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: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Asv4IbNQ1Iw. 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. http://www.seinfeldscripts.com/seinfeld-scripts.html 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: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=su_o4Nvmr_M. 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?