some words to them, like Twinkie, but in the end, they understood what was going on. They found it funny, too.

Usually I would assign people to parts, but I let them volunteer. Then we looked at the script and read it. We put vertical lines in the dialogue where somebody paused. For example, there would be a significant pause and stress in Jerry’s greeting, “Hello, Newman.” We broke sentences down into word chunks. Words that were emphasized where underlined. Let the play begin!

I didn’t know what to expect the first time I did this, but I was soon laughing. The reason wasn’t because they were so bad. Quite the contrary, they were nailing it. Of course they weren’t perfect. I went around to each group coaching them to push their voices to the extreme and work on the delivery. Seeing my students extend the boundaries of their voices for the first time was wonderful. I asked some of the shy ones how they felt. Many felt uncomfortable with the new passionate delivery. When I asked their colleagues, though, to tell them how this person sounded, all felt that it was great, reinforcing that the new voice was perfectly acceptable and actually quite nice.

The class ended with a newfound confidence of the students in their speaking abilities in English. What other engaging pronunciation techniques have you used?


14 thoughts on “She Went Out With Newman? How Seinfeld Helps Teach Pronunciation!”

  1. LOVE this. What an interesting way to give students an experience of success at what you want them to master.
    I just wanted to mention why the schematic pronunciation diagram is so boring and ineffective. It displays most (not all) of the English sounds with no distinction between the sounds students already have (most of them) and the few sounds students need. Applied Linguistics gives sounds equal weight as English sounds and we waste students time and our energy teaching information they already know. Boring, useless and time consuming.
    Thanks for offering a better more realistic approach.

    1. No, they hadn’t. Some of them had seen Friends, though. I’ll check out your link when I get home. Thanks for your comment.

  2. Hi John,
    What a great idea! Being in character also has a psychological effect that helps to reduce anxiety and allows you to try out things that the real you never would.

  3. A pronunciation exercise I use is to have students identify the content words in a sentence and underline them. We then establish the rhythm of the sentence by saying only the content words. (If there are exceptions to the rule, such as stressing of a pronoun for contrastive purposes, we acknowledge that.) We chant the sentence with only the content words a few times before saying the whole sentence, reducing the function words to squeeze them in, keeping the same timing. I’ve noticed quite an improvement in Asian students’ intelligibility since starting this practice.

      1. Sure, John. Sorry it took me so long to respond, but I don’t find that this blog has the “notify me of follow-up comments” feature. So I just have to keep remembering to check back.

        Anyway, the sentence we used in my TESL course was:
        COWS EAT GRASS. It has three beats. We then start squeezing in the function words: The COWS EAT the GRASS. Still three beats. The COWS are EATing the GRASS. Still three main (big) beats. You can just keep going. The COWS have been EATing the GRASS. Because there are still only three content words, the timing has not changed. English, unlike syllable-timed Spanish or Italian, is a stress-timed language. So my students and I do that with passages we are reading. Again, we are careful to note exceptions and explain the exceptions.

  4. Hey John!
    Great idea. I have used clips from Friends mostly and some other clips for movies that students loved! As was mentioned, they’re less anxious to speak when they know they are imitating something they just heard and not doing it themselves.

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