Tutoring Reflection 2

Eliana and I are making slow but hopefully steady progress. Most of our work thus far has been devoted to error recognition and self-correction, vocabulary building and structural accuracy. We have also had to place a great-than-expected emphasis on pronunciation, for it seems that my initial assessment of the frequency of communication breakdowns due to the student’s pronunciation errors was unrealistic. The two greatest areas of concern in this area have been the student’s difficulty reliably distinguishing /i/ and /ɪ/ (the beat ~ bit distinction) in production (a difficulty experienced by many students whose native language does not distinguish these two high front vowels) and her superimposition of the Portuguese allophonic variation of the phoneme /r/, in which a segment very close to English [h] is realized in word-initial position (thus obscuring the distinction between minimal pairs such as read and he’d); the latter problem has been particularly intractable, yet since it has caused so many communicative difficulties already, it is one that we will have to continue to address. On the brighter side, Eliana has made a bit of progress in incorporating the “past” forms of modal auxiliary verbs (especially would) into her active lexicon and using them appropriately, even if haltingly. One thing seems certain, however: Eliana’s interlanguage is well-established and stable–much of her inaccurate production is the result of errors long fossilized and so improvement in structural accuracy is likely to be a slow and steady uphill climb.

One of our major goals (one identified by the student) is the detection of patterns of grammatical or lexical errors caused by transfer from Portuguese. This week, we focused on the very common noun + noun construction in English, which Eliana typically renders, often inaccurately, as noun of noun, as in *manual of telemarketing instead of telemarketing manual, which appeared during Eliana’s free production. Of course, the fact that English does have plenty of noun of noun constructions (e.g., wheel of fortune and not *fortune wheel, both filet of fish and fish filet, etc.) complicated my answer to her question: “So how do I know when to use one and when to use the other?” I explained that there is no magic bullet for this particular construction (which also happens to be true for most others) and that understanding when noun of noun works (and when it does not) and when noun + noun is required is part of her evolving word knowledge. We spent some time talking about the importance of word knowledge and I tried to impress upon her that word knowledge is not an all-or-nothing proposition; knowing the meaning (dictionary definition) of a word is just the tip of the iceberg of “knowing” a word. Understanding that telemarketing manual “works” whereas manual of telemarketing does not requires more than superficial knowledge of both the words telemarketing and manual.

As I mentioned in the last post, Eliana is mainly interested in improving her English skills for professional reasons, especially to help her communicate with her English-speaking clients more effectively, both over the phone and in person. Because Eliana already has excellent reading and writing skills and since most of her prior schooling and education in English have emphasized academic communicative competence, the primary goal of our tutoring sessions is to help improve her interpersonal communicative competence. In fact, her academic competence sometimes interferes with her interpersonal competence; this is particularly noticeable in her nearly complete aversion to the use of contractions. As she explained to me, many of her former English instructors in Brazil (incorrectly) told her that contractions should not be used in English and so until she moved to the United States, she never used any contractions at all. Of course, she now understands that the prescriptivist ban on contractions applies to formal written discourse and not to spoken English, even in formal contexts (as we saw in President Obama’s speech on race a couple of weeks ago), but so many years of I would and I am make I’d and I’m a rather daunting challenge for my student, especially when she is not carefully monitoring her speech. I really think that Eliana did not completely believe me when I told her that it is not only acceptable but natural and situationally appropriate to say things like I’duv bought it if I’d had the chance instead of I would have bought it if I had had the chance in just about every conceivable context other than formal written discourse. I will continue to press this theme in our tutoring sessions to help Eliana improve her interpersonal communicative competence.

Our most recent session included a short self-assessment to help focus our tutoring goals. Although I searched online for self-assessment instruments, most of what I found was overly simplistic, specifically designed to be used with K-12 students, or not particularly well-suited to Eliana’s situation (for example, many of the self-assessment worksheets I found overemphasized academic communicative competence and/or reading and writing skills, which Eliana has made clear are not significant concerns for her). I therefore improvised a self-assessment worksheet specifically tailored to Eliana’s needs. I learned that she places a high value on what she calls “correct” pronunciation and that she feels this is one of her weakest areas. She also noted that, although she has a strong vocabulary, she often finds herself grasping for the “right” word or struggling with the right word form (just a few minutes before the self-assessment, she produced *comfortability for comfort and saloon for room, the latter mistake being the result of transfer from Portuguese involving a semi-false cognate, thereby confirming this aspect of her self-assessment). Finally, she and I both agreed that while her fluency is excellent, her accuracy is not, and so our tutoring sessions will continue to include a significant error correction component, as originally planned.

Instructor Comment: Your phonetic and phonemic descriptions are spot on! Your explanation of the rather idiomatic phrases such as filet of fish to Eliana is good – Folse will tell us that many of these idiomatic phrases must be memorized since there’s really [n]o rule to learn. I am also of the school that teaching and using contractions and reduced speech are not as necessary as other things, but if the student is confused by native speaker use of these notions, then they need to be made aware.

Scroll to Top