Teaching English Through Another Language

By Peter Martin

Last year I wrote a post in which I said I encourage my students not to worry about their accents. Instead, I tell them, when trying to improve their speech, they should focus on their pronunciation. In that post I discussed the difference between accent and pronunciation, so I won’t repeat it here—but, in short, an accent is something everyone has and is in no way a bad thing. Pronunciation, however, does come in degrees of right and wrong, and bad pronunciation can impede communication.

That said, the distinction is a fine one, and many students aren’t too concerned about it. They want to speak well, and they want to make the sounds that native speakers do. Even if older ESL students will never perfectly achieve this, the goal is a good one, so I seek to help them. But I try carefully not to reinforce any self-consciousness they have about their pronunciation, any ideas they may hold that their speech sounds silly or stupid. So I direct their attention elsewhere as much as I can.

One thing I do is somewhat counterintuitive: I show my students YouTube videos of people speaking Spanish (since they’re native Spanish speakers). But the videos I show are ones I know they’ll enjoy and which will relax them, making them un-self-conscious and letting them think about pronunciation without stressing over their own.

One such video immediately went viral (at least in the Spanish-speaking world) when it was posted a month ago. “Qué difícil es hablar el español” is by two brothers, both musicians from Bogotá, Colombia (by chance where I live; I’ve never met them and don’t know anyone who knows them). In the first few minutes of the video the brothers sing in thick gringo accents: “Kay deefeeseel es ablarr el esspanyooul!” Native Spanish speakers recognize this silly accent right away, and they enjoy listening to it.

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A second video I share in class isn’t meant to be funny, but I use it to similar effect. In 1958 American singer Nat King Cole recorded a version of the old Cuban song “Quizás Quizás Quizás.” Cole sings the song beautifully—except for his accent, which is gringo through and through.

[youtube habWYM364RA]

Playing these videos draws my students’ focus to the American, gringo accent, which is an accent they’d like to have. But they get to listen to the accent in their own language for a few minutes, helping them see it in a new light, and in a relaxed setting. There’s nothing stressful about watching the videos; if anything, students have a lot of fun with them. And they get to hear what Americans speak like, except in their own language, giving them a short break from English, usually very welcome at the end of a long class or week.

Have you ever done something like this in class? Whether you teach to Spanish speakers or any other students, do you have similar videos you use for this purpose?


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  1. Nicholas says:

    Sep 10, 2012 at 1:00 pm

    This has helped me connect with my students here in Trinidad and Tobago. The have a very interest accent that is somewhat difficult for me ear to understand, even though we both speak English. The Nat King Cole video helped me to impress upon them the need for all of us to pronounce our words better. The students and I. Thank you!!

  2. Kathy says:

    Apr 08, 2012 at 11:30 am

    thank you so very much for this blog. I was asked to teach Japanese students here in Japan basic English and one of my main concerns was exactly what this blog focused on; accents. I will be sure to use this as a backbone should the problem arise in class.

    Thank you!


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