“I want to learn how to talk like you.”
“Like me? How exactly do you mean?”
“Like that! You know, how you Americans do… the dah-di-dah-di-dah…”
And so began my conversation appointment at the Texas A&M University Writing Center. As usual, I had started off by asking my client what he would like to gain from the meeting. When explaining his goals for our time together, he used his hands to mimic what he had discerned to be my up-and-down pattern of speech. A second year graduate student from China, his concern was that his own speech pattern was coming across as monotonous, and that this was affecting his ability to communicate ideas in both academic and social settings.
This appointment was the first session in a series of five that I had with my client who had just enrolled in our PLACE Program (The Practice Listening and Conversational English Program). His concerns were valid and are often shared by many of the international students who come to the writing center to practice English. As a graduate student myself, I could empathize. I also struggled to communicate my research effectively in a way that clearly explained my thoughts and held the attention of my audience. I could only imagine how this concern would be compounded by trying to present my research in a second language.
The problem being relevant and a widely-felt concern, the question then became how to address the needs of such students in a 45 minute consultation? Before I had the chance to really research strategies, I tried to think of ways just to get the ball rolling and conversation started. My first idea was to watch popular TV clips and discuss the speech patterns that we observed. We began with Friends, noting the elevated pitches and rapid patterns of speech often used by characters when they were excited. We also observed how certain sentences were punctuated with pauses to provide emphasis, and how very often, characters would use hand gestures in paralleling intonation.
This strategy seemed to be useful in helping both of us think about what was actually happening with our voices and how this looked to someone looking and listening in from the outside. Not only did my client seem to be having fun with activity, he also became more assertive in our conversations. I realized that the goal of the conversation appointment should not be to teach English. Instead, a focus on increasing confidence and motivation could help to make consultations more productive and focused. As most students who visit a writing center of their own accord already possess a personal motivation for improvement of certain skills, the real challenge is in promoting confidence.
It dawned on me that the PLACE program would be an excellent venue for such an activity. If in the first of the five sessions, students were asked to create a short narrative that would be repeated over the course of the following appointments, the consultant would then be able to provide constructive criticism and feedback over improvements in intonation. This strategy could also be helpful in a group environment, where group members could make observations and offer advice to one another at each of the storytelling sessions.
In summary, I determined that regardless of the tactics I used, I needed to make sure my client understood that my goal was not to teach him how to “talk like me,” but to help him discover the nuances already present in his own dialogue that would make his personalized style of speech an effective tool for communication. Instead of teaching talking, I focused on promoting confidence, and the fact that my student decided to re-enroll in the PLACE program after the conclusion of our appointments, was testament to the fact that he at least in part, found the sessions useful.
Chiu, Chien-Hsiung (Scott). "Negotiating Linguistic Certainty for ESL Writers at the Writing Center." Order No. 3444496 Michigan State University, 2011. Ann Arbor: ProQuest. Web. 25 Mar. 2015.
Jungmin Ko, Diane L. Schallert and Keith Walters. “Rethinking Scaffolding: Examining Negotiation of Meaning in an ESL Storytelling Task.” TESOL Quarterly 37.2 (2003): 303-324. JSTOR. Web. 25 Mar. 2015.
Quenqua, Douglas. "They're, Like, Way Ahead of the Linguistic Currrrve." Geolinguistics 37 (2011): 103-05. Proquest. Web. 25 Mar. 2015.
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