Speaking is communicating – always

Morten Hunke

In this edition of Showcase, Morten Hunke shares with us Speaking is communicating-always and his experiences with prosody in language learning and how this forms an integral part of his language teaching.

Prosody and its relevance to speech and successful communication entered my life gradually in different phases and guises. Decades before I ever encountered words like pitch or contour, I was playing music by ear and took a distinct dislike to reading from sheet music. Later, studying languages at university I came across acoustic and articulatory phonetics and was also introduced to prosody through working as a student assistant researcher in a prosody acquisition project. Understanding more and more about prosodic elements of speech in various target languages, suprasegmentals (prosodic cues) slowly revealed themselves as a powerful means to benefit one’s speaking and thus communication abilities in both native and foreign or second languages. 

Improving students’ public speaking has been a distinct focus in my classes for at least a dozen years. The presumption I am working from is that understanding is no absolute category—either fully reached or miserably failed at. It is a process, a more or less deliberate negotiation of meaning, pursued by speaker and listener in mutual engagement, communication. In languages like English and German, the speaker has a high degree of responsibility towards tailoring speech acts to the listeners’ ability, needs, or fancies. And here intelligibility is key. Am I providing the listener with the prosodic cues as to what is new/important information? Is my communication easy on the listener’s ears and where appropriate, supported by posture, gestures, and/or facial expressions? 

Aspects of prosody and performance are woven into my teaching from the earliest beginner all the way through to highly proficient levels. All throughout their studies, my students are being challenged to tailor their speech performances to the listeners’ needs. And thus, they are also learning about how the target language (TL) works in terms of pragmatics, mentality of speakers/listeners, or quite simply in a broader sense: culturally. Students actively engaging with TL prosody begin to realise that there is language (learning) beyond grammar, vocabulary lists, and translations exercises. 

Step 1) At absolute beginner level students are challenged to write haiku and tanka poetry in the TL. Since the smallest rhythmic unit in Japanese—mora—differs from that in syllable-based languages, the first task to be undertaken is to develop a practical understanding of this unit: i.e., syllables. This is not an easy feat to be accomplished, and it takes practice, repetition, and time. Only when possessing a concept of the syllable can one begin to address overarching prosody issues like word stress, phrasal stress, intonation, and eventually rhythm. 

Step 2) At later—more intermediate—stages students are required to apply a simplified take on phrasal stress to existing communicative scenarios. These are often group presentation tasks, where students are scripting for others in the group. In the group performances, students additionally use self-produced kamishibai pictures to further illustrate their content. Whilst one student presents the other students are accompanying with what is being said and shown in the pictures by using gestures, facial expressions, spoken interjections—signalling approval, surprise, applause—and even spoken language comments. These performances are regularly video recorded for peer and self-feedback purposes and to showcase students’ achievements.

Step 3) At an intermediate to higher proficiency level students are challenged by having to engage with performance poetry. In this step, canonical poetry is brought to life by drama pedagogy inspired performances. Students are required to produce kamishibai pictures, mark phrasal stress, and produce intonation curves. Students are being given basic vocal coaching, and they are introduced to various theatre performance techniques. Throughout the course of one semester, they intensively work with one chosen poem. Four video recordings are being shot, including one at a semester final performance event for the wider public. By completing the course, students regularly exhibit signs of being much more confident in speaking in the TL, being able to envisage a prospective audience, and to modify their speech acts accordingly.

In their formative feedback students often comment positively on the active role they have to take in my classes. They largely appreciate the responsibility they are being given to take charge of their speaking. Success stories are those like the fourth-year student who attended the poetry performance class twice and won second place in a competitive recital contest recently. Another student, an International Relations major, completed a number of my classes and managed to secure a much sought after study abroad place with one of our partner universities in Germany—out competing the German majors.

Morten Hunke was educated in Germany, Ireland, and Sweden. For many years, he has been using literary formats creatively with students. Furthermore, fostering learner autonomy, engagement, prosodic, public speaking, and performance skills are also key concepts in his teaching.

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