Sunday, November 11, 2007

What Birds Can Teach You About English Language Learning

What can some of our fine feathered friends teach you about English language learning? Plenty. So let’s briefly look at some of the techniques you can apply in your own English language teaching and learning situations.

Bird Species to Note
A variety of bird species have an innate ability to imitate foreign sounds.

Species include:

• Parrots and Parakeets
• Mynahs
• Mockingbirds
• Cockatiels
• Starlings
• Macaws

This ability includes the imitation of or “mocking” of human speech as well as whistling tunes and making “rude” noises. Surely you’re all familiar with the “Polly want a cracker” speech imitation mode. A former neighbor’s parrot annoyed almost everyone with a recognizable, but naughty whistle it “learned” to give whenever anyone walked by. But do you know exactly how these birds are “taught” to imitate human language?

Stimulus and Reward
One key technique used to train birds and other animals as well, is the “stimulus and reward” method. The other is “time interval repetition”. When combined, birds of several different species can be “trained” t “talk”. That is, they repeat an imprinted sound pattern sequence and are then rewarded with a morsel of food. Sound stimulus and repetition then finally lead to a reward if “performed” by the bird. In the wild, Mockingbirds can imitate the sounds of predators and other bird species like hawks, to trick or scare enemies and rivals away.

The EFL or Foreign Language Learner
So how then, does this impact an EFL or foreign language learner? Simply that by imitating correct or native speaker connected speech patterns a high level of pronunciation and speaking fluency can be achieved. To accomplish this, the learner essentially requires the following:

• A native (or near-native) English or foreign language speaking model

This can be a “live” person or a series of audio or video repeatable recordings. Whether on VHS, BETA video cassettes, CD ROMs or DVDs, the learner must be able to stop and repeat as necessary.

• A manner of receiving any necessary error-correction and fine-tuning of connected or pronunciation elements

This is mostly accomplished through the efforts of an instructor or speech coach whose responsibility is to provide needed demonstration, correction and feedback for the learner’s improvement.

Audio Only?
Although the use of audio cassettes and voice only media are also useful, the process can be more difficult because learners do not have the ability to see the movement and positions of speech-producing organs. Not only are the throat and vocal chords used in speech, but also the lips, teeth, tongue hard and soft palates play important roles. In addition, models can be acquired from online sources in a number of formats. CALL (Computer-Aided Language Learning) author Gavin Dudeney, in his work with web quests and online learning projects advises having a multi-modal approach to English or foreign language learning which includes connected speech and pronunciation aspects.

By applying the techniques of “mimicking” or “shadow Talking” to your English or foreign language learning repertoire, substantial progress in connected speech improvement can be achieved in a relatively short period of time. The technique is referred to as “Shadow talking” or “mimicking” as noted by Australian English language-learning researcher Christopher Dugdale. We’ll have more on the application of these techniques in upcoming article posts.

Note: For an example of a Cockatiel imitating human speech check out this YouTube video at:

Larry M. Lynch is an English language teaching and learning expert author and university professor in Cali, Colombia. Now YOU too can live your dreams in paradise, find romance, high adventure and get paid while travelling for free. For more information on the lucrative, fascinating field of teaching English as a Foreign Language, get your copy of his no-cost, full multi-media, hypertext-linked pdf ebook, “If You Want to Teach English Abroad, Here’s What You Need to Know” by sending an e-mail to with "free ELT Ebook" in the subject line. Need professional, original content and photos or images for your blog, newsletter, e-zine or website? Want more information, have a comment or special request? E-mail the author for a prompt response.

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