Language Teacher's Voice: An
Interview with Alan Maley
published in The ETJ Journal Vol.3 No 2. Summer 2002 &
then on: http://iele.au.edu/resources/amaley_interview.html
to Alan Maley, Jim Kahny & Sean Smith)
1963 to 1988, Alan Maley worked for the British Council in
Yugoslavia, Ghana, Italy, France, China, and India. He was
director-general of the Bell Educational Trust in Cambridge
from 1988 to 1993, and senior fellow at the National University
of Singapore from 1993 to 1998. He is currently dean of the
Institute for English Language Education, and director of
post-graduate programs in TESOL at Assumption University,
Bangkok. He has worked with Japanese secondary school teachers
of English as a frequent guest instructor at the International
Summer Workshop for Teachers of English hosted by the Language
Institute of Japan. He has published over thirty books and
numerous articles, and is the series editor for Oxford Resource
Books for Teachers (Oxford).
his recent book, The Language Teacher's Voice (2000, Macmillan
Heinemann), Professor Maley offers tips and advice for teachers
on developing and maintaining their voice, to make it a more
effective tool for classroom teaching. In the interview that
follows, he discusses issues related to the voice and language
You refer to the voice as the teacher's "most valuable
I do. After all, what is the one thing teachers do most often
(rightly or wrongly!)? They talk. And they talk for long periods
each day, for many years. They rely on their voices to a prodigious
extent. And with their voices they not only transmit information,
but mood, atmosphere, emotions
Their voices are an endless
resource, a priceless asset. I have a favourite quotation
from the Indian novelist Amit Chaudhuri, the human voice,
this tiny instrument inside the throat, endeavouring to carry
a world inside it. The way we use this instrument can
open up whole new worlds to those who listen to us.
What prompted you to write a book on the language teacher's
a long story. When I was working for the British Council in
Madras, South India, in the mid-1980's, I noticed that many
teachers had chronic voice problems, such as sore throat,
hoarseness, weak and tired sounding voices, and repetitive
throat infections. It wasn't that difficult to work out why,
as most of them were working long hours with very large classes,
in hot, noisy and dusty environments. I was lucky to be able
to invite Patsy Rodenburg over to run some workshops for us.
Patsy was voice coach of the Royal Shakespeare Company and
taught theatre students at the Guildhall School of Music and
Drama too. She was, and still is, an inspiring and experienced
voice teacher. Watching her work on the teachers' voices in
Madras was the beginning of my fascination with this wonderful
instrument of oursthe voice.
years later at the National University of Singapore, when
I had informed myself better about voicework, I was offered
the chance to teach voice to theatre studies students. In
the three years I taught that course, I learnt more about
the human voice than in the rest of my previous life. It was
after that experience that I decided to write a book for language
teachers. Most teachers were, and still are, woefully ignorant
about their voices, the greatest resource they have. If you
don't look after your voice and it packs up on you (which
is a very common occurrence, incidentally), you can't go out
and buy a new one.
it! But if you not only take care of your voice, but also
work on making it more expressive and interesting to listen
to, you can observe the change in the quality and energy level
in your classes. After all, why should any student be expected
to listen to a dull, tired, flat and lifeless voice?
How would a teacher know if his or her voice needed improving?
think many of us may have a vague sense of unease about our
voices. Of course, if we have persistent hoarseness, or feel
voice strain, or have the sensation that we have to really
make a huge effort to make ourselves heard, we ought to know
that something is wrong with our voice. It's not uncommon
either for us to listen to ourselves and say, "I sound
so boring, so flat and uninteresting..." But it's amazing
how long we can go on without this awareness dawning. One
problem is that we become habituated to our voices as they
are. In a way, they sound "normal" because we have
got used to them sounding like that. But "normal"
is not the same thing as "natural." (Many writers
on voice make this distinctionfor example, Kristen Linklater
in her book Freeing the Natural Voice.) But all of us can
improve our voices. After all, actors spend several hours
a day doing just that. Teachers, on the whole don't. I think
it's a matter of raising awareness in the first instance.
What would you advise a teacher who wanted to make his or
her voice more interesting?
makes a voice interesting to listen to is a complex interplay
between a whole range of features. The keyword is variety.
We can vary our voices along a number of parameters: volume
(how loudly or softly we speak), pace (how quickly or slowly
we speak, and how we use pausing), pitch (how high and low
in our voice range we go), modulation (how we adjust the tone
of our voice to convey a mood). So the key to making the voice
more interesting is to practice varying these parameters.
And one of the reasons for looking after our voices - not
straining or over-using them, is that a tired voice can rarely
be an interesting voice.
Can you give an example of a common voice or speaking problem
that you've observed among teachers that is easily corrected?
first thing to say, I guess, is that there are no "easy
fixes" if you really want to work on your voice. If you
want to improve your voice, it means changing physical habits,
and that is always a long process. However, there are problems,
like hoarseness, which are relatively easy to overcome. Hoarseness
usually results from talking too much, too loudly and too
"forcefully." By "forcefully" I mean straining
effortfully to produce an audible voice.
are several things you can do about this problem. One is obvious:
Speak less. And speak more softly. Another is to learn a number
of simple relaxation exercises which will free up the muscles
in your shoulders, neck and throat. This eases vocal production,
and reduces the muscular tension which causes the problem
in the first place. Also try drinking a lot of water (not
chilled, preferably slightly warm even). This keeps your mucus
membranes moist and your throat relaxed.
In Japanese schools, classes are often large and noisy. What
are some dos and don'ts for teachers?
to make a contract with students at the beginning of the year:
Agree to listen to them if they will listen to you. Agree
on some labour-saving way of achieving quiet when you need
it. (The most common one is to raise your hand. As students
notice this, they each raise their hands and stop talking.)
Above all, do not try to shout over the noise the class makes.
That is a sure way to get a sore throat. One way I sometimes
use myself is to silently mouth what I am saying. Students
usually notice this, and stop talking in order to hear what
I am saying. As the silence spreads, I turn up the volume
of my own voice.
Much of your book is devoted to voicework in class. Why is
voicework important to language learners?
are at least four good reasons for incorporating voicework
in language classes.
Voicework is intimately connected with pronunciation. Becoming
more aware of how our voice works to produce sound often helps
students over pronunciation "blocks."
Learning how to speak clearly and expressively gives an enormous
boost to confidence. Many learners of a foreign language mumble
or speak indistinctly to mask their mistakes. Teaching them
how to speak out, to reach out to other people with their
voice, makes them feel that what they have to say is important
and worth saying.
Many of the activities in the book are good communicative
speaking activities anyway. They have a pay-off not only for
the voice but for language learning too.
One bye-product of the confidence born of voicework is that
this serves the students well in their future careers. Nearly
all positions of responsibility carry with them a need to
communicate clearly and persuasively with others. Voicework
has a clear role to play in this.
Can you give an example of a quick voice maintenance activity
and explain how it can help.
quickest voice maintenance activity of all iswait for
itto YAWN! When you yawn, the muscles controlling the
aperture at the back of your throat are stretched to the utmost.
If you can bear to look down your own throat, yawn in front
of a mirror and see how widely it opens up.
very quick way to get ready for using your voice, is to flop
over loosely from the waist and to come up again slowly on
a long breath. When you are standing straight again, your
body will be in alignment. Then raise your shoulders as high
as possible, and let them drop. Do this two or three times.
Then roll your head three times to the right and three times
to the left. Take three or four deep breaths, pulling the
air right down inside you, and releasing slowly. Now, you
by Jim Kahny, Director, Language Institute of Japan (LIOJ),
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