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Sunday, June 12, 2016

P is for pronunciation (a forum thread)

Can pronunciation be taught?  SCOTT THORNBURY

(kind of summary notes, thanx Scott)
1. who denies grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation being the tripod of language teaching ? (as we can see in Ur’s “A course in Language Teaching”) 

2. Four predictors of acceptable pronunciation  (in degree of importance):

  • the learner’s first language (i.e., all things being equal, a speaker of, say, Swedish is more likely to pronounce English better than a speaker of, say, Vietnamese)
  • aptitude for oral mimicry (i.e. ‘having a good ear’)
  • length of residency in an English-speaking environment
  • strength of  concern for pronunciation accuracy (this one arguably be nurtured by the teacher)


A. learners who want to improve their pronunciation (or have an aptitude for it) will improve, and those who don’t (or haven’t) won’t – irrespective of what the teacher does.
Most of my students come to me with grammar cravings and nothing more. The importance of pronunciation doesn’t seem to count.B. As a teacher, I have to confess that I can’t recall any enduring effects for teaching pronunciation in class – but then, I very seldom addressed it in any kind of segregated, pre-emptive fashion. Most of my ‘teaching’ of pronunciation was reactive -  a case of responding to learners’ mispronunciations with either real or feigned incomprehension.    
C. advantages and disadvantages of NESTs versus non-NESTs   the non-NEST who has fluent and intelligible speech is both a more realistic model for learners, and one with whom they can identify more easily. (I’m a great advocate of the motivational value of playing learners recordings of people of their nationality speaking English well – such as Penelope Cruz or Javier Bardem, in the case of Spanish speakers).
D. Is it good news (we don’t have to teach pronunciation, and can spend the time saved on more important stuff)?E. Communication? .... So, remember that about 70% of the English that a non-native speaker uses will be with other non-natives.F. Teaching pronunciation is not only possible, but necessary (not only for the learner, but for us, as teachers, too). As we all know, one thing that fosters the learning process is a sense of achievement.    G. who knows these answers?       How were our students NOT improving their pronunciation?
  • G1. Whom the learners had to model their pronunciation from in the learning process? (as in teachers and local speakers of English), and 
  • G2. How much awareness raising and strategies relative to pronunciation were characteristic of the learning programs they were part of?

1- make some permanent impact on the performance skills, reading aloud, for example, with pauses that turn a monotonous solo performance into something like a communicative act – reading to people instead of at them. And I mentioned exercises based on reading aloud the same passage boringly, hesitatingly, enthusiastically etc. where attention was focussed on overall skills. 
2- when learners of a syllable-timed language are first taught that English is a stress-timed language and have the chance to practise it in class, they can then go home and watch a movie on cable TV (or even online) to see whether they can notice the difference. (Jazz chants for instance)
3- repetition; (from classbook materials, transcripts, etc)learners' competence has certainly improved when  we raise their awareness to vocabulary and work with chunks, it only makes sense we focus on the correct pronunciation of chunks and make it clear this is a feature of the language they’re studying, right?
4- give diagnosis on problematic areas
5- provide  feedback to keep motivation up.‘nothing succeeds like success’. If you can motivate stduents by showing them that their prounciation is improving incrementally – fantastic. Hence the value of recording students ‘before and after’ – 
6-   some areas of pronunciation which can and should be taught: they tend to fall into the category of “consciously doing things with your voice to make a point” (rehearsals, theatre, and so on)
7- SElf-recording and analysing. Listen to your own presentations!she simply sat with her own voice looped through her own headphones and read the text out, marking up the text with pauses and stress. When she started hearing herself speak she grimaced (!) but minutes later had made huge improvements. This was entirely self-directed – putting herself in the shoes of her own listeners had a powerful effect and she was quickly able to work out how to make her reading comprehensible. (to begin with, she didn’t need any external input on the ‘correct’ pronunciation.)

  Item 3 -  METHODOLOGY  (And food for thought)

- some of the most relevant features of pronunciation, the ones that make the students’ speech intelligible should be taught. Even if we’re not sure they’ll actually learn it, at least to make them aware of such features. 

1>   raising awareness to pronunciation is very important. 
   ACQUIRING A GOOD PRONUNCIATION is not a matter of using RP as a model, but it’s about making yourself more easily understood by native speakers and, consequently, other speakers of the language.
  • The most effective way of raising awareness about pronunciation....          is not through making ‘pre-emptive strikes’ on learners’ pronunciation problems (real or imagined), 
  •      but by providing unequivocal feedback. (i.e. play 'dumb' with them.)    If not instructed, a Catalan will probably say at a hotel “I need my kiss” (meaning “I need my keys”); you say: A mummy's night kiss? me, too.
In real life, speakers do this to each other when there is any mispronunciation-induced breakdown in communication.Facing the experience of NOT being understood – as painful as it is – might be sufficient to kick-start a concern for pronunciation improvement, which might then be engineered through lots of exposure (e.g. to movies) and (private) imitation.

2> -   teaching pronunciation and listening 
(actually hearing and differentiating sounds) goes hand in hand. 
When a student gains a level of proficiency in these two areas then the rest of their English learning speeds up. 
(learners confidence grows considerably when they start to be empowered with the skills to change and be flexible with their pronunciation)
2.A. sentence stress, weak forms, liaisons, elisions, and other features are paramount for learners to develop their listening skills.....  

2.B. Comprehension-geared syllabus: I selected excerpts from authentic video material and isolated elements of connected speech that at the time I felt might hider students’ comprehension: the silent H in sentences like “I hatim” = I hate him / the flap T in American English which is rarely understood by non native speakers / final ED endings as they connect to the the next vowel and so on and so forth.At the end of the four terms, there was considerable improvement in comprehension

3>- pronunciation is not easily learned. Or that it’s learned by means other than direct instruction. 
 3A.     .....  what evidence do we have that learners learn our pronunciation contents?
3B. Teacher may receive spontaneous, “soft” feedback from students, claiming that, for the first time ever, they were able to understand songs, movies etc

4 >-  in order for pronunciation work to have a lasting effect
  •   a real, conscious, CONTINUING effort needs to be made on the part of the learner”. AND 
  •   the teacher can be valuable support if he/she is able to help maintan the learner’s enthusiam, and provide appropritae direction.

5>- intonation seems to be often acquired through ...
 the appropriation of whole chunks of language, 
with their intonation contours intact: 
think of “What’s up?” or “Have a nice day!” or “How sad is that!

6> on line (Self-)learning

Teaching online makes handling pronunciation harder to “teach” but in some ways easier for students to work on independently. Three sites to refer students to are: 
All of them appear to be helpful to some extent, AND  having the students go away and work on these areas on their own does appear to be somewhat more effective than having a 1-1 session with their teacher.

until preintermediate level, learners need initiation into basic sound-spelling relationships: 
(in fact sound-spelling relationships are one aspect of pronunciation that I think are really worth drawing attention to)
incremental improvements that you might be trying to produce in intermediate or higher level students who have had significant exposure to English already.

Item 4 - DOs and DONTs tasks

DO_1   Teach stress!
  • DO_1.1> I see some value in focusing on word stress as I find most pronunciation problems my students stem from there. 
  • DO_1.2. >> sentence stress (including contrastive stress) is probably more important – in terms of its communicative load’ – than the accurate pronunciation of individual sounds. 
  • DO_1.3 >>        an inductive approach to guide a group of fairly advanced learners to work out the rules (or, better, tendencies) of word stress in polysyllabic words (the students seemed generally impressed that the system was not as arbitrary as it had appeared), and 
DO_2  Modulating your message.Progress can be achieved and demonstrated in some areas of spoken language. I always found that, for example, the practice of utterances spoken in different styles very productive, for example:Say the following sentence in the indicated fashion.
“Would you like to come to the cinema with me this evening?Hesitatingly // Shyly  // Arrogantly  // Aggressively  //
Ponderously  // Rapidly  //  Loudly  //  Mumblingly  //  Over clearly  //
The advantage of such exercises, I found was that:
  • a) They are fun to do.
  • b) They involve pronunciation, stress, elision, the use of short forms, the ubiquitous schwa and all that jazz , but focus on effective performance and progress is quick and observable – and can be permanent or at least long-lasting.

DO-3where I used a banal dialogue that happened to be in the students’ workbook to highlight the different spellings/pronunciation correspondences ( of the /ay/ phoneme)

      plus  2 DON'Ts

  • introducing the phonetic alphabet and transcribing words is taking it too far – beyond language learning and into linguistics! i. e., segregated activities such as the ones that focus on the past simple inflection (-ed) – well, I’m not so sure. Teachers may teach these “pronunciation macnuggets”, but  what evidence do we have that learners learn them?
  • Let students down about learning a language  where you can overcome to sound like you’re actually speaking a different language. That is, to partially get rid of your most remarkable accentual features. (upperintermediate)

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