Phil Wade Interviews: Dan Frost

Phil Wade Interviews: Dan Frost

Phil Wade Interviews: Dan Frost

Dan Frost has a French doctorate in English for Specific Purposes and Teaching Theory. After reading Languages and Linguistics at York University, he taught English in Thailand and Sweden before settling in France, where he obtained a Masters in English Phonetics at the University of Provence. He worked as a secondary school teacher in Le Havre, as a professor in Grenoble and then was an associate professor at the University of Chambéry. He is currently working in the Lifelong Learning Department of Grenoble3 University. 

Dan’s teaching involves a lot of work with teachers and trainee teachers as well as learners of all ages. His main research interests are oral English, particularly pronunciation, and computer-mediated learning and motivation. Apart from work and family, his interests revolve around trying to have fun in the mountains without getting killed.

If you are interested in pronunciation, like I am, Dan is someone worth following on Social Media and chatting to if you get the chance. As you can guess from this background, he really knows his stuff but also how to teach it and help teachers to teach pron too. For these reasons, I very pleased to bring you this interview.


Your specialism is Pronunciation. So what would you say to those teachers who don’t feel comfortable teaching it in their classes? 

I suppose it is. I do lots of other stuff as well, but my degree is in Languages and Linguistics and my MA and PhD are in teaching pronunciation to French LSP / LAP students using technology. 

I would (and do) say “Anything you do is better than nothing”. Especially if it’s fun. And teaching pronunciation should be fun. Is fun. I certainly enjoy teaching pronunciation more than grammar. Not that I don’t enjoy that too…

Many of us have had to learn the IPA at some point, how would you suggest we use it in classes? 

Firstly, only use it if you want, don’t feel you have to. If you do use it, teach it early on. Then, you can use it to help with other stuff later.

I personally have various versions of the IPA chart, some of which I have produced myself and use with classes. Some of my colleagues replace the symbols with coloured rectangles and teach it à la “Silent Way” (Gattegno). Some of my colleagues don’t use it at all. It all depends what you’re comfortable with. If you would like to teach it, start with what is similar to the students’ L1 and then work towards the more difficult sounds. Do consonants first (because they’re easier to hear and transcribe, etc.) and then simple vowels then diphthongs. 

I often show a couple of lines from the famous pronunciation poem “Dearest creature in creation…” and they fail dismally to pronounce the various words containing -OUGH. Then I work on the IPA for a couple of weeks. Then I show them the same part of the poem with the IPA transcriptions and they can read it. Magic…

At the very least, everyone should teach the symbol for schwa. I have the T-shirt “I wanna be a schwa – it’s not stressed”…

Besides the IPA, stress, intonation and connected speech, which all appear in coursebooks, what else would you suggest teachers focus on? 

I would say, if we’re talking about French learners of English in particular, then the IPA isn’t the place to start. Start with stress. For this, you will have to teach some segmental stuff (syllables, some vowels – especially schwa, maybe a couple of consonants…). Generally speaking, and I am not alone in thinking this (see my articles on teaching prosody), you’re better off focusing on prosody if you want results quickly – so word stress, sentence stress, intonation. This means that you relegate segmental stuff to backing up that choice – work on reduced and full vowels and go into consonants only where it’s useful for connected speech issues. 

What is your position on the whole ‘RP issue’? Isn’t the IPA RP? 

The IPA is, always has been and always will be, a very powerful tool capable of transcribing all human speech sounds. That’s narrow phonetic transcriptions written between square brackets [  ]. All the rest of it, what you see between slanty brackets /  / is the result of choices – usually pedagogical, often political. We are now in the domain of phonemic transcriptions. Models. Things which we aim for not things which describe reality. That’s what most of us do with students and that’s what students need if they are to be able to use transcriptions in dictionaries (for as long as they remain relevant…). 

So, RP. There are two ways of seeing “received pronunciation”. One is that it’s the way Henry Higgins talked, or Noel Coward, or that it’s somehow dead and gone. The other way is that it’s a constantly evolving agglomerate of the way university educated middle class people in the South of England speak. So what some people call SSBE (Standard Southern British English). Either outlook is very political in its implications. I subscribe to the second point of view – I believe RP is a useful tool for teaching, I would say it’s what I speak now (having changed my way of speaking several times since childhood). I don’t think it’s the only model we should teach. I think that we should work from various models towards various models and accept what we get in between – all the time working towards intelligibility and comprehension, of course….

What is your favourite pronunciation activity for a new class? 

First I warm up my students – stand up, stand properly, breathe, loosen up articulators, etc. Then, it depends what we’re working on – rhythm, intonation or phonemes. I’ve been working a lot with actors and ex-actors turned teachers recently – I like what Stéphane Soulaine calls “accordage rhythmique”, which is a variation on the techniques impro actors use to get into synch – it involves mini-role plays without words, getting students to walk in step and mirror each other’s movements, often without knowing it. All very touchy-feely, but great if you want to work on role plays and the like and really want stress and rhythm to be at the heart of your class…

I’ve heard some teachers argue that pron work is only for higher levels. What do you think? Should we begin it from A1? 

I’ll pretend I didn’t hear that. From the go-get, of course. In my perfect world, foreign languages would of course start before reading and writing in one’s mother tongue and it would be all oral and using the body. We all know that it’s harder to change one’s pronunciation as one gets older (or indeed one’s anything, but especially pronunciation), so the sooner the better. 

You are deeply involved with setting up and running teacher training? For you, what knowledge and skills do new teachers need? 

I am. I was part of the team that put the Grenoble University MA together 4 years ago when it “replaced” the CAPES and concours for primary school teachers and I teach on it now. I also helped put together a Diplôme universitaire de formation de formateurs et formatrices en anglais in Grenoble (a sort of French CELTA – unique in France) and teach several modules on it. I went through the IUFM (ESPE as is) after a cert. TEFLA (CELTA as is) and felt like shouting out regularly “Hallo – are you from the past?” Thngs are moving on in France now, but there’s a lot of work to do yet. I firmly believe that if you don’t like something, you put up and shut up, but if you really don’t like something, you get inside it, earn some respect and shake it up a bit. If you can do, teach and if you can teach, teach teachers.

You are an academic English teacher so what made you go that path and get a university job instead of treading the typical ‘CELTA+language school’ one?

Ah, it’s a nice place to be. Not all rosy, but very stimulating. I did do a CELTA but I always wanted a permanent job teaching English in France and there are too many ex-pats here for us all to have a decent ELT job… Had I not gone into academia, I would be writing materials and teacher training anyway and probably in a management job. But I prefer academia and love teaching in a French university because I believe in free education at the point of consumption at all levels for all who want it. It’s not easy to get the maître de conférences job, but it’s worth it once you get there. The point is, if you want to keep on learning, it’s a sensible way to evolve career-wise. If you want to keep being challenged mentally but keep paying the mortgage, it makes sense. And at the end of the day, a university is a place filled with people of all ages, mainly above average IQ, open-minded, curious and generous with their time and knowledge. And those that aren’t – well, you try and avoid them…

You are also involved in research and attend and participate in events. What is the most interesting ELT-related research you have read recently? And what would you like to research?

Without a doubt, EPIP4 (English Pronunciation Issues and Practices) in Prague, the place where the split between phonetics and phonology actually happened. I could really feel the weight of Prince Trubetzkoy and the other great Prague linguists of the thirties in the seriousness and diligence of the research, plus I got to go out drinking in Prague with Mark Hancock…

What’s next? After I’m done with the current big project I’m involved in, I would love to do more work on perception of teaching pronunciation to help understand why teachers and trainers don’t do more of it. I do a lot of edtech too so that’s all constantly evolving and throwing up new tools and new ways to think about teaching pronunciation, but it’s the classroom stuff where I feel we still make the most difference.  

We’ve learned that recently Dan has had an accident that led to some health problems. Mr. Frost has our best wishes for his full and speedy recovery. We hope he’s back up and teaching soon. -ed.

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