First, I would like to congratulate Michael Burri on his publications about pronunciation teaching and the preparation of pronunciation instructors, and also on his winning the 2015 TESOL Award for an Outstanding Paper of NNEST Issues. Personally, I was very humble when Mr. Burri attended our “Voices from the NNEST Blog: Envisioning Landscapes for Future Generations,” at 2014 TESOL Convention, and am immensely honored for his acceptance of our invitation to feature his interview in this blog.
Ana Wu: You have a degree in Electromechanical Engineering in Switzerland. Could you tell us what led you to pursue a career in teaching ESL/EFL and a Ph.D specializing in the teaching speaking skills – particularly in the area of pronunciation pedagogy?
Mr. Burri: I spent the first 4 years of my life in the US but then completed my formative school years, including a 4-year apprenticeship in Electromechanical Engineering, in Switzerland. After gaining a couple of years of valuable work experience as an engineer, I felt a strong desire to (re)learn English for my proficiency had deteriorated to the extent that I was barely able to communicate in the language I was once fluent as a little boy. So I decided to study ESL in New Zealand. Upon my arrival, I was placed in the lowest level (pre-intermediate) but within 12 weeks I was pretty much fluent again – having learned English as an L1 in the US turned out to be an enormous advantage and subsequently sped up my acquisition/learning process exponentially. My time as an ESL student in New Zealand awakened in me a real interest in language learning, and so I completed a TESOL certificate at the same school in 1999. In early 2000, I landed my first teaching job at a small, family-run language school in Osaka (Japan). After a few enjoyable years in the classroom, I felt the need to get more teaching credentials and therefore enrolled in the MA TESOL at Trinity Western University (Canada) in 2004. Dr. Bill Acton took me on as his research assistant and his mentorship, passion and knowledge about the field was instrumental in getting me involved in TESOL and, ultimately, in helping me specialize in oral communication, particularly pronunciation instruction.
Ana Wu: In 2015, the NNEST IS and its members were honored to award you the TESOL Award for an Outstanding Paper of NNEST Issues.
1. Could you tell us what the paper was about?
Mr. Burri: The paper was about some preliminary findings that eventually were published in the Australian Journal of Teacher Education (AJTE) in 2015. At the time of the presentation I was still trying to wrap my head around what the data were actually telling me. I had collected a large amount of data because I not only followed 15 graduate students (10 NNESTs and 5 NESTs) during the length of an entire postgraduate course on pronunciation pedagogy, but I collected pretty much every word that was spoken and written during the course of the semester. A preliminary data analysis suggested a connection existed between participants’ linguistic background and their cognition development. This led me to analyze the data according to participants’ self-identified nativeness, which in turn ended up being the presentation I gave at TESOL.
The paper explored and compared the development of student teachers’ beliefs, thoughts, attitudes and knowledge (cognition) (Borg, 2006) about pronunciation pedagogy. I collected data in a postgraduate course on pronunciation pedagogy – offered at an Australian university – over a period of 17 weeks. In a nutshell, the findings showed that participants’ cognition shifted towards a more balanced approach to pronunciation instruction (i.e., student teachers thought that both segmentals and suprasegmentals should be taught in L2 classrooms). As stated in the abstract, “Non-native speakers’ self-perceived pronunciation improvement, an increase in their awareness of their spoken English, and native/non-native collaboration played critical roles in facilitating participants’ cognition growth.” The findings also supported previous cognition research suggesting that teacher cognition is a complex area to study (e.g., Aslan, 2015; Feryok, 2010). The article can be downloaded here for free.
2. What led you to be interested in NNEST issues?
Mr. Burri: My own linguistic and cultural background naturally led me to be interested in NNEST issues, but a couple of instances I encountered during my years of teaching English in Japan also contributed to my interest in this area. The first incident took place at the immigration office in Osaka in January 2000. I showed the officer the full-time teaching contract I had signed the day before. He glanced at my Swiss passport but stamped my American one……the other event was a native speaking colleague sarcastically commenting on my English being “not quite native-like.” That comment really bothered me, and it took me quite a while to figure out what my place as an L2 teacher in this field was, and what kind of teacher I want to be. My graduate studies at TWU helped me tremendously in this regard. Once I was able to better understand my identity and role as a TESOL practitioner (and researcher), I developed a keen interest in NNEST issues, especially in areas that are intricately and often politically intertwined, such as nativeness, accents, pronunciation and identity.
Question 3: Congratulations on the publication of your article “Student Teachers’ Cognition about L2 Pronunciation Instruction: A Case Study” published in the Australian Journal of Teacher Education in 2015! Your study examined the cognition (i.e. beliefs, thoughts, attitudes and knowledge) development of student teachers during a postgraduate subject on pronunciation pedagogy. One of your findings suggested that student teachers speaking English as an L1 did not gain the same understanding of the role of suprasegmentals in pronunciation instruction as their NNS peers (p.76) and that NS cognition was enhanced by learning about pronunciation pedagogy together with their nonnative classmates (p.77).
What do you think teacher trainers in TESOL programs can do to prepare NNSs become effective in the teaching of pronunciation?
Mr. Burri: That is a really good and important question. First of all, L2 teacher educators should draw on the strong declarative knowledge of the English sound system many NNSs bring to their programs. NSs tend to lag behind a bit in this regard, and so teaming up NNSs with NSs and have them work collaboratively on the sound system as well as on learning to teach pronunciation can be mutually beneficial. If a class consists solely of NNSs, pedagogical aspects of pronunciation instruction should be more emphasized. I find that NNSs often need and desire to learn about practical tools – or pedagogical content knowledge (Shulman, 1986) – to be able to connect their existing theoretical knowledge with practical classroom application. Parts of my research (e.g., Burri, Baker, & Chen, accepted) showed that one way to achieve this is to first train student teachers in various techniques and then provide them with opportunities to visit real-life L2 classrooms to observe some of the techniques in application. If observations are logistically not possible, using video footage of L2 instructors teaching pronunciation is an effective alternative to foster student teachers’ understanding of how pronunciation can be addressed in L2 classrooms.
Also, as discussed in the AJTE paper, plenty of opportunities should be provided for NNSs to work on their own pronunciation and language awareness. There is a close relationship between NNSs self-perceived improvement of their pronunciation and an increase in their confidence about having the ability to teach pronunciation to their students. Providing language support for NNESTs is not a new concept (e.g., Braine, 2005; Liu, 1999; Park, 2006; Snow, Kamhi-Stein, Brinton, 2006) but it seems to me that a pronunciation course is an ideal venue to help NNSs work on their own pronunciation, and, at the same time, equip them with the tools to include pronunciation in their L2 classrooms.
Ana Wu: I find your paper very encouraging because many previous studies on NS-NNS collaborations show that the NNS is the one who benefits the most from team-teaching (Matsuda & Matsuda, 2001). Your study suggests not only that NSs can benefit more than NNSs, but more interestingly, that this can happen in teaching pronunciation where many NNS have expressed not having much confidence and expertise (LLurda, 2005). Were you surprised with your findings? What other topics should be the focus of new lines of research?
Mr. Burri: Teaching a couple of pronunciation courses prior to my doctoral studies enabled me to gain an understanding of the fact that NSs can learn a great deal from NNSs, especially in regards to the sound system of the English language. My thesis then provided me with empirical evidence; thus, I was not necessarily surprised but rather excited that the data confirmed some of my previous observations. What was surprising, however, was the extent to which the NNSs became increasingly more confident as the course progressed. The NSs saw this unfolding and suggested during the focus groups that NNSs would be better suited to teach pronunciation. What was also interesting was that this “ascribed identity” (Morita, 2004, p.598) further enhanced the NNSs’ beliefs that they possessed the ability to teach pronunciation.
Research now needs to examine more closely how NNSs (and NSs) teach pronunciation in their classrooms. My research has established that pronunciation teacher preparation can be effective, yet we need to know more about instructors’ pedagogical practices. Some recent studies (e.g. Baker, 2014; Foote, Trofimovich, Collins, & Urzúa, 2013; Levis, Sonsaat, Link, & Barriuso, 2016; Lim, 2016; Murphy, 2011; Wahid & Sulong, 2013) have provided important insights in this regard, but there is a definite need for more research that examines the effects of teaching practices on students’ pronunciation development, particularly in intact classroom contexts. This line of inquiry is important because to further improve pronunciation teacher preparation and, ultimately, pronunciation teaching as a whole, we need to better understand how L2 teachers – irrespective of their linguistic background – teach pronunciation and what challenges and successes they experience in their classrooms.
I also feel that classroom-based research would help foreground NNESTs pedagogical strengths. Sometimes I feel that we are focusing perhaps too much on fighting the NNEST/NEST dichotomy. This is, of course, important work, but to advance the field further, it might be more effective if we highlight more the positive pedagogical aspects of being a NNEST and the advantages multilingual instructors bring to their classrooms.
Ana Wu: What do you think are the characteristics of an effective pronunciation instructor?
Mr. Burri: Effective pronunciation instructors generally possess a solid understanding of phonology and phonetics as well as have a wide variety of pedagogical tools at their disposal to (a) diagnose L2 learners’ pronunciation needs and then (b) help them achieve intelligible pronunciation. Pronunciation is a motor skill (see, for example, Underhill’s, 2016, and/or Acton’s, 2016, work) and therefore effective pronunciation teachers are in tune with their body (or at least have a good grasp of the articulatory system), and, as our haptic work has shown, they use systematic gestures, movements and touch to provide their students with plenty of kinesthetic/tactile learning opportunities. A pronunciation instructor should also be a bit of an entertainer and create a safe and enjoyable classroom atmosphere in which learners can take risks and experiment with the sound system. Pronunciation is intertwined with a speaker’s identity in complex, social and psychological ways (Goodwin, 2014) and often “closely connected to self-image” (Levis & Moyer, 2014, p.276). As a result, many learners perceive pronunciation work to be a bit invasive. Creating a comfortable and supportive classroom environment is, therefore, essential in pronunciation work.
These characteristics apply to native and non-native pronunciation teachers. I firmly believe –and research is beginning to show this empirically – that NNSs can teach pronunciation as well as NSs, especially if they are trained in using systematic techniques. However, the provision of such training (or lack thereof) in graduate programs continues to be one of the biggest hindrances to effective pronunciation instruction. As several studies have shown (e.g., Foote, Holtby, & Derwing, 2011; Henderson et al, 2012; Murphy, 2014), pronunciation is seldom included in TESOL programs, and therefore the teaching of it tends to be not only based on instructor intuition and ideology (Hismanoglu & Hismanoglu, 2010) but it often lacks systematicity (Darcy, Ewert, & Lidster, 2012). This ad hoc type of approach is ineffective in helping students improve their pronunciation. It is relatively simple, to improve the efficacy of pronunciation instruction in NNEST and NEST classrooms, TESOL programs must include a pronunciation pedagogy course.
Ana Wu: I also need to congratulate you and your collaborators on your workshops on haptic pronunciation instruction (e.g. Acton et al. 2014, 2013; Burri, 2016; Kielstra et al. 2015), an integrated system for pronunciation instruction. At TESOL Convention, I had to fight to get a seat in a room with more than 100 people. What are your current projects?
Mr. Burri: Thank you for coming to our workshop. Doing these sessions and collaborating with Bill Acton, Amanda Baker, Karen Rauser, Brian Teaman, Shine Hong, and Nathan Kielstra (and several others) on the development of this haptic pronunciation teaching and learning system has been a real privilege. These workshops have always been well attended and well received, but we now need to establish an empirical research base for the system to further improve. We are in the process of writing an article about a study we conducted with L2 instructors in Australia. This paper should provide some interesting insights into haptic pronunciation instruction. Moreover, we are planning a study that is going to explore how Vietnamese teachers address pronunciation in their L2 classrooms.
I also intend to continue my research with the participants that took part in my doctoral study. Several of them are now practicing teachers (in Australia and Asia) and I hope to visit their classrooms in the near future to see how and to what extent they are implementing in their present contexts some of the pronunciation teaching knowledge they gained during their graduate studies. This type of longitudinal research is paramount for us teacher educators to obtain a better understanding of pre-service and in-service teacher needs, and, subsequently, to enhance the preparation of pronunciation instructors.
Ana Wu: Thank you for this insightful interview and rich resources! I am looking forward to reading your publications on your next studies!
List of References
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Acton, W., Baker, A., Burri, M., Kielstra, N., Rauser, K., Teaman, B., & Van Dyke, A. (2013, March). Essentials of haptic (kinesthetic + tactile) – integrated pronunciation instruction. Pre-conference Institute presented at the 47th Annual TESOL Convention, Dallas, TX, USA.
Acton, W., Burri, M., Kielstra, N., Rauser, K., & Teaman, B. (2014, March). Essentials of haptic (kinaesthetic + tactile) integrated pronunciation instruction. Workshop presented at the 48th Annual TESOL Convention, Portland, OR, USA.
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