Using MALL to overcome learner’s perceived barriers to pronunciation training

Marcellus Nealy,

Juntendo University

ORCID: 0000-0002-2367-6770

Abstract

This paper describes a qualitative investigation of learner’s perceptions of a mobile assisted language learning (MALL) tool for improving attitudes towards English pronunciation study. Our goal was to reduce the barriers to learning and improve learners’ experience. To do this, MALL was implemented via the development of an e-learning app called SOMONA.  The curriculum design of the SOMONA program was based on Judy Gilbert’s Prosody Pyramid framework. The creative design was done intuitively through a series of brainstorming sessions. Simplicity, animation, bright colors and music were implemented as the key design features. Once the app passed usability testing, 20 learners were randomly selected to use the app and complete the English pronunciation course. Afterwards, they were given a survey to evaluate their attitudes towards the course material and the app as a learning tool.  The objective was to determine if SOMONA was an effective way to overcome barriers to learning English pronunciation. The results showed an overwhelmingly positive response from the users and indicated that the application was indeed useful in overcoming learning barriers. More study needs to be done to determine if the app alone is effective in facilitating quantifiable improvement in English pronunciation.

Keywords: English pronunciation, Mobile assisted language learning (MALL), Japan

Introduction

Learning English as a foreign language can be a difficult task for many.  In order to gain proficiency, learners must dedicate many hours to consistent study and practice of the four basic skills of English, which are reading writing, listening, and speaking. Small group discussions with Chinese, Korean, French, and Japanese continuing education and undergraduate students at Yokohama City University, Temple University Japan Campus, and Juntendo Faculty of Medicine revealed that English language learners often consider language learning to be tedious and boring as it often requires many long hours of repetitive practice before mastery can be achieved.

With regard to spoken proficiency, one of the most difficult aspects of language learning is pronunciation (Fraser, 2010). Its difficulty lies in the fact that success requires the learner to undo old habits and replace them with new ones. Those old habits have been formed by the native language of the learner. The new habits are dictated by the sound system of the target language (Acton, 1984) (Gilbert, 2008).  Helping learners to change their L1 habits is also difficult because language is closely tied to identity and culture (Gilbert, 2008). Furthermore, learners attitudes toward their lessons and study materials deeply impact learner’s motivation and self-efficacy (Masgoret & Gardner, 2003). Therefore, it is important for English language instructors to continuously seek out ways to improve learners’ attitudes towards study in order to maximize learning outcomes. With these issues in mind, we wanted to know if mobile assisted language learning (MALL) could be a suitable solution  to overcoming some of the challenges associated with English pronunciation training and practice.

 

MALL

At present there is a rapidly moving shift from the use of traditional technologies, such as laptop and desktop computers, towards mobile technology, a phenomenon which directly correlates with how people are learning (Goundar, 2011).  In classrooms in economically developed countries, most learners have a mobile device such as a tablet or smart phone. For this reason, there is a readiness in these countries for exploring opportunities for mobile learning (Klímová, 2018).  The potential for mobile learning can be further seen by statistical data which shows that on the two major mobile app platforms, Google Play and Apple App Store, educational apps ranked in the top 3 most downloaded type of app. They were number one on Google Play and number three on Apple. (Statista, 2018)

As the world gains greater access to wireless networks, the demand for and ownership of mobile devices will increase (KUKULSKA-HULME & Shield, 2008).  When mobile devices were first introduced, their appeal came from the mobility of the device, improved size of the screen, responsive touch screen technology, improved audio, video playback and voice recognition, among many other features.  Studies show that people who use mobile apps for learning like to do so because of flexibility, convenience, portability, and the ability to personalize their learning (Rosell-Aguilar, 2017).

One area of education that has benefited from the impact of mobile technology is language learning.  Mobile assisted language learning (MALL) emphasizes continuity, spontaneity of interaction, and access across various contexts of use.  Learners have been shown to be motivated by the control they have to tailor MALL to their own personal learning needs (KUKULSKA-HULME & Shield, 2008).  Several studies have shown that young language learners, in particular, have been positively affected by the use of mobile apps.  These effects include improved vocabulary acquisitions, phonological awareness, and listening comprehension (Cho, Lee, Joo, & Becker, 2018).  Furthermore, a meta-analysis, conducted by Taj et al, of 13 studies that were published between 2008 and 2015, indicate that MALL has had a measurable positive impact on English language instruction (Taj, Sulan, Sipra, & Ahmad, 2016). Such findings led us to wonder about whether MALL could be utilized in English pronunciation classrooms to overcome learner perceived barriers to learning.  

Barriers to learning pronunciation

Over the course of 8 years, from 2008 till 2016, data was collected from approximately 360 English pronunciation learners.  Their ages ranged from late teens to mid-fifties. They were recruited from continuing education students from Temple University Japan Campus, healthcare professionals at Yokohama City University Medical Center, as well as undergraduate and graduate students at Juntendo Faculty of Medicine.  Data was collected via a short, four-question survey that was designed to determine learners’ perceived barriers to pronunciation study and practice.    The survey questions were as follows:

  1. Why did you take this class?
  2. Have you tried to study pronunciation before?
  3. Do you think your attempts to improve your pronunciation have been successful so far?
  4. What has been the most challenging thing about studying pronunciation?

Follow-up group discussions were also conducted and qualitatively analyzed. Based on the results of the discussion and survey, the top five barriers to learning English pronunciation were found to be as follows:

  1. Shyness in front of others
  2. Difficulty of retention outside of the classroom
  3. Boredom with text and other learning materials
  4. Difficulty of understanding the content
  5. The pace of the class, which was either too slow for some or too fast for others.

Once the barriers to learning had been revealed, the next step was to look for solutions that could help to reduce them and improve the learners’ overall experience. This data was originally collected with the aim of improving curriculum design based on learners’ perceptions and needs. After several brainstorming sessions and group discussions with learners on ways to improve learner experience, we decided to build a MALL app, which we called SOMONA, then test its viability as a solution to overcoming the aforementioned learning barriers.

SOMONA

The name SOMONA comes from the first two letters of each word in the phrase, “sound more native”.  It is a video based, 14-unit American English pronunciation course that focuses on the training and practice of phonemes, rhythm, and intonation.  The curriculum design was based on Judy Gilbert’s Prosody Pyramid framework, which is described in the following section.  SOMONA can be accessed on any iOS device and also via a web-based application, which can be viewed on any mobile device or computer.  The web-based application, however, does not have a quiz or voice recognition capability.  Both versions of the app are free to download and use for one lesson. In-app purchases are available for access to subsequent lessons. The interface design elements were decided after several brainstorming sessions.  They were based on our hypothesis of what creative elements might help users overcome the five barriers to learning, which are listed above in the previous section.

It was thought that the barrier of shyness could be addressed by the fact that SOMONA can be used privately, anywhere, as long as the user can connect to the internet. Although the app can be used for in-class practice, learners can also practice wherever and whenever is most convenient for them.  On-demand content, which can be controlled by a built-in video player, was thought to be a suitable way to address the learning barriers of retention, understanding and pacing since learners can access and review lessons at any time and at their own rate of study. The barrier to understanding was also addressed by the inclusion of subtitles. Currently only English and Japanese are available.  We plan to add more languages in the future.  English subtitles were provided as extra language support to help learners understand the spoken content.

With regards to boredom, several design elements were used in an attempt to make SOMONA more engaging for the user. We wanted the app appear to be easy to look at, easy to use, and easy to practice with in order to reduce the learner’s anxiety. A minimalist layout was chosen with the aim of reducing any fatigue that may be caused by a sense being overwhelmed by visual information. Bright colors were chosen to give the app a feeling of playfulness (figure 1.). Multimedia elements such as animation and music were also included as a way of elevating boredom. The length of the program and the variety of scenes within were also selected for the same purpose. Each lesson is approximately 30 minutes in length, which is the average size of a short television program in the United States.  Shorter practice videos are also available within each lesson set.

Figure 1. App screenshots

To help learners monitor their progress, we included a quiz at the end of each lesson which tests the learner's ability to hear and say the focus sounds that were presented. The quiz includes audio recordings and voice recognition software for evaluating spoken words and phrases.  Although the voice recognition software is not perfect it does have a 90% rate of accuracy.

Finally usability tests were conducted several times throughout the development process.  Volunteers were collected via email, social media, and word of mouth.  Each was sent an evaluation copy of the app and asked to test it for bugs and to give their opinion about their experience with using SOMONA.  Adjustments were made based on the testers suggestions.  This was repeated several times until all problems were solved.  Common issues cited were failure of voice recognition, tracking user progress, turning on and off the background music, and distortion in the image when switching from portrait to landscape mode and vice versa.

The Prosody Pyramid

As mentioned above, the curriculum design for SOMONA is based on Judy Gilbert’s Prosody Pyramid framework.  Gilbert defines prosody as the combination of rhythm and melody(intonation). These two aspects are linked to listeners’ ability to understand meaning in spoken English.  Without mastery of prosody, learner’s intelligibility cannot improve (Gilbert, 2008).  Gilbert represents the English prosodic system in the form of a pyramid (figure 2.), which provides a template for teaching English pronunciation.

Figure 2. Gilbert’s Prosody Pyramid

At the base of the Prosody Pyramid is the “thought group”, which is characterized by short sentences, clauses, or phrases.  Within the “thought group” is the next tier of the pyramid, the “focus word”, which is the most important word of a “thought group”.  The next tier of the pyramid is formed by “stress”, which is the one syllable within the “focus word” that gets the main emphasis.  Finally, at the top of the pyramid there is the “peak”, or the sounds in “stress” that are most clear (Gilbert, 2008).  Each of these represent the core learning objectives that instructors should keep in mind when designing an English pronunciation curriculum. All levels of the prosody pyramid can be taught through quality repetition (Gilbert, 2008).

Gilbert also places a strong emphasis on the importance of the clarity of vowel sounds in the peak syllable.  For this reason, she emphasizes a need to teach individual sounds.  She further suggests that because accurate vowel sounds are more difficult to learn than consonant sounds, more effort must be placed on helping learns to master vowels (Gilbert, 2008).  The Somona curriculum design was heavily based on Gilbert’s approach, which has been described in detail in her book, “Teaching Pronunciation Using the Prosody Pyramid”.

Method

Upon completion of the SOMONA app and all usability tests, 20 people were chosen randomly to evaluate the program. The criteria for choosing was that each participant had to have an iOS device. In order to minimize bias in their responses, the participants could not have a close personal relationship with any of the research staff, including the app developer. Participant’s ages varied from 18 to 50. Their occupations also varied from student, to office worker, to medical doctor. Each participant was asked to download the SOMONA app and complete all14 lesson units.  Every two weeks their progress was monitored either by a face-to-face interview, a phone call, or emails in order to see if they were continuously practicing and to make sure they were not having any difficulties using the program.

At the end of 14 weeks, the 20 participants were given a brief survey in order to assess how they felt while using the program.  The questions asked were as follows:

  1. Did you enjoy practicing with SOMONA?
  1. What did you like most about SOMONA?
  1. What did you like the least?
  1. Did the colors, animation and music help to keep you interested?
  1. Would you tell others about SOMONA?
  1. How would you improve the program?
  2. Briefly describe how you felt when practicing with SOMONA.

Participants were also interviewed in order to gain deeper insight into their attitudes toward the SOMONA app.  The interviews were recorded and transcribed.  Once all of the data was collected, it was qualitatively analyzed for keywords and common themes.  

Results

The results of our analysis showed that all users had a positive experience with the application. In regard to the question of what they liked about the program, 95% of them found it to be easy, 89% of them said it was not boring, 88% said they liked the creativity, 75% said they felt the program was an effective way to practice pronunciation.  In response to the question about what they liked the least, all respondents said there was nothing in particular they could think of that they did not like.  When asked whether colors animation and music helped to keep them interested, 100% of the respondents said yes. Also, 95% of the respondents said they would tell others about the program. When asked about how they would improve the program the most common answers were to include a close-up view of the mouth so that they could see how words were being pronounced and a Wi-Fi independent program so that they could use it even if there was no Wi-Fi signal. Finally, when asked about how they felt while using the program, 90% said they never felt board, 80% said that it was fun, 40% said that it was interesting, and 10% said that it was like watching TV.

The interview further revealed a positive experience on the part of the participants.  This was indicated by comments such as, "it didn't feel like studying at all", "I want to do more", and "I practiced a lot but the time went by so quickly".  Participants all commented on the use of music, simplicity of design, and animation as key factors in keeping them engaged. This was indicated by comments like, "the music was really catchy I enjoyed singing while I practiced", "the animated characters were really funny I enjoy them a lot", and "everything was easy to understand sometimes I had a hard time but it was just only because of my English skill".

Based on the responses from the survey and the interviews we have concluded that SOMONA is an effective tool for helping learner overcoming barriers to pronunciation learning and practice.  

Discussion

In the current age of technological advancement, it is important for language instructors to utilize the tools around them in order to improve learners’ experience and maximize the effectiveness of each lesson. This realization led to the development of the MALL tool SOMONA. Although SOMONA’s creative design was based on an intuitive hypothesis, we were able to show through this study that SOMONA can be a viable tool for improving learners’ attitudes toward pronunciation practice and study. The barriers to learning that were defined in a previous section, represent anxieties and attitudes towards learning and practicing English pronunciation. Anxiety towards language learning has been shown to have detrimental effects on learning outcomes (Macintyre, 1995).  In addition, studies have shown that the attitude and perception of learners exert a direct influence on their behavior towards mastering English.  This is also said to be true of learner perceived social pressures to perform (Dörnyei, 1998).  The findings of this study are significant because they offer a way for learners and instructors to avoid negative learning outcomes by reducing the anxiety and negative perceptions associated with pronunciation study and practice.  This can be easily done by taking advantage of increasingly ubiquitous mobile technology.  

If we assume that openness to the learning process also depends on the attitudes of the learner towards the study materials being used, as well as the variety of exercises and activities the learner is exposed to, then we can also assume that the findings of this study are significant because they show that SOMONA can be used effectively as supplemental study materials.  Independent learners can work with the app in combination with other study materials, such as textbooks or other online courses. By using the mobile app in combination with guidance from an instructor or a structured course, learners may more effectively get the necessary repetitive practice they need to realize improvement in their pronunciation.

In this study, we have focused on SOMONA as viable tool for helping to reduce barriers to learning and practicing pronunciation. However, further investigation needs to be done to determine the effectiveness of the program’s ability to bring about quantifiable improvements in pronunciation.  While this assessment is absolutely crucial in determining the overall effectiveness of the program, the initial data we collected justifies further investigation.

Conclusion

As Taj et all have shown, MALL has produced some positive results not only in pronunciation training but in language learning as a whole (Taj, Sulan, Sipra, & Ahmad, 2016). As teachers begin to develop their own applications, they can better customize those to match the specific needs of their learners as we have done with SOMONA.  In the future, we aim to continue expanding the function and effectiveness of the app as a pronunciation learning tool.  In this way we hope to contribute to the advancement of MALL and the improvement of English language study.

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