In my Cinderella article and in the comments that followed we have referred to these two ideas, so here are a few notes on what I mean by these terms, and some practical activities.

In my Cinderella article and in the comments that followed we have referred to these two ideas, so here are a few notes on what I mean by these terms, and some practical activities. Your comments welcome, as ever.

Adrian Underhill's phonemic chart

1.. Chart as Mental Map

What does this mean?

For me a mental map is something that:

- Gives a cognitive/mental understanding of the territory (what the subject matter consists of) and the journey (what has to got to be done).

- Presents it all in one gestalt, showing the relationship of the parts to each other and to the whole.

-Offers a worktable, an experimenters bench on which sounds can be worked out, exercised, compared, played with, recognised, confused, put into sequences and words, taken apart again, during a lesson.

-Makes pronunciation concrete rather than ethereal or elusive.

- Can be used in every lesson whenever the link to pronunciation helps the learning (and I maintain that almost every aspect of language is linked to pronunciation, we can’t even think without evoking pronunciation, and if we don’t also study it, then we simply think in our mother tongue (default) pronunciation.

- Has a geography, a layout that is meaningful and actually tells you HOW and WHERE the sounds are made. Most pronunciation charts are lists, in that they have no geography. The only chart I know that provides a map is the Sound Foundations chart used on this website.

And what can I do?

- Learn how the layout relates to HOW and WHERE sounds are made. There are thee main zones: Vowels in the top left, laid out to show approximate tongue/mouth positions (left is front of mouth, right is back, top is top and bottom is bottom of the mouth); Diphthongs top right, in three columns according to the second element of each; Consonants in the bottom half, with the first row (stop sounds) laid out from front of mouth (at left) to back of the mouth at right, fricatives arranged in similar manner, then the three nasals bottom left, again laid out from front to back. The remaining 5 sounds also have a logic which I won’t discuss right here. Visit my guided tour of the chart video at the link below.

-incorporate this layout into your teaching, first just to help yourself, and gradually reveal it to your learners as they become ready for it.

2.. The Physicality of Pronunciation

What does this mean?

Pronunciation (I include stress and intonation) is the physical aspect of language. Attending to physicality means connecting with the muscles that make the differences we want. Once teacher or student has insight into this the mist lifts and it becomes clear precisely what has to be done to say the new sounds and to connect them together in acceptable ways. Physicality means teaching this movement, just as a dance teacher works with movement. In fact learning dance is a rather useful, larger size, illustration of learning pronunciation. And the dance teacher may have studied dance theory but her main source of immediate inspiration is the movement she herself makes, and when she sees this she can even help her students to be better then her.

The other more subtle aspect of physicality is that it is not just for speaking. Deaf people watch it in their ‘listening’.  We may feel it internally when we hear language internally in the ‘mind’s ear’, or when we rehearse internally something we want to say, or perhaps when we just think language.

And what can I do?

As I said in the Cinderella article, my first task with my new learners is to help them to connect with the muscles that make the pronunciation difference, to locate the internal buttons that trigger the muscle movements. At the beginning I help them find FOUR buttons which enable them to get around the mouth and 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)


Here is how I do this. Again, the video links below may help you. When working with monophthong vowels I ask them to glide between front vowel /i:/ and back vowel /u:/ like this /i: i: i: i: ...... u: u: u: u: ...... i: i: i: i: ...... u: u: u: u:/.

Then I ask them to put the tip of the thumb on one corner of the mouth and the tip of the forefinger on the other corner. And again they make this glide back and forth. This gives them tactile feedback on the movement of the lips between the spread and the rounded position.

Then I ask them to touch the forefinger to the front of the lips, and again make the glide. This time they get the sensation of the lips moving back (spread) and forward (rounded).

Then, still with the same pair of sounds I ask them to touch the tip of the tongue (with finger or pen) while in the / i: / position and then to slide to the  /u:/ position but without losing contact with the tongue. In addition to the laughter this causes, this gives them the sensation of the tongue moving forward and backwards in the mouth.

Later I establish the pair of front high-low sounds /i:/ and /a/ and in the same way help them to slide between the two. This time I ask them to place the forefinger on the bridge of the nose and the thumb on the point of the chin. As they slide between these sounds they get tactile confirmation that the jaw opens and closes, and that this movement is sufficient to produce a range of perceptibly different sounds.

From these first exercises they begin to discover for themselves that movement of tongue, lips and jaw enables them to make a whole range of perceptibly different sounds. These simple awarenesses form the basis of the toolkit that will enable them to make all the sounds of the new language, as well as the characteristic simplifications, reductions and energy distributions of connected speech.

While doing this I find it helpful to distinguish mime, making visible what I do to make a sound from gesture, other movements usually with the hands which show the place, or indicate the length or the amount of energy, or whether the sound is nasal, or whether the voice is ‘on’ or off’ etc.  

In my next article I will describe a range of activities for giving models of sounds, and some ways of using the chart while teaching vocabulary.

Meanwhile, please if you can visit these demonstrations.

  • 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 illustrations from my pronunciation workshop with teachers go here: