Pronunciation is part and parcel of our daily work, an integral part of the very first lesson of English at Beginner Level, any age.

I was fortunate to have very good teachers, first at school in Siberia, then at Moscow University. Our school teacher taught us a marvelous fact: NONE of the sounds in our native language were the same as those in English. In our second year of school, aged 8, we simply listened carefully and repeated after her. Thus we learned about the great differences between “sink” and “think”, and the importance of “ship or sheep”, to name but a few. We heard her pronounce strings of words like “bat-bet-bed-bad” and “sit-seat-Sid-seed” and carefully chorused after her. We progressed to “what-word-world-ward-wart” and used a dictionary for ~ough endings in “thought-though-thorough-through”. Our teacher of phonetics at university would conduct relentless drills on all the sounds and tunes, record our efforts and play them to the group. Whatever level and age I happened to teach in my professional life, I would always start with pronunciation. There is not anything to be frightened of. True, some sounds are more difficult to master than others. That is why it is useful to make a mental chart for yourself, and relay several key factors to your students.
If a sound is mispronounced, people will not understand you. Witness the classical example or “sink or think”. You make have to correct every student a zillion times until they remember to place the tip of the tongue in between their upper and lower teeth to produce /th/. It is important to work at it because it is the most widely used sound in the language studied, the definite article THE being the most frequently used word. The vowel “length and width”, to use somewhat non-academic terms, are also often vital items needed for understanding. Ship or sheep, bat or bet, what or ward? These are all familiar stumbling blocks to be worked at and gradually overcome. My attitude is very simple: listen carefully, identify the problems and solve them to the best of your own and your students’ abilities.
I was taught what is known as RP, Received Pronunciation. Our university teachers explained to us that it was the literary norm; we also learned about Queen’s English and the BBC English. My own experience as teacher and translator shows that it is the variant which is understood around the globe. It is probably also not the version which is used in everyday life by the man and woman in the street. I tell my students that the pronunciation I teach is understood by native speakers from any English-speaking country, and by those who use it as a communication tool. In recent years, lots of young people, especially those who visited the USA as part of some educational programme, try to speak what they perceive as American English. The result is a mixture of a few American, a few English and a lot of Russian sounds. I tell them privately to use the web, to listen carefully to the speech which they wish to reproduce, and to learn how to pronounce ALL the sounds with the desired accent. Or stick to the British variant, which is most widely used in the Russian teaching system. The same refers to spelling.
When I came to the USA in the 1990’s for a four-year stay, I was told that I have “a British accent”, and asked to record voicemail messages on the phone at my place of work. Why? “Rich clients get a kick out of hearing that posh accent”. I listened carefully to everyday speech all around me, and picked up an accent which is recognized as “pure New-Yorkan”. My colleagues told me not to worry about pronunciation, as “everybody in New-York has an accent”. That is true about most big cities in the world today! Young mobility, immigration and emigration, easy access to information thanks to the ICT all contribute to the changes and new developments in language acquisition.
Teaching a language is always a manifold process. I encourage my students to record themselves, to listen to themselves speak and to compare the results with the original recordings. I also play various audios of people speaking naturally at meetings, conferences and interviews. When my students hear a French or an Italian person speak English, or any other nationality for that matter, they realize that though not everybody is perfect, people do understand each other. If one or more students have trouble producing the desired sounds, I encourage them to try, try, try again. At the same time, in order not to stifle their enthusiasm, I teach them that communication is the main aim. They can hear other people’s accents, and they know that their accent is different, yet they achieve mutual understanding, which is what counts.
I believe that teaching intonation is more challenging and more difficult than teaching pronunciation. Most patterns are completely different from the ones students are used to in their native speech.
Nina MK, Ph.D.

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