Sink or Think?

The only times pronunciation flowed smoothly happened when I got beginner groups, and continued with them, using an integrated approach to teaching every aspect and skill. Children aged eight or nine simply repeated all the sounds after me, finding some of them, like /th/, hilarious. Why? First, because no such sounds exist in their native language; second, because I taught them to show me the tips of their tongues, no sound, before they produced it; third, because I would use lots of pictures to demonstrate the differences between some standard pairs of words, like sink – think, sought- thought, though – so, et cetera. It is much more difficult to work with students who have already acquired the habit of mispronunciation and say /s/, /z/ instead of /th/. Teenagers especially need a lot of persuasion, a larger number of examples to illustrate that this one sound plays a great role in the language. If people say /r/, /l/, /m/, /n/ the way those sounds are produced in their mother tongue, they will still be understood. If /th/, both in words like this and thin, is mispronounced, misunderstanding occurs. So I use that impressive pair, SINK or THINK, to help them remember and pay attention to the sound.
A common way of trying to cope with these sounds is introducing an extra vowel into a hard consonant cluster, like e.g. saying a mysterious non-existent word /klouzis/ instead of clothes, or /mansis/ instead of months. I cannot invent a way to transliterate such clusters as one-sixth, or The Sixth Sense. I have quite a collection of those, and use them either as warm-ups, or as a relaxation/distraction exercise in the middle of a lesson.
Another difficult pair of sounds is /v/ and /w/. The sound we have in Russian is in-between them, from the point of view of articulation. Again, with beginners, teaching them how to produce those sounds is an integral part of a lesson. With the other levels, if there is an obvious mistake, I sometimes use a reverse example: I tell them how hard it is for learners of Russian to produce the /v/ sound, especially in the initial position. In fact, when any native speakers visit the local schools and universities, I tell them about this problem, and ask them to say a few common names, like Valya, Vasya, Vadim, in front of the students. Such a live demonstration helps students realize that their own language may be difficult for foreigners, in the same way as a foreign language is difficult for them. As my own teachers had done a long time ago, I actually show them how to use their organs of speech to produce the sounds correctly, first without making any sound. Open your mouth a little, grab your lower lip with your upper teeth, now say /v/. Push your lips a bit forward, say /w/. Teenagers smirk at that one, making kissing sounds at each other occasionally. A little humour never hurts.
And then there comes the most difficult vowel, which is spelled in a number of ways: girl, early, purse, terse… Mispronunciation may be quite misleading. When I hear /univosity/, /gal/, /pas/, I more or less know where I am so to speak, though I am not sure that a native speaker will immediately recognize the words meant. On the other hand, something like /wot/ may be a complete disaster communication-wise, since it may mean what, ward, word, world, wart. In the same way, both walk and work may sound like /wok/ or /wek/.
The length of the vowel as a means of distinguishing one word from another is a feature which is unfamiliar to a Russian learner of English. No matter how long or how short the sound /i/ in my own name may be pronounced, /ee/ as in green or /i/ as in tin, it is still the same name. In English, of course, GRIN and GREEN are two totally different words. Unless explained and illustrated at some length, the students never hear the difference. If a teacher does not pay attention to this peculiarity, everybody sinks.
“Larners do not spyk fluently at fost”, I was told by a middle-aged experienced teacher. It took me a second to figure out what was meant by “larners”. I suspect that all her students “spyk” like she does. When a person wants to learn how to speak well, how to pronounce the sounds correctly, we can do a lot. Today, the internet is a source of audios and videos, lessons and news; it is an ocean of information on any and all the aspects of EL teaching and learning. Once I instruct my students of any age and level on how to pronounce a sound correctly, I direct them to various useful sites. I also suggest that they find some examples of their own, and share them in the classroom.

Nina MK PhD.

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