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Pronunciation is more than just 'listen and repeat'

27 05 2020

How can English language teachers help learners with pronunciation? Mark Hancock, a winner of the 2018 ELTons award for English language teaching innovation, shares his expertise.

What makes teaching pronunciation different from teaching other parts of the English language?

Pronunciation is more than 'listen and repeat'. Pronunciation includes features of language (vocabulary and grammar) and skills (speaking and listening).

Like vocabulary and grammar, we pronounce by noticing and understanding rules and patterns which lie beneath the surface of speech.

For example, if an English word has two syllables, the stress is usually on the first syllable for nouns and adjectives, and the second syllable for verbs.

Since pronunciation is part of speaking, it is also physical. To pronounce a new language, we need to re-train the muscles we use to speak.

And pronunciation involves listening to how the language sounds. We can practise by focusing on connected speech while playing fragments from speech recordings.

What role do the tongue, lips and jaw play in pronunciation?

Our tongue, lips and jaw (vocal articulators) physically shape our pronunciation. When we learn our first language, we develop speech habits which we may not be conscious of developing. This is what makes pronunciation in a new language so difficult – we carry with us the speech habits from our first language.

According to Tracey Derwing and Murray Munro, authors of Pronunciation Fundamentals, most people who learn a new language will keep accent features from their first language.

However, an accent is not necessarily a problem. You can keep your accent and still be understood.

What is the biggest change you’ve witnessed in English language teaching in your 30 years of experience?

English has become a lingua franca, or language which people use to communicate with one another globally. People with different languages use English to communicate, even if there is no native English speaker present.

In her book The Phonology of English as an International Language, Jennifer Jenkins argues that English's role as a lingua franca has implications for teaching pronunciation. The goal is not to sound like a native speaker, but rather to communicate effectively in a global context.

What advice can you give to someone who wants to teach English in a country where English is not the medium of instruction?

A learner's goal may be to communicate with other people from around the globe; not necessarily with native English speakers. With this in mind, you should focus more on aspects of pronunciation which aid understanding.

Some features of pronunciation make the message clearer to the listener. For example, a clear difference between the /r/ and /l/ sounds.

You can teach or practise intelligibility with communication activities. Using the /r/ and /l/ example, you can put pairs of words such as correct and collect into a game in which success depends on the learner being able to hear and say the difference.

You can teach optional features of pronunciation to make words easier to say, such as saying gonna instead of going to. Gonna may be easier for a learner to say, and is closer to how many native speakers pronounce going to. However, it is optional because most listeners will understand gonna or going to. 

What are your top tips for someone looking to strengthen their language and pronunciation skills?

Notice what your lips, tongue, jaw and throat muscles are doing when you speak, in your own language and in English.

For example, when you say the sound /t/, pay attention to the tip of your tongue. Does it touch the back of your teeth, or the ridge above them? How is it similar to the /d/ sound? How is it different?

Become aware of your beliefs and prejudices about pronunciation.

Many speakers of English say that they never use glottal stops (the sound we make when we close the glottis while speaking), but they do. According to John Wells in the Longman Pronunciation Dictionary, most people use the glottal stop to replace the /t/ sound in words like button.

Deciding to learn English with a British or American accent is not a helpful target.

Instead, focus on features of pronunciation which could distort your message. For example, speakers of Vietnamese may miss consonants from the ends of words, and speakers of German may confuse the /v/ and /w/ sounds. This might make it difficult for listeners to understand some words. 

What are the most common pronunciation issues that language learners encounter?

The most serious pronunciation issues are the ones we are not aware of.

For example, people who speak Spanish already make sounds which resemble the English /b/ and /v/. However, in Spanish, /b/ and /v/ are allophones – variants of the same sound.

Spanish hearers may not notice the difference, because hearing a language – like speaking it – is a habit we form in childhood. If a difference is not significant in our mother tongue, we might not notice it in the language we are learning.

Teachers need to help learners to notice such features in the target language. We can do that by teaching a short rhyme which includes many examples of a sound, so that it becomes noticeable to the learner.

How can learners choose when using homonyms, homophones, homographs or heteronyms?

English spelling is unhelpful for learners. It evolved out of speech, but then speech and spelling went their separate ways. Consequently, there are often many ways of spelling the same sequence of sounds. This results in homophones like 'piece' and 'peace'.

Conversely, the same sequence of letters may be pronounced differently, resulting in homographs like row (line) and row (argument).

Homophones and homographs are challenging for learners of English, but they aren’t the main problem. They are extreme cases of a bigger issue – the irregular relationship between English spelling and sound across the language.

It’s almost enough to drive a learner to despair, and we teachers don’t help much by throwing a lot of –ough words at the class while suggesting that there is no rhyme or reason in English spelling. In fact, there are actually many patterns and regularities.

I give learners games and puzzles which help them to notice and become familiar with these patterns.

Source: https://www.britishcouncil.org/voices-magazine/teaching-pronunciation-more-just-listen-and-repeat

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