At times, it seems to me that the sixth sense is what we need when teaching English for Specific Purposes, and especially when dealing with pronunciation. I would agree with Sandy Millin’s analysis of the problems even advanced learners face: there are lots of adults who can read and write well, yet they are hesitant or even afraid to speak, and have trouble understanding real live speech. I have also come across several difficult situations, which can be organized into three categories.
1) A person reads, writes and understands English well, in his or her chosen sphere of work; however, their pronunciation leaves much to be desired. “I synk zis is zat”, says a scientist when finishing his report at a conference. He is perfectly aware of the way he speaks, yet he does not care, because he is understood. His ESP is fine, he has a great scientific vocabulary, his work is fascinating, and his international colleagues value the opportunities to communicate with him. Since his written English is very good, those who know him by publications only are initially astonished when they hear him speak. Naturally he is often asked to repeat what he said, simply because the listeners cannot understand him. And yet he never sees any reason to work at his pronunciation, though he reads literature, writes his articles, and watches TV shows in English. For me as an ELT, it is clear that the problem is motivation. Unless he wants to spend some time learning how to pronounce the English sounds correctly, nothing will be changed.
2) Time and again, I hear a young adult who graduated from a university speak English, unaware that not a single sound they pronounce is even remotely close to the real thing. “And I sink to myself, wot a wonderful wot”, a young talented woman sang at an event. She had just returned from a semester in the USA. She had no idea that her pronunciation was below par, and her American colleagues obviously had never corrected her. I have come across many such cases. With the younger people who are strongly motivated it usually takes a few lessons to help them on their way to better speech. Most often, they mispronounce the English sounds, or produce no English sounds at all because their teachers were not too good.
3) Yes, a lot depends on the teachers. “My seesis”, a university teacher kept saying when making a report about her thesis. “Ze last sin for today” is another extreme example. The teacher who finished every lesson with this phrase (“The last thing for today”) influenced generations of students; thanks to her, they had no idea that their own pronunciation was not very good.
• /Th/ sound is traditionally hard for many learners of English, mostly because it does not exist in their native language. The speaker has to consciously remember how to articulate it, and it takes time to reach the stage when it becomes automatic. Warm-ups with various sound combinations help: the third theme of the set, the sixth sense, et cetera.
• /W/ - /V/ is another difficult pair of sounds. Wyvern Wing Village is one of my favourite practice phrases.
• /E:/ and all the long sounds are best practiced in chains of words, with short explanations of their meanings. “What – word – world – ward – wart” is a good chain, because it combines a difficult consonant with a difficult vowel.
• /I/ versus /I:/ is another stumbling block. Even advanced learners are often unaware of the differences between the pronunciations of such pairs as “sit – seat”, “ship-sheep”, and so on. Again, all it takes is a little practice.
It is relatively easy to classify the problems. It is also possible to explain the importance of phonetics, and to motivate those whose work demands a better level of language proficiency. In other words, when people learn English for specific purposes, and when they know that their future success at work depends on how well they speak, they often exert themselves to achieve a higher level. I have worked with groups of bank clerks, librarians, researchers, and hotel staff. All of them knew that they could get better salaries and wider opportunities at work if they mastered their ESP. The success rate was high.
The most difficult people to teach how to pronounce the English sounds correctly are teachers themselves. Quite often they are the most highly motivated learners, not because of any opportunities for career advancement, but because they are all professionals.
Nina MK, Ph.D.