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ELT Book Reviews

The Language Teacher's Voice

The Language Teacher's Voice

Alan Maley
Macmillan Heinemann ELT, 2000
pp. xii + 84

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A different focus
Alan Maley is a popular speaker on the conferencing circuit because he tends to draw attention to oft-overlooked areas of language education, and does so in a style all his own. He does this once again, here in book form, with The Language Teacher's Voice, where instead of the predictable enunciation and projection focus, Maley looks to the basic development and maintenance of that most essential teaching tool -- the human voice.

Making the point
The book may not be what you are looking for when you pick it up. As Maley writes, "This book is not about changing your accent, or offering elocution lessons. It is about helping you to use your voice more effectively."

This theme reverberates throughout the text. In such a small book, the number of activities for teachers and students is truly mind-boggling. It is more nearly a workbook than a text. In many ways it reminds me of the "practice book" I had as a young musician: hours of exercises to be done in the privacy of a practice room. Or as Maley suggests, in your special quiet place.

A sense of decades past while reaching to your future
My mental image of Alan Maley is of a non-traditional teacher, a soft-spoken bear of a man with loud (Hawaiian) shirts. OK, that's not quite fair. But the chants, relaxation exercises, concerns for spiritual and emotional well-being as a part of physical well-being, and encouragement to use music ranging from New Age to Japanese Shigin are quite a bit outside the normal track for teacher training. Do these things work? Well, Maley suggests that we must give them a fair amount of time before judging. Perhaps just as difficult for me is getting past the sense of "oh gee, been there, done that, how much do I remember?" On the other hand, some of this stuff has worked for me before, and I have years to go in this profession...

Practical applications
Much of the book points to what we might identify as "foundationals." There aren't many "classroom tips" here, nor are there any "quick fixes." Chapter 4 "Care and maintenance of the voice" comes closest, mostly focussing on things like the physical environment (classroom and beyond) & noise pollution, physical problems & medications, and self-imposed voice problems (lifestyle, body use/misuse, overuse of the voice). This chapter also includes some helpful warm up exercises -- no singer, actor, athlete or musician would ever begin work without their warmups!

A personal trainer
Few of us can afford the time or financial expense of a personal voice trainer. In effect, this personal attention is what The Language Teacher's Voice offers. Just as a trainer tries to tailor a regime that best fits us, and allows us choices in our program (how very like a good teacher!), so too Maley presents numerous options. There are 60 pages of exercises of various types: body awareness, physical/vocal mobility, breathing, and relaxation, among others. As he indicates, the variety of exercises allows different people to find that which fits them best.

Classroom activities
Language learners are no less concerned with their voices, particularly the "persona" they project in the new language. A number of voice awareness exercises for students are offered, and frankly, many of the activities offered for teachers fit just as well for students, and vice-versa. This section hit home for me, I remember well some activities of this sort in my high school French class, and how I decided to "be a different person" in French though my voice register, volume, and speed of speech. Here Maley looks to listening activities to raise awareness not only of self, but of others, thus helping speakers to better understand how others may perceive us through our voices.

Are you ready for your workouts?
With several references to the aphorism "no pain no gain," Maley observes throughout the text the necessity of an exercise routine, that it takes time to counteract all the unnatural habits our bodies have acquired that undermine effective speaking, how voice practice is hard work. On the other hand, considering the effect our voice has on our students, does it make sense to invest in our voice any less than in other teaching resources?

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