Tuesday, September 19, 2006

A Primer on Phonology

By Peter McKenzie-Brown

Many teachers find great frustration in teaching pronunciation. Your students consistently return to the same speech errors no matter how frequently you try to exorcize them. Why?

Older learners – especially adult learners – are never likely to speak like natives. When they open their mouths they immediately stand out as strangers among native speakers. We can often recognize someone’s accent by their language (not country) of origin. “He has a Spanish accent,” we might say – or, if we are unsure, “a foreign accent.”

We recognize the origin of these accents because they come primarily from the learner’s native tongue. But personality and cultural background also come into play. Indeed, when you examine the factors at work, there is little wonder that older learners rarely achieve near-native speech patterns and pronunciation.

Our native tongues affect second language acquisition. First, adult learners may not be able to produce the new sounds of their second language because they involve using the muscles in their mouths (especially the combined muscles of the tongue and lips) in new and complex ways. Second, the rules for combining sounds into words in the second language are often quite different from those in our native speech, and these rules are frequently reinforced by the writing system the language uses. (Thai is an excellent example.) Lastly, we tend to transfer patterns of stress and intonation, which determine the rhythm and melody of language, from our native speech into second languages. In language teaching, all these factors are part of “first language interference.”

Student personalities also have an impact on pronunciation. What are your students like? If they are introverted or inhibited, they likely won’t take the risks needed to improve their spoken language. The same is true if their motivation and attitude are poor. And if their language aptitude – roughly defined as the rate at which they can learn a language – is middling or poor, the prognosis for better pronunciation is grim.

Social and cultural issues play a role, especially when you are teaching in a foreign country. For example, concerns about “losing face” in class can diminish language learning by minimizing student participation in pronunciation exercises. Thai learners, for example, seem to subscribe to the maxim that “the nail that stands out gets hammered down”. Especially for beginning teachers, this can be an unnerving part of the classroom experience.

So our native tongue, personality and culture are three sources of accented English, and the teacher has little control over them. What to do? Using good teaching practices to reduce the “affective filter” (emotional barriers to learning) in your classroom will help. So will effective, engaging pronunciation activities. Here are other ideas to take to class.

Good pronunciation comes from stressing the right words when you talk, using contractions (“I won’t”) and reducing vowels where appropriate. Vowel reduction refers to the English pattern of voicing vowels in unstressed syllables quickly, often reducing them to the sound “uh”. We do this in most words with two or more syllables and in unimportant one-syllable words. This linguistic feature helps give our language its unique rhythm and flow.

Some students are reluctant to use reductions, word stress and contractions because they worry about sloppy speech or leaving out necessary information. Make sure your students know that these basic features of spoken English convey important information. If your students fail to use them, their speech will transmit inaccurate verbal cues and will be difficult to understand. Let them know that pronouncing each word correctly can lead to poor pronunciation.

Many teachers believe that working on individual sounds is enough to improve pronunciation. This isn’t so. Teach sounds as part of rhythm and stress rather than focusing on the sounds themselves. If you improve your students’ speech rhythm, you will help clarify sounds better than by practicing the sounds themselves. Better rhythm, stress and intonation improve both listening comprehension and clarity of speech.

Finally, devote time to pronunciation exercises, and make them fun. Some teachers – I am one of them – like to devote the occasional class to pronunciation and nothing else. After all, bad pronunciation seriously compromises a student’s ability to communicate, and communication is what language learning is all about.
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