Practical theory for spoken communication

Rethink Speech offers a new way of thinking about speech. We want to do more than suggest an entertaining way of thinking about speech though. This view of speech gives a practical theory with lots of useful applications in the real world. One of those applications is improving the effectiveness of spoken communication between native and non-native speakers of English, especially helping second language learners with pronunciation. Let’s take a quick look at how that works.

Practical theory

Where common knowledge suggests that speech is a sequence of sounds, like ‘c’, ‘a’, ‘t’ that can be put together to form words, like ‘cat’, Rethink Speech suggests speech is a continuous stream of sound that can be thought of as a sequence of meaningful words – a bit like we make mondegreens out of the lyrics of songs. (That might be a bit hard to take in if you are just encountering the idea for the first time. If so, you might want to check out Rethink Speech 101: Unlearning.)

What is speaking?

The way we think about the nature of speech has quite a big impact on the way we think about speaking, the process that produces speech.

If speech is thought of as a sequence of individual sounds (or ‘phonemes’), it seems natural to assume that improving spoken communication between native and non-native speakers of English involves teaching learners how to form individual sounds correctly in their mouths. In fact, this is often found to be a surprisingly ineffective approach.

Here’s a little experiment that might give you a good impression of the reason.

Next time you are in conversation with someone (assuming that at this moment you are quietly reading this page!) – for the first five minutes, make sure to articulate every ‘p’, ‘b’ and ‘m’ sound with your lips slightly rounded.

It is very likely you will find it quite difficult to do this while also maintaining a meaningful conversation. But that’s ok! The intention of the demonstration is not for you to be good at it – but for you to realise how difficult it is, and to reflect on what makes it difficult.

In fact, it is very difficult to learn to speak a new language by focusing on individual sounds – as many teachers and learners of English have discovered for themselves, and as has been demonstrated by a variety of research projects.

The question is, what is a better way?

According to Rethink Speech, answering that question well requires taking a bit of time to deeply understand the multiple reasons that the phoneme-focused approach is wrong. In general, trying to solve a complex problem without a really deep understanding of its causes can create a partial solution – maybe a bit better than the original approach, but still not nearly as good as we want it to be.

That’s how it is with improving spoken communication between native and non-native speakers of English. There are masses of new approaches to teaching second language pronunciation – some quite effective, others less so.

But there is insufficient understanding of the reasons that make the effective ones effective and the less effective ones less effective. That’s why we need a practical theory – a theory of ‘what works and why’ that lets us understand and build upon the best practices.

After all, there’s nothing so practical as the right theory!

(Incidentally it seems that useful motto originates not from Albert Einstein as often thought, but from social scientist Kurt Lewin.)

As with most of the material at Rethink Speech, it is important to begin by unlearning some apparent facts that may seem unquestionably right but are actually quite wrong.

NB so far this module has only one demo. More are on the way – in the meantime, exploring Rethink Speech 101: Unlearning will give you a great foundation for the material on speaking when it comes (ask if you are impatient!).