On Teaching Pronunciation
Nov 9, 2008 Pronunciation/Phonics 5708 Views
Many years ago, a presenter at an ESL conference I attended began his stimulating, and very memorable, presentation with a ten minute mini lesson in . . . Thai! The audience of ESL teachers, syllabus planners and curriculum designers was stunned, but the point was effectively made: Learning correct pronunciation and intonation in a foreign language is not as simple as ESL teachers seem to think! Although all members of the human race are born with the same physical apparatus for producing sound, years of functioning in one language exclusively take their toll and it becomes difficult to produce sounds in dissimilar languages. Having adapted itself to the sounds of our native language over the years, our innate abilities becomes fossilized through disuse. Native English speakers will find it extremely frustrating to try to produce the sound system of the Thai language – even though they have voice production to do so!
It is important to remember this illustration when teaching pronunciation in our ESL courses. If we want our lessons to be time-efficient, and our students to receive the positive feedback necessary for all learning, we should examine how we go about teaching pronunciation and how much time we spend on the pronunciation we teach.
Firstly, let's take a look at the kind of pronunciation exercises we work on with our students.
Accents are nothing to be ashamed of! If ESL learners are not prospective singers and stage people, they are expected to have accents. Some adults can replicate native accents – these are usually individuals with an exceptional talent for music – but most can't. When mispronunciation results in a less than perfect accent, simple common sense indicates that we should not waste too much time and effort correcting it. But when mispronunciation results in misunderstanding, common sense indicates that we should spend time and effort correcting it.
But here's the rub: These difficulties are caused by our voice production apparatus having long ago adapted itself to our own mother tongues whereas ESL textbooks provide us with a 'one-size' type of exercise (geared to all learners of English, no matter what their native language).
It is therefore important for us to know which mispronounced sounds cause misunderstanding: For example, Hebrew – the mother tongue of most of my students – does not have a long 'e' and a short 'e', but something in between. In actual fact, the language used to have both 'e' sounds, but these blurred in modern Hebrew. As a result, a native Hebrew speaker will not say 'beach' and 'bitch' as an English speaker would – but produce an 'e' sound midway between the two – for both. Definitely uncomfortable in conversation! On the other hand, the Hebrew 'r' is guttural whereas the English 'r' is not produced in the throat. The worst that can happen here is an accent. So what?
Choose pronunciation exercises in your (heretofore) neutral textbooks that are effective in preventing misunderstandings and add more exercises of your own if necessary; gloss over those which might simply improve accent as they can be time consuming, frustrating and . . . superfluous!
Now, let's take a look at the stages of teaching pronunciation:
Drill 'minimal pairs': As I mentioned previously, to use your lesson time effectively by drilling those sounds that cause misunderstandings. In the case of native language Hebrew students, I work on long 'e' short 'e' minimal pairs as follows:
|Long 'e'||Short 'e'|
And, of course,
Depending on the equipment you have at your disposal, these drills can be done with a tape recorder (both for listening comprehension and to record your students) or orally only.
Create sentences that emphasize the differences:
- I've seen them sin.
- Don't sit in my seat.
- The teen has the tin.
- Take the bitch to the beach.
Then practice these for both comprehension and production.
Give your students the opportunity to correct themselves:
Once you've taught something – anything – it is legitimate to see that item as part of the 'reservoir' of class knowledge. So, after drilling the above sounds, errors in their usage should be corrected at every opportunity – and not only within the context of the pronunciation segment of your lesson.
Tip: Self-correction has a far greater impact on the student than being corrected by the teacher. I keep a bell (the kind used at hotel reception desks) for this purpose. When I hear an error – long after I've taught the item – I press the bell and this indicates to the student and to the class that something must be corrected.
Prove this theory to yourself: If you are not fluent in your students' mother tongue, learn some basic conversation – you'll begin to zero in on the sounds that are problematic because they will give you the same difficulty they have – in reverse; if you already speak their language, learn the sounds of any dissimilar one. I tried this with basic Mandarin and highly recommend this experiment: I acquired a both humility and perspective in the face of teaching pronunciation.