The point I want to make is that pronunciation teaching has been neglected and that we have all lost out through this. 

Pronunciation - the poor relation? - pronunciation article - guest writers

In spite of the development of interesting teaching materials by various people it remains the poor relation of language teaching, poorly related to the rest of what happens in the language classroom. I want to suggest two reasons why I think this is, and two corresponding ways of overcoming this and moving forward. In the second article I will pick up on the practical side of this and explore a strategy for action in the classroom, for laying the foundations of a mutually enriching integration of pronunciation with the rest of language. I intend to keep the concerns of NNS (non native speaker) teachers very much in mind, though I hope this will apply to pretty well everyone.

Is pronunciation the Cinderella of language teaching?
While much has changed in the last few decades in how we teach grammar, vocabulary, collocation, context and meaning I suggest that pronunciation is still rooted in an essentially behaviourist paradigm of listen, identify, discriminate and repeat. This is not wrong, simply insufficient, and so for most students and probably most teachers pronunciation remains a mysterious zone where the rules are not clear and it is difficult to make progress, or even to know if you have. Teachers do their best to integrate pronunciation but for many it remains a supplement to the main diet of most lessons, often relegated in lessons and course books to 'pron slots'.

I light-heartedly refer to pronunciation as the Cinderella of language teaching to conjure up a journey from neglect and separation to inclusion and integration, because my experience is that as we explore the two problems and develop solutions something remarkable can happen in terms of engagement for learners, impact across the 'whole' of language learning, and the feeling of enjoyable, do-able progress. So, what are the two problems and the two ways forward?

The need for physicality
The first problem I identify is that we do not sufficiently embrace in our teaching the physicality of pronunciation. While grammar and vocabulary can somehow take place in the cognitive realm, pronunciation is the physical aspect of language and needs teaching as a (subtle) physical discipline involving the muscles of articulation especially in throat and mouth. We give models but students can’t locate the muscles they need to change the sound they are making, to escape the grip of their mother tongue phonetic set. In short, they can’t find the internal buttons to press to get a different sound.

When you teach gymnastics or dance there is a focus on connecting attention to finely tuned muscular movements. In the case of pronunciation too we must help students to reconnect with the muscles that make the difference. So, my first task with my new learners (beginners, intermediate or advanced, teacher or student, native or non-native English speaker,) is to help them to (re-)discover the main muscles that make the pronunciation difference, to locate the internal buttons that trigger the muscle movements. At the beginning I find it enough to help them identify four such buttons (physically, not just cognitively) which enable them to get around the mouth and consciously find new positions of articulation. These are:

  1. Tongue (forward and back)
  2. Lips (spread/back and rounded/forward)
  3. Jaw + tongue (up and down)
  4. Voice (on or off)

This is the basic kit for navigating round vowels and diphthongs, and it transfers well to consonant sounds with the addition of relatively easy landmarks such as teeth, lip and palate. Learners experience a liberation once they develop conscious contact with these four movements and can start to move themselves, clumsily at first, around the territory which is conceptualised on the chart/map and actualised in the mouth. And there is a bonus, which is that muscles work by moving and much of that movement is visible. That’s why deaf people in every language can see what their friends are saying. So if we start to teach to this visibility of pronunciation we can enrich and support the physicality still further. It’s like learning to dance by watching it: the eyes can inform the muscles direct, without a need for cognitive explanation.

The need for a mental map
The second problem is that many students and teachers do not seem to have a clear mental concept and sense of direction. They lack a mental map to guide them through this unknown pronunciation territory and to complement and help conceptualise the physicality. For me the phonemic chart substitutes such a map for the mysterious and fearful void that many navigate by at the moment. The chart I use is different from most in that it provides a map, mental scaffolding and more:

Adrian Underhill's phonemic chart

It is a map with a geography, containing embedded information on WHERE & HOW sounds are made. And it is a MAP not a LIST of phonemes.

The arrangement of sounds on this chart tells you about how to make them.

The chart itself becomes a worktable, a place to enquire, diagnose and experiment, and where sounds connect into words, where mistakes can initiate successes.

The whole pronunciation syllabus is there in one single gestalt. The chart is always visible, and it is finite.

Just to illustrate briefly one of the information strands threaded into the chart: look at the chart and you can see the twelve vowels in the vowel box in the top left quadrant. The left side of that box represents the front of the mouth. The right side represents the back. The top of the mouth is the top of that quadrant and the bottom is the bottom. So straight away you can see the high and low vowels, and the back and front ones, and the central pair. And the neighbours in the chart are more or less neighbours in the mouth too. Now look at the first two rows of consonants just below, and again the front consonants are at the left, and the back ones are at the right. And generally speaking front sounds are the ones that are more visible! Neat isn’t it? Well there is much more in there, but this is what I mean by a map, and this complements the physicality which I will discuss next time, but which you can preview at the link below.

In conclusion
I am proposing that by using a mental map and by making pronunciation physical we can make it purposeful and engaging, and lay the foundation for learning an integrated whole. I look forward to your views and questions.

Links

  • For a guided tour of the chart and introduction to the physicality go here and you’ll see it in the 2010 archive section about halfway down the page.
  • For extracts from my pronunciation workshop with teachers go here: www.youtube.com/macmillanelt

 

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Comments

I think the reason pronunciation is neglected is because of the different accents with which people speak the English language. For example both Australia and the United States have English as their main language yet they pronounce various words differently. Also speakers of another language who learn English in their adulthood may never learn to pronounce certain words correctly.

  Thanks for your comments. I wonder if you mean that teachers don’t teach pronunciation because there are different varieties with different accents, so they don’t know which one to choose for their class? Or do you mean that if the chosen model is different from the T’s own pronunciation then they may not feel confident to go ahead?   It is a complex area. With all the varieties and accents of English there is plenty of scope for confusion about what to teach. For example the class materials may illustrate different pronunciation from that used locally. In general someone has to take a decision on which variety to teach, and perhaps it will  be the variety spoken by the teacher.  But then whatever is chosen the next challenge is that through  materials and resources and movies and music the learners encounter a whole range of other accents. Perhaps the best way to help learners deal with all this is to teach pronunciation in such a way that they actively learn one form, while being exposed to, and playing with other forms, so that they get used to understanding different pronunciations, and also to finding that they too can influence their own pronunciation. The advantage of teaching one form is that it highlights the existence of other forms. Personally I go one further and have the learners experiment with other accents, not to acquire the accent, but to acquire the confidence that they could, and to enable their ear to hear it comfortably whenever the need arises. I wonder how you deal with pronunciation, given the points you make, in your classes…?

In my previous life, as a reading teacher to learning-disabled students, I taught sounds using photos of mouths.  They showed the lip and tongue position (as much as possible) for all the consonant sounds.  The method, Lindamood-Bell, had a name for each sound. For example, the sound p was called a "lip popper" since you pop your lips to make it.  And all of the sounds that can be either voiced or unvoiced, such as f/v, were called "quiet" and "noisy."  Thanks to your interesting and informative article, I see that I can put my former teaching to good use in the ESL classroom - and I look forward to it!

 Yes exactly! Put your former teaching to good use! I have had a look at the Lindamood-Bell website, and I can see there are ideas, techniques and approaches which have relevance for us language teachers. I think that in language teaching we can make good use of many such feeder fields (eg teaching the deaf) where people have gone into specific learning challenges to see what the leaner actually needs. Quite often we can import, maybe with modifications, certain techniques. But also we can import into language teaching the awarenesses behind the techniques, because that is what it’s about, not really the technique, but the insight that the technique has been designed to bring about. What can Lindamood-Bell offer once you adapt its awarenesses to your ESL classroom? Have fun with the exploration!

To me it is not necessery to teach with the pure accent or dialect but then enough if it just a simple pronunciation.First learning to the beginners is quite blur to themselves so we must familiarise them with their own mother tongue language as for not jot- them- out on their first lesson.

 Thanks Aulia. Yes I agree it is a very good strategy to start with something they can already do, namely that they can pronounce their own language. They can make all the muscle movements of tongue, lips, jaw and voice, and they can do this in perfect coordination. One simple and effective exercise is to have the class say a word in their own language (in a monolingual class they take the same word and do it together. In a multilingual class they each have different words), and then: 1.. Get them to say it aloud, at normal speed together 2..Then again, but slower, and then slower, and slower 3..Then get them to say it sound by sound, with a stop between each. This may require agreeing which bits constitute a separate sound 4.. Identify the separate sounds and perhaps say them in a different order to demonstrate how they can be moved around. Now they are playing with separate sounds 5.. Get them to notice and perhaps exaggerate what they do in their mouths to make the different sounds. Draw attention to tongue, lips etc 6.. Finally put the sounds together again and speed it up until the normal word is produced.   Such activities can help to grow awareness of sounds, of the muscles that shape them, and the fact that they can be joined into a single flow that makes words. Then when they start to do this in the new language they can see pronunciation is not just something strange about the new language, but it happens in their own!   Is this the kind of thing you are referring to Aulia? How do you familiarise students with their own mother tongue?

I do agree with you and your steps. I'm very insistent with my students' pronunciation; and teach them as you've said. I consider it a very useful and clear way of learning the sounds and their articulation. We work, not only with me speaking to them but also with some recordings that I've used while I was studying. Some days ago, I was speaking with some friends (who are native speakers of the language) and they told me that my pronunciation was too refined up to the point of being unnatural. I've talked to an excellent teacher of phonetics and she told me that it's fine, as we have to be models, anyway it's good to expose our students to different accents so as to get to know that ours is not the only way of pronouncing.What do you think? In the Teacher Training Collage we have been taught RP English, but of course it's not the only accent, and specially not even the most common one... should we still insist on it? and be called, as it happened to me, too refined?Thank you very much 

 Hi AgustinaMuch has been said about what ‘model’ to teach our students. The view I take on this, but which I am ready to change, is that if we have an essentially behaviourist view of learning, that you build up a response pattern through much use and repetition and that this becomes a new habit which you can’t really access to alter the ‘settings’, then it start to matter a lot what model you use that will become that habit. This is what I call a black box approach, you don’t know what goes on inside, but you can gradually through repetition alter what comes back out of the box, though you cannot directly access it or even really reflect on what is going on. And I contrast this with an approach based on awareness, where in the case of pron you constantly develop the connection between attention and muscles and breath and the resulting sounds such that the learner has insight into what they are doing, can intervene in what they are doing, and can develop (some) choice in what they are doing. If we have this awareness/insight view of learning then it matters less what model is used by the teacher, because we expect teachers and materials and films and the internet to expose the learner to multiple models in their listening. And we expect that learners find, because it is part of our teaching, what internal buttons (muscles) to press to change the quality of sounds, and so to find that they have some choice about how their new accent develops. And the teacher can say things like, “OK, can you say it like me….? And “Can you say it like that guy in movie….?” And “Can you say it like Lucia (another teacher….?” And “Can you say it like your mother….?” And “Ok, so how would you like to say it ….?” This is when pron start to really fire up a language class. (As you’ve guessed I use the term pron to include all aspects of sounds and connected speech)   What we want for our students is confidence, clarity and comfortable intelligibility, and a teaching approach that liberates them to move around in the realm of accents. The limiting factor is not the brain, it is the teaching approach. However you speak, RP or anything else, give them lots of variety as well, and when you play other accents you too can be a learner and have fun along with your students. Not sure if this corresponds to your question… so I’d better stop!

Adrian;yes!! of course it was of a great help!! Because not only you have answer to me in detail but also added many interesting things that I'd like to try in my classes! I'll see how it works!!Thank you very much for your help!

I am delighted to have the possibility of interacting with Adrian Underhill. Thanks to your "Sound Foundations" I had the chance to succeed and enjoy the phonology examination I had to take for the Licentiate Diploma in TESOL!
I agree that pronunciation is usually neglected, but I feel that on many occasions it is due to the lack of confidence we teachers have or the feeling that pronunciation "is not that important, and there are so many other areas we need to cover". But I'm sure many people will agree with me on how nice it is to have learners with nice pronunciation! 
I feel the word "awareness" is a key word in all this and that pronunciation has to do with all aspects of the language, not just to speaking as some might think.  If learners are not aware of, for instance, the fact that native speakers include intrusive or linking sounds in their speech, they might not fully understad the listenig material the teacher gives them.  If we don't read something adequately with the right pauses we might fali to understand the text.... and how many times do our Spanish speaker students confuse too and to, can't there be a lack of awareness of pronunciation of those words which then might lead to their misspelling the words?Just a few thoughts to contribute to the discussion!Cheers from Uruguay!!!!!
Laura

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