How online training for verbal skills saves lives

The combination of training, language software and interpreting services now used at the Vancouver International Airport in British Columbia, Canada, could have saved Robert Dziekanski’s life. Dziekanski, a unilingual Polish immigrant to Canada, died on October 14, 2007 after being tasered. The inability of the airport staff to communicate with him was a key factor. This tragic death and the financial settlement paid to the family illustrate the importance of training in verbal skills (speaking and understanding).

Verbal skills are important in many conflict situations but are difficult to acquire. Appropriate online learning tools and content are essential because the only alternative is intense training in small groups. Even this is ineffective for many people as there aren’t enough repetitions. This article will discuss the acquisition of verbal skills, present appropriate learning activities and explain how training providers can use existing technology and in-house and published courses to solve their clients’ problems in a cost effective manner.

Developing verbal skills may be unique in that online learning is probably the only way that groups of language learners can develop their skills in a timely manner. These skills include the ability to distinguish and reproduce the sounds of the study language in the appropriate accent. Personnel need to know survival phrases as well as words and phrases that apply to specific situations. They also need a pronunciation database with cross-language search tools, e.g. enter an English query to find a French pronunciation example.

The problems faced by learners

One of the big problems in learning to speak and understand a language is the misconception that adults can't learn a new language. It's true that children learn to speak a language relatively quickly when they are in the presence of other children. On the other hand, there are lots of adults who have learned to read and write a language faster than children. A motivated adult with appropriate reading material, a bilingual dictionary and a grammar book can learn how to read most languages that use a similar alphabet. Teachers accelerate the process by answering questions, assigning appropriate homework and correct the learner’s writing. They also have to evaluate pronunciation skills as voice recognition isn’t ready for this type of task.

Most learners have trouble understanding native speakers and find it difficult to make themselves understood. Some of the situations are comical. The learner listens to a word, repeats it and is amazed when told they aren’t pronouncing it correctly. Most people are reluctant to speak when they aren’t understood. Another problem is that many native speakers change their criteria as a learner improves their skills. For example, someone who can say several words gets positive feedback from people who are pleased to see they are making an effort. That same individual might be laughed at six months later because the native speaker raises their criteria over time. This problem can even create conflict. For example, it is an insult in some cultures to mispronounce a person’s name. This might be tolerated with a raw beginner but not by someone with more advanced verbal skills.

Some of the specific problems include the following: a) sounds that don’t exist in the learner’s native language. b) accents, c) regional expressions, d) the varying uses of intonation. The cost of training and the time away from work are always a factor.

The key problem faced when acquiring verbal skills is probably the sounds that don't exist in the speaker's native language. For example, a Francophone has trouble pronouncing the "th" sound because it doesn't exist in French. To simplify, they hear "tin" instead of "thin". A learner who practices pronunciation before they can distinguish the new sound will have a difficult time. A commonly guideline is that a learner has to hear a new sound 50-100 times before it is reliably understood. A learner who can distinguish the sound can improve by themselves.

Accents are an obvious problem but regional expressions can be a problem even for native speakers. Imagine a British English speaker who leaves the message “We’re leaving at half-five” for a native German speaker and an Anglophone Canadian. The Brit would be there at 5:30, the German speaker at 4:30 while the Canadian wouldn't know what to do. The misunderstanding arises because a straight translation of the terms doesn’t translate the desired meaning. This can be an inconvenience or a serious source of danger.

Syllable stress, word stress and rhythm are other important factors. Take the common example of the sentence "I didn't steal her money". Say it five times, putting the emphasis on a different word each time. This changes the meaning of the sentence in English, but not in all languages.

Another example is intonation. Intonation in tonal languages like Chinese changes the meaning of the word. The Chinese words mǎ and ma sound similar but have entirely different meanings. In languages like English, we don't use intonation to change the meaning of a word but can use it to change the meaning of a sentence. For example, the sentence "Are you ready?" can be pronounced in a neutral way or can include the unspoken message "I don’t think you are and I'm annoyed".

People in conflict situations have some very specific needs. For example, they may need translations and pronunciation examples on short notice to deal with a situation not found in language books. Interpreters can be trained more rapidly if the proper content is available for both learning and testing. The ability to supply pronunciation courses to a variety of devices is also important.

Appropriate learning activities

Here are some guidelines that facilitate learning verbal language skills. 1) Learn how to distinguish the sounds before trying to pronounce them. 2) Start practicing pronunciation when you can distinguish between what are called minimal pairs. A minimal pair is two words that differ in only one sound, e.g. tin and thin. 3) Use the “record and compare” function to improve your pronunciation. Record and compare allows the learner to listen to a sound, record the same word and compare the two recordings. Looping the compare function to continuously play the two recordings is another powerful feature.

Well-designed pronunciation lessons are just as important as the tools. Listening to a teacher repeat five words that start with “th” doesn’t compare to what is now available. Imagine a situation where the student uses a desktop or mobile application. A Level 1 student could have four different lessons to learn the sound “th”; a lesson with fifteen words that start with “th”, another lesson with fifteen words that have “th” at the end, and two lessons with fifteen minimal pairs each using the models “tin-thin” and “with-wit”. A continuous play feature plays the words randomly or in sequence. When ready, the learner takes an online test to determine if they can distinguish between the minimal pairs. If so, they go through the lessons again using the record and compare function to practice pronunciation. Next, the learner takes an online pronunciation test that is corrected by the teacher. This example illustrates the basic features needed for online learning.

This type of course works well because the learner has activities that ensure success in the early stages and let the learner fail in private. For example, success is guaranteed when all the learner has to do in the first step is to listen. The required 50-100 repetitions for listening and pronouncing take much less time than in a classroom or a real life situation.

Online learning tools for verbal skills

The first step in developing a training program is to identify the goals. We will look at three broad segments; correct pronunciation of key phrases, rapidly learning how to speak and understand simple sentences and acquiring fluency in the local accent and specific vocabulary.

Pronunciation courses can be developed based on the needs of specific language groups. Speakers of a language generally have problems with the same sounds when they learn a language. This makes it desirable to have different courses, e.g. English for French speakers, English for Arabic speaker, etc. At least three pronunciation courses are required. The first course has the basic sounds or phonemes of the language. The second course has combinations of sounds, e.g. "thr" or "cr". The third course focuses on intonation, word stress and sentence rhythm.

A comprehensive pronunciation profile can be used with higher level students. A speech language pathologist at the University of Prince Edward Island in Canada used this method with international students. They were given a standard pronunciation test that tested their ability to distinguish and reproduce sounds in 350 situations. They then took a ten-week course with a two-hour class once a week and individual practice using the Chuala website. There was an 83% improvement as measured by the same test at the end of the course.

Verbal skills are increasingly important but the overwhelming majority of language learners have never had pronunciation homework or tests. Now is the time.


Mike MacAdam is president and co-founder of Extemporel Inc., a developer of pronunciation technology based in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, Canada. Extemporel develops tools that help publishers, teachers and students work together to improve speaking and understanding skills.  Mike has a Physics degree and a Master's degree in instructional practice. He has been involved in both computing and language learning for over 30 years.


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