My mother had been learning Spanish for about a year leading up to a much anticipated trip to Peru. She had memorized the vocabulary, learned the verb conjugations and was ready. I had lived in Colombia for about a year at that point and was fluent in Spanish so, off we went. She didn’t want me to do all of the talking, she had worked so hard after all, so she jumped in and spoke whenever possible. This soon became a total frustration for her because whenever she spoke, the person she spoke to would look confused. I would jump in and repeat what she had said, the person would then smile and understand perfectly. My mother looked at me and exclaimed,
“That was exactly what I said! Why didn’t they understand me?”
The problem was pronunciation. She was speaking with at thick American English accent and the people there were not used to it.
Accents are fine, they can even be an expression of a person's identity, but when pronunciation is too far different from expected norms, it creates frustrations for both the speaker and the listener. That is why it is so important to teach pronunciation from the beginning. Having said this, I do believe that the aim should be comprehensibility, not "native-like" pronunciation unless that is what the student wants. It should really be up to the student how they want to speak, we are there to help them reach their goals, not to tell them what their goals should be. Having said that I have yet to meet a student who didn't want people to understand them and didn't want to be able to hear what was being said.
I know when I was learning Spanish, it took me the better part of a year to figure out how to improve my pronunciation without the help of my teachers. Once I figured out the secret to better pronunciation by listening intensely and analyzing how my speech differed from those around me, it only took me a few weeks of consciously modifying the way I was speaking for it to become second nature to me. People instantly understood me better and an added bonus was that my listening comprehension also improved.
For many years as an English teacher, I ignored pronunciation, thinking students would be bored and it wouldn't really help them. The truth of the matter was, I didn't really know how to teach it and felt uncomfortable with it. In my teacher training program, we had a class on linguistics that broke down phonemes for us and introduced us to the International Phonetic Alphabet but didn't really show us how to teach it.
It wasn't until I was teaching in Turkey and was presented with a course entitled "Pronunciation" to teach, that I started investigating how to teach it. I found that pronunciation was not boring at all and students didn't need to be convinced of it's value, they already knew they needed it.
There are many many things you could focus on when teaching pronunciation, so where should you start?
Here are the first 4 things I do when I teach pronunciation.
1. Show Students How to Count Syllables in English
This seems straight forward to those of us who learned about English syllables in elementary school, but it is actually not strait forward at all. In order to know how many syllables a word has, the learner has to know how many phonemes a word has and that is not obvious just by looking at the spelling of the word. In some languages like Turkish, a person just has to look at how the word is spelled and count the vowels. In Japanese, (if you are not looking at kanji) it is even easier, you just need to count the number of Hiragana or Katakana in a word to know. In English however just looking at the number of vowels in a word will not help. There are too many words with silent vowels and double vowels with only one sound for this to work. It is important therefore to listen carefully to the word and count how many vowel sounds are present.
Write the following 4 words on the board and ask them how many syllables are in each one.
So, why is it important for students to be aware of how many syllables a word has?
It is important because in most English words, one syllable is stressed (the vowel sound in that syllable is stronger and longer than in the other syllables). If students put the stress on the wrong syllable, that causes the word to be very difficult to understand and that brings us to the second step in teaching pronunciation. Imagine if, instead of saying baNAna you said BAnana. It would totally change the sound of the word making it all but incomprehensible.
2. Where is the Stressed Syllable?
The next job is to figure out where the stressed syllable or syllables are. In English the vowel sound in the stressed syllable is not necessarily said louder but rather held a bit longer than the other vowel sounds in the word. This can be practiced by using a rubber band to physically stretch out the vowel sound or if you don't have any rubber bands, you could simply have students stand up while saying the stressed vowel sound and sit down when it is over. I tried this at a conference last fall and after a few minutes I was getting a really good thigh workout!
Whenever students learn a new vocabulary word, ask them to listen to you say it or listen to the pronunciation on forvo.com. This site is great because it allows students to listen to the word pronounced in various different accents by both men and women. Mark where the stressed syllable is in each new vocabulary word. Learning where the stress falls in a word should be just as important as learning how to spell it.
3. What is a Schwa?
To put it simply, the schwa is the most common sound in the English language. It can be found in practically every English sentence, usually multiple times, and it has no letter that corresponds to it, just the phonetic symbol that looks like an upside-down e. It can and does substitute for every other vowel.
I usually introduce it to my students with the word BANANA. They can easily identify how many syllables this word has by now, and I pronounce it very clearly for them. I ask them to identify which A sounds different. They usually have no trouble finding the middle syllable as the mismatch. I then show them that the first and last A do not hold a strong vowel sound but rather slide into a schwa. If I am teaching Spanish Speaking students I will also show them the name MARIA. In Spanish, the two As hold onto their sounds and are pronounced like the O in olive. In English however, they become schwas which sound like a shortened version of the U in fun.
It is more important for students to be able to hear what is happening when the English vowel sounds become schwa than that they be able to replicate it exactly. Students will still be perfectly understandable saying a word like BANANA even if they don't pronounce the first and last As as schwas. They may not be able to understand however, when a lot of the vowel sounds become schwas if they are expecting to hear all of the vowel sounds pronounced clearly. This is one of the reasons that it is so much easier for students to understand their English teachers than a conversation with "native speakers" on the street.
I know as an English teacher I will try to say words clearly so my students can understand me more easily. Often that means that instead of using the schwa sound as I would in my conversations with other fluent English speakers, I hold on to the vowel sounds giving them the idea that the pronunciation is different than it actually is outside of the classroom.
4. How Many Vowel Sounds are There in English?
Well, the answer to that question depends on what kind of English you speak. Depending on where you are from, there could be as many as 20 different sounds! I am from the western part of the United States so that means that for me, there are about 15. We only have AEIOU and sometimes Y to represent them though. This makes English pronunciation difficult as it is next to impossible to know how to say a word in English just by looking at it in its written form.
The International Phonetic Alphabet was created to help with this problem but teachers hesitate to use it because it requires learning a whole new set of symbols. A much more user friendly tool exists today called the Color Vowel Chart. This chart is simple, very visual and easy to use. They have even created a fun card game. At the moment it only exists for North American English.
This is important because many languages like Spanish and Japanese have only 5 vowel sounds. Trying to shoehorn all of the English vowels into 5 sounds makes it difficult not only to pronounce the words, but also to hear them. Distinguishing between the vowel sounds in pin, pen, pain, and pan can be next to impossible without some intentional training.
First we need to train everybody's ears to hear the differences between the sounds. To brains that are unaccustomed to hearing those sounds, they appear the same. When we are babies we are born with the ability to hear all sounds accurately but our amazing brains sort out the important from the unimportant so we can better focus on what we need. This is great for learning just about anything, but when we suddenly decide to learn something new, like a foreign language, we need to retrain our brains as to what is important and this takes effort.
I like to use minimal pairs to help students distinguish between sounds that appear the same to the untrained ear. Once students can hear the difference, we move on to production. After a few weeks of teaching pronunciation, and thinking about how much I struggle to say certain vowels in Turkish that do not exist in English, I began to realize something. Most people could accurately produce the sounds a few times, but without really focusing, we all soon slip back into what feels comfortable. This is not a mental problem per se, but rather a physical problem. Much like an athlete trying to learn a new sport, we need to build muscle memory and we need to exercise muscles that are not used to being used. This means helping students to put their mouths in the right positions to produce the sounds over and over again. It can actually be physically tiring, even uncomfortable to build up those muscles, but doing so will enable your students to make the English vowel sounds in a more comprehensible manner.
There are of course many many other things too look at when teaching pronunciation but I will leave that for a future post, these four are where I start. I like to integrate them into lessons that focus on vocabulary acquisition. They can be fun and active and provide a break from the routine.
Do you teach pronunciation in your classes? If you do, what are some of the most effective things you do? If not, what are some concerns you have about teaching pronunciation? Please comment below, I would love to hear from you!
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Hi, I'm Kia.
I help ESL / EFL teachers create fun, effective courses that students love.