No news is bad news!
By A. Majid Hayati
One of the main problems that English as a foreign language (EFL) learners face is how to improve their language proficiency, in general, and speaking fluency, in particular. This is actually the concern of both EFL learners and instructors. In the same vein, many EFL learners at the level of universities of most Eastern countries may read different textbooks to build up their lexicon and become familiar with different genres used in different texts, read different grammar books trying to improve their syntax, watch different movies or listen to different radio programs in order to improve their language skills and finally apply what they have learnt to deal with any real life or other purposeful situations. For example, they may try to use what they have learnt in developing oral communication with their classmates, teachers, people from other countries speaking English, or even native speakers for either functional or other purposes. However, when it comes to oral communication and particularly fluency in speaking, the majority of them fail. In other words, their way of speaking is mostly filled with awkward and inappropriate pauses and lacks satisfying fluency. The origin of this problem might be due to their insufficient amount of exposure to fluent speech genres such as those of radio-TV news.
The role of any stretch of news is to present and convey the actual events around the world. Due to the nature and characteristic of radio-TV news, it is mostly presented in a very straightforward manner. In fact, it avoids ambiguity, figurative meaning, slang, and other linguistic factors which add to the confusion of comprehension. Furthermore, the vocabulary items chosen are relevant and have precise meaning and rarely present ambiguity.
As an obvious instance, in the present century of speed, in which most people are busy making their livings, the time devoted to TV broadcasting is increasing more and more, so that these days most of the countries endorse 24 hours of TV programs. Let alone the huge number of the channels. In my opinion, apart from its disadvantages in some emotional aspects, TV has shown to be a rather good bed-fellow to fill the gaps in one’s personal solitude, functioning as a bridge to connect people of different origins, cultures, viewpoints, feelings, etc. Needless to say, this very communicative bridge is held together by different strong ropes called languages. Therefore, both the content and the language, i.e. the bridge and the rope in our metaphor, are mutually bound together. That is the more languages you know, the more information you may have about the surrounding world and vice-versa, i.e. the TV itself may play a significant role in teaching you the language(s) of the world.
In this relation, one of the most important ways of improving fluency in speaking is through having a great amount of exposure to fluent native speakers or even fluent non native ones. In more particular situations, from among all the radio-TV programs, the news has shown to be very effective in teaching different aspects of language. However, in countries like Iran, where English is treated as a foreign language and accordingly the speaking skill is not emphasized enough, TV news may have a different look for at least two reasons: first, many language learners seem to be interested in different news types depending on their personal dependency and/or affiliation; second, due to the various discoursal functions of the TV news, the listener may or may not have to focus on either form or the content.
Whatever the story, according to many studies, one of the audio-visual inputs which may prove effective in helping EFL learners to improve their fluency in English speaking is the radio-TV news speech genre because it utilizes a more redundant use of vocabulary and concepts and provides greater elaboration and explication of topics.
Why the news?
The radio-TV news genre provides listeners/viewers with specific material made around one of the most authentic kinds of discourse, focusing on currently broadcast local and global events with which most individuals make a real sense of connection.
Linguistically speaking, there are a number of particular characteristics observed in TV news which make it different from other news genres. In this regard, one of the characteristics of TV news which make it pedagogically worthy is the feature of recycling vocabulary, which is considered as redundancy of input generally understood by the students to help their second language comprehension. In the same line of argumentation, news writers and very experienced news reporters or newscasters are aware of the role of the news genre in the public attitude. As a result, they make their attempts to present the news stories, discussions, and commentaries as precisely and directly as possible to maintain individuals’ attention. To reach the goal, news agendas also use specific vocabulary items and structures in order to make the news more understandable with a large group of the public. In other words, ambiguous structures which may hinder comprehension are almost avoided in developing and presenting news items. The lexico-syntactic features of this genre are what makes radio-TV news a valuable source of vocabulary input for EFL/ESL learners.
Another essential characteristic of the genre is the fluency of speech which is the use of appropriate pausing, rhythm, intonation, stress, rate of speaking, and the use of interjections and interruptions. Consequently, fluency of speech is a dominant linguistic feature which can be observed in utterances designed and developed to be read by newscasters. Moreover, one more important feature of radio-TV news is the special discourse which is used throughout the issue. In this regard, essential factors such as the nature of the news, the cognitive, affective and social status of both the news items and the audience, the structure of the news, etc. should be of focus.
As a result of the above considerations, it was hypothesized that the news genre can be helpful in enhancing the students’ speaking ability; therefore, in order to evaluate this hypothesis, an experiment was conducted with 60 EFL university students aged from 21 to 26 including both males and females majoring in fields other than English. The students were then divided into two groups. Throughout the semester which lasted 13 weeks (26 hours), Group One was provided with different kinds of radio-TV news as one kind of genre specific language listening material including both video and audio extracted and prepared from Voice of America (VOA) and British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) stations to work on in- and out-side the classroom and write down whatever they heard which was discussed later inside the classroom every session. Moreover, inside the classroom, this group was asked to listen to the same news again and not only discuss the content but also focus on the prosodic features. In other words, they were asked to focus on the intonation patterns, stress, and appropriate pauses at appropriate junctures which were highly observed by reporters and the newscasters. In order to make the comprehension of the radio-TV news items easier, a list of vocabulary, concepts, people, places and events that were relevant to the report was generated before watching the news. Accordingly, group one students had almost no problem with the vocabulary items used in radio-TV news. After watching each news item, the students in Group One were asked to retell the news and talk about it. This caused the students to recall and use the vocabulary items they required for their description automatically.
However, Group Two did not watch/listen to the radio-TV news genre inside the classroom. On the contrary, the students in Group Two had only exposure to a sample of utterances extracted from different kinds of radio-TV programs rather than news.
During the study, the students in Group One could improve the fluency component of their oral proficiency. One of the reasons behind this might be due to the fact that fluency as one of the linguistic features of any kinds of radio-TV news genre could lead Group One language learners to develop this essential feature in their language learning. Further, having exposure to radio-TV news speech genre in which the prosodic features are all observed helped the participants in Group One to follow the same patterns in their speaking. In other words, during the study and especially in the post-test, less inappropriate pauses at inappropriate junctures which led to the automatic production of speech or a satisfying speaking fluency were observed in the utterances produced by Group One students.
The students in Group One also showed their willingness in creative use of different words, sentences, utterances, and structures used in the news when talking about the topics during the interview. Through this, they could present the amount of their ability in the kind of words and structures they needed to express their ideas. Moreover, they tended to employ more directed utterances while speaking about a certain topic. Their automatic production of speech and appropriate use and rate of pauses at specific junctures with correct use of suprasegmental features (rhythm, intonation, and stress) similar to that of the news was also significant. They were able to focus on the message they were supposed to exchange in response to the questions posed by the interviewer. This reflected how impressive exposure to radio-TV news speech genre was on the students’ speaking fluency.
The students in Group Two, however, could not improve their speaking fluency to a significant extent during the present experience. Though, this does not mean that they could not improve other components of language which were out of the scope of the study. Group Two students’ utterances and speeches offered less trace of fluency and automatic speech production. Their attempts to produce their ideas were accompanied with long silence before starting their responses to the interviewer’s questions.
In all, the reason that the students in Group Two failed to improve the fluency component of their oral proficiency to a significant extent might have been due to their exposure to miscellaneous speech genres such as movies, songs, different kinds of radio-TV talk shows, and other general language listening materials rather than specific speech genres during the study. This might have caused them to lose their concentration on one specific genre of speech. Maybe they could benefit more from one of the above audio-video programs, i.e. movies, songs, talk shows, etc. Nevertheless, the important lesson given by the study was that the news genre, for its distinct characteristics, was more influential in motivating the students to focus on certain features of language.
The final word
Those language teachers responsible for preparing some listening materials for their EFL learners are suggested to make their selection out of different radio-TV news speech genres. As a result, EFL learners will have the chance of having greater exposure to more fluent speech genres inside the classroom which will help them improve their speaking fluency. Language teachers can also guide their EFL learners to listen and have exposure to radio-TV news speech genres outside the classroom. In other words, language teachers can guide their EFL learners to use radio-TV news speech genres for their intensive and extensive listening materials to improve their speaking fluency. Moreover, language teachers can also ask their students to, for example, discuss the radio-TV news content. The focus should be rather centered on the prosodic features of the new language, appropriate pauses, and automatic production of speech at normal conversational speed than centered on speaking faster. In this regard, one of the most important ways of improving speaking fluency may be through having a great amount of exposure to fluent native speakers or even fluent non native ones. To achieve this purpose, one of the audio/visual inputs which may prove effective in helping EFL learners improve the fluency of their speaking proficiency is radio-TV news, the nature and the size of which may be determined by the teacher depending on the level of the students, class atmosphere and time limitation.