Vol. 6. No. 2 R-6 September 2002
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12 American Voices

Maurice Cogan Hauck with Kenneth MacDougall (2002)
New Haven and London: Yale University Press
Pp. ix +179
ISBN 0-300-08960-0
1 book + 1 audio CD (included)
US $30.00

12 American Voices is a rare object in the world of listening comprehension: it is based on truly authentic material aimed at an advanced level.

The author states his aim explicitly:

"We decided to write Twelve American Voices because we had trouble finding authentic materials that college and adult students find genuinely interesting, materials that respect their intelligence and life experience [ . . . ]"

One may wonder why authentic material is so rare. The answer might be found in the source of the recordings used here: public radio. My own (mostly filed) attempts at getting copyright permission from various sources to publish listening documents led me, some time ago, to the conclusion that the price asked to reproduce listening materials, even for educational purposes, is prohibitive and therefore publishers hesitate to invest, hence the abundance of "fake" material and the dearth of realia in this particular domain.

Maurice Cogan Hauck uses twelve documentaries ("award-winning stories") by David Isay from National Public Radio, in their original form (not simplified and not shortened). David Isay "has dedicated his career to telling stories from the corners of American society, giving a voice to people who are rarely noticed." The stories are about ordinary individuals who are extra-ordinary in some respect: for example a lunch-counter worker who was witness and participant in the desegregation of such places during the Civil Rights Movement, a man who spends his time recording every little detail of his life in his diary or a post-office worker who deciphers unreadable addresses. Two stories deal with death, a taboo subject if there is one.

In each broadcast, David Isay introduces the subject, comments on it and concludes, with, between his commentaries, small excerpts of interviews of the subjects themselves.

Each story is compact, set at a fast pace and lasts about six minutes, sometimes more, rarely less.

The problem with this sort of document is that, although it is authentic, only the interview part is truly spoken, spontaneous language, David Isay's part being a written commentary read aloud. And his part is the largest. There is indeed a need for this variety of spoken English (the news on radio or TV are mostly read) but the difficulties it presents are not in the speaking but in the writing: the language structures are more complex and the vocabulary is richer than in spontaneous speech. On the other hand, to make things easier, the grammar is unfailingly correct.

The interviews offer the richness of variety: variety of voices (male, female, young, old), of accents (regional, ethnic), of speech patterns and features ("correct" or "incorrect", idiomatic, speed, etc.). These are the items that are almost never present in listening material and there lie the greatest difficulties for the foreign student. And these are the items which, unfortunately, are not addressed enough in the book. No exercises are designed to help students familiarize themselves with the idiosyncrasies of spoken English. Fill-in-the gap exercises for precision understanding in a listening document are sorely lacking: when they exist, they are done as a reading exercise, from the script, which is better than nothing but does not really help students to understand the spoken word. This is particularly true for all the exercises on non-standard English (Units 9, 10, 11, 14). In the same way, work on prepositions is done as a reading exercise, thus avoiding the difficulty of understanding these short, often unstressed but essential words. [-1-]

These weaknesses notwithstanding, 12 American Voices has a lot of qualities and I am looking forward to using some of it with my own students next term.

First of all, the broadcasts are truly interesting and the subjects unusual, a far too rare occurrence in pedagogical material. They are concerned with aspects of American culture, more precisely everyday life. "They deal with traditions and change in contemporary U.S. culture and address a range of topics, some lighthearted and some quite serious."

According to the author, the level of difficulty increases with each unit. He defines the first half as intermediate and the second as upper-intermediate. I think intermediate students would have a hard time with the material and I would only use it with upper-intermediate and advanced students.

Each unit is a subject in itself and can be done separately, according to needs and interests. The usual format of a unit is as follows:

Most of the activities rely on interaction between the students making it more suitable for class use than self-study. An Instructor's Manual (which I have not seen) provides further explanations and suggestions for the teacher or the students who wish to work on their own.

Finally, a CD, inside the book, contains the recordings of the broadcasts.

To conclude, this is a pleasant book to work with and one which, I am sure, will motivate students and help them improve their listening and speaking skills.

Nicole Décuré

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