‘Mayday, mayday..we are sinking!’ The German pauses, and then asks, ‘What are you sinking about?’
The joke plays on the difficulty some German speakers have distinguishing between the /s/ sound and the /θ/ sound as he mistakes /sɪŋk/ for /θɪŋk/.
Frankly, it is not actually very likely that something like this would ever happen, as context is also very important, and in the context of a Mayday call, sinking is a lot more likely than thinking! It’s also the case that not pronouncing /θ/ correctly does not usually impact on intelligibility, not least because many variations of English don’t use the/θ/ sound anyway. In Ireland, for example, ‘think’ sounds like /tɪŋk /. However, this doesn’t mean that pronunciation is unimportant. Misunderstandings do occur, and, probably more importantly, unclear pronunciation can really test the patience of a listener, and generally make a bad impression.
There are basically two ways of focusing on pronunciation- discretely, as a major focus on the lesson, or in an integrated way, as a new piece of language is taught, or when making a correction. If you have a monolingual class, it can be useful to concentrate on an area where everyone has difficulties- in pronouncing / ʃɪp/ versus / ʃi:p/ for example- but most of the time, I tend to focus on pronunciation as part of teaching (or correcting) language.
When teaching new language, whether vocabulary or a grammatical structure, I consider it a key part of what learners need to know about the form of the language. So, until you reach the stage when all of this pops up into your head automatically, you might like to ask yourself these questions when planning to teach vocabulary, functions or grammatical structures.
- Are there any sounds which learners might find difficult to pronounce or are likely to confuse with other sounds?
For example, if you’re planning to introduce a lexical set.
- Is the spelling of the word likely to cause them to pronounce it wrongly?
Imagine you are teaching a lexical set of pets: cat, dog, goldfish, gerbil, guineapig. Students are likely to be pretty confused by the fact that gold fish and guinea pig have a hard /g/ sound, whereas gerbil is pronounced /jerbɪl/
- Will the word stress cause any difficulties?
For beginners, the word stress of most two syllable + words will need to be pointed out and practised, as they become more confident users of English, you can just focus on those likely to cause difficulties. But be aware that getting the word stress wrong can really change how the word sounds.
- What features of connected speech do they need to be aware of in this phrase or structure to use it confidently?
This is probably more important than the first three points, as it is more likely to cause problems with intelligibility or prevent them from understanding the phrase when they hear it. For example the student who asked me about the meaning of ‘festival’, which I (eventually) worked out was a question about my use of ‘first of all.’
- Is intonation particularly important here?
Intonation is likely to be most important if you are teaching functions, as we often need to help learners sound polite or tentative. However, it is also important for making it clear whether you are making a question or a statement, or indicating whether you have finished what you had to say.
Once you’ve considered these questions, you can try to make sure that you draw students’ attention to the key points either as the language is presented/arises, or as part of your feedback to the learners.