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April 18, 2015 by helenwaldron

Dear Readers,

My last IATEFL 2015 on-demand session review brings us to Sheila Thorn, a woman of considerable interests and experience, who admirably did not begin by apologizing for her age, but instead by briefly stating the path which brought her to her present job/hobby.

She runs a business providing authentic listening materials for a variety of professions, and in this session she talked about collecting medical English conversations to train non-native speaking doctors, nurses, chemists and other staff to deal with the multitude of accents and speech patterns that patients may throw at them while describing their symptoms.

It’s a very important field (potentially life or death), since patients are typically not voice-trained actors and – as Ms Thorn pointed out – often in a nervous state where they will mix the sequence of events, the terminology of their condition and generally ramble on at length about their health conditions (I think we’ve all met a few of these).

It was not for the faint hearted either. You have to have the stomach and the interest. And Ms Thorn clearly enjoyed rising to the challenge. She’d built up a database of hundreds of people talking (sometimes at length) about their medical conditions. There was something of the butterfly collector about it (“Ohh, a double colostomy. I haven’t got one of those yet. Where’s me car keys, tape machine and microphone?”), with elements of the sleuth thrown in for good measure (it was her good contacts alone that led to her clinching the breast screening tapes).

The Breast Screening Tapes. Wonder what John Grisham would rustle up under that title. Or no, not John Grisham …

One of the ways she got around patient confidentiality was by recording her own consultations with her doctor (and she had even been forbidden to use these at times). Now it was beginning to sound like Freudian self-analysis…

A psycho-thriller, then.

For anyone who hasn’t transcribed spoken texts, it’s massively time-consuming. As, presumably, was drawing out people to trust her with their confidences in the first place.

The thought occurred to me that Ms Thorn probably knew more about her “sources” than the doctors and nurses treating them.

And then there were suggestions for exercises to be made of the tapes, gap fills, stress marking, translation and the like. And a fairly long list of how authentic British speech can differ from what non-natives learn at school and college.

Since Writewell’s away I won’t have Talking Heads, I’ll pick some boys’ stuff for my gratuitous music clip this time.



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Helen Waldron

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Teachers as Workers

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