Pronunciation matters: Sound reasons for teaching pronunciation
Why is it important to teach pronunciation? What are some of the key areas of pronunciation? In this article, Adrian Tennant will be answering these questions as well as giving a few practical ideas to help teachers get started.
Pronunciation is one area of teaching which is often neglected. This is evident in the way that pronunciation is treated in most coursebooks. Flicking through half a dozen books on my desk, I found only one which has regular pronunciation activities in the units! I also notice that when I talk to teachers, there are a few who say they try and do some pronunciation in most lessons; the majority either do very little or none at all! Why is this?
Well, there are a number of reasons. First, many aspects of pronunciation are difficult to teach (or at least that is the perception). Secondly, unlike a grammatical or functional area of language, it can be quite difficult to build a lesson around a pronunciation point and therefore such points are add-ons to a unit in a coursebook or a lesson in the class. Thirdly, teachers often feel under prepared to teach pronunciation and many seem to struggle to learn the phonemic alphabet (although this is certainly less true of many non-native-speaker teachers).
One problem is to do with the way in which pronunciation is presented. Quite frequently, the emphasis is on individual sounds and distinguishing these sounds from each other. Sometimes there might be a bit of work done on word or sentence stress, but this is usually limited to tonic prominence and contrastive stress. Some work might also be done on intonation, but this mostly focuses on questions and question tags. It seems to me that these areas are chosen not because they are useful for students, or will help them be better English speakers and listeners, but simply because they are (relatively) easy to teach. Let me give an example.
One of the few areas of pronunciation that invariably crops up in coursebooks, and which most teachers talk about having covered, is the regular past endings /t/, /d/ and /ɪd/. But, if we actually look at the usefulness of teaching these endings, we will notice something significant. Distinguishing between words that take either the /t/ or /d/ ending is really unnecessary, as it is virtually impossible to say a word that ends with a /t/ sound with a / d/ sound and vice versa. It is, of course, possible to say any past form with an /ɪd/ ending, even when this is incorrect. Therefore it is possibly useful to teach which words take /ɪd/ and which don’t. The same can be said for /s/ and /z/ sounds for the third person ‘s’.
So, what should we teach?
To start with, we need to think about the main aim of teaching pronunciation. Is it because we want our students to speak with an RP (Received Pronunciation) accent? Or is it that we want them to be understood and to be able to communicate effectively? For most students, the first target would be both unrealistic and, to be blunt, pointless. Not only would very few students be able to achieve such a goal, but very few native speakers speak with an RP accent and so it seems a rather unrealistic target. However, if the second aim – intelligibility – is the target, then we need to work out what it actually is that makes people intelligible or unintelligible; in other words, we need to work out what aspects of pronunciation are key.
Of course, the teaching of pronunciation should not solely focus on the production of sounds, but also on receptive skills, i.e. understanding when listening. So, even if we think that our students may not be able to speak with an RP accent, should they at least be able to understand one?
One argument here is that English is now a Lingua Franca and is more likely to be used as the means of communication between two non-native speakers than between a non-native and native speaker. As such, a native model of pronunciation is not necessarily the best model. A number of linguists have tried to identify ‘core’ features of pronunciation that occur in English when used as a Lingua Franca. This is not a simplified form of pronunciation, but rather a different model that can be used for teaching and learning.
On the other hand, detractors of a Lingua Franca model of pronunciation argue that there is a need for a standard model against which everything can be measured. They argue that this model should be a native model such as RP or Standard American. They point out that even when this model is not one which is spoken by a majority of native speakers, it still acts as a model for all native speakers. For example, people with a strong regional accent will ‘tone down’ or modify their accent when talking to people from other regions or countries in order to make themselves intelligible. Thus, the important thing here is not necessarily having an achievable target, but having a model that can be used in order to aid intelligibility. With that in mind, let’s examine some aspects of pronunciation and look at what we should be teaching.
As I mentioned earlier, a lot of pronunciation work focuses on distinguishing between individual sounds. The obvious examples of this are things such as /ʃɪp/ (ship) or /ʃi:p/ (sheep) and /tri:/ (tree) or /Ɵri:/ (three). The first thing to ask here is, is it necessary/useful to try and teach these differences? First of all, not all native speakers of English actually make a distinction (many speakers say /tri:/ for /Ɵri:/, for example); and, secondly, surely the context these words are used in will, more often than not, be sufficient to help the listener distinguish which word is being used. For example, We went to France by/ʃi:p/: It is fairly obvious which word fits the context and insisting that the pronunciation of the word is essential for understanding is being ridiculous.
Does this mean we shouldn’t teach sounds? Not at all, but it does mean we need to think about why we are teaching them. If, for example, we are teaching a multilingual class and there are any sounds that all our students (or the majority) are having problems with, then we might want to spend some time on these. Or, are there any sounds that particular students find hard to produce and this means that other students in the class find it difficult to understand them? If, on the other hand, we are teaching a monolingual class, are there particular sounds that we know are difficult for speakers of this language? For example, if you are teaching in Italy, you might want to work on /æ/ and /e/ as these are often confused. Or you might wish to work on the /h/ sound as there is no equivalent in Italian, although it is important that students don’t overcompensate and add an /h/ sound where there isn’t one, e.g. /haɪ/ instead of ‘I’. So your decision as to whether you focus on sounds will depend on who you are teaching and if you feel it causes a communication problem.
In many cases, incorrect word stress will lead to more problems than the use of an incorrect phoneme (sound) in a word. This is not only because word stress can sometimes alter the complete meaning of the word, changing it from a noun to a verb, for example, present (n.) vs. present (vb), but also because, in English, not every syllable in a word is necessarily the same length (especially in connected speech) and this is often the main cause of a sound being wrong, rather than a learner’s inability to form the sound. So, if we use Italian as an example again, most diphthongs in English will be problematic as Italian students will tend to give equal stress to the two parts of a diphthong rather than stressing the first element as we do in English.
The unpredictability of word stress is often a cause of problems. In many languages speakers know exactly which syllable is stressed as it is the same in every word, e.g. in Hungarian the first syllable is always stressed. Quite often students aren’t aware of what they do in their own language and therefore don’t understand why they are having a problem with English sounds and stress patterns. Awareness-raising activities are a good way to start.
Why do some students have problems with sentence stress in English? Probably the root cause is linked to the student’s first language. Students whose language is syllable-timed – e.g. Italian, French, Hungarian – may have problems with English, which is a stress-timed language. In particular, aspects such as weak forms in connected speech can be difficult. This is because students are used to giving equal stress to each syllable in their own language.
Of course, stress in English sentences is extremely important as it is often used to indicate the meaning and importance of certain information. When the stress is incorrect then there can be a breakdown in communication. These problems can be both in terms of speaking (productive) and listening (receptive) skills. Activities that make students aware of the importance of sentence stress, as well as activities that focus on hearing and producing various aspects of sentence stress, are extremely useful.
Intonation plays a key role in pronunciation. In many respects it’s not what we say, but how we say it that conveys meaning. However, it’s a bit silly to talk about intonation in isolation as it is often affected by stress, tone and rhythm. This can be seen on a word level: when one syllable is stressed for emphasis, the pitch falls from high to low.
If we look at intonation at sentence level, we will notice that a particular sentence can have a number of meanings simply by varying the intonation. As an example, take the short phrase It’s ready. If we go from high pitch on It’s to low on the first syllable of ready and then to high on the last syllable of ready, this will probably indicate surprise. If, on the other hand, we go from high pitch on It’s and the first syllable of ready to low pitch on the last syllable of ready, then this is probably indicating a matter of fact, or if the drop is quite large it might indicate frustration or relief from the speaker. Coupling these shifts in intonation with lengthening certain sounds, i.e. the /e/ phoneme in ready, changes the meaning again and now indicates a Come on, we’re waiting or Hurry up! meaning.
Quite clearly intonation is an important aspect of pronunciation. It’s important to make our students aware of this fact and get them to try intonation activities to help them become better at hearing and producing different intonation patterns.
Connected speech includes sentence stress and intonation, but here I want to focus on a different aspect of connected speech – what happens to sounds in connected speech. This is an important aspect of pronunciation not just in terms of producing the correct sounds, but in understanding when you are listening. In fact, many learners find it difficult to understand native speakers of English for this very reason. They have learnt words and sounds in isolation and struggle when a word is pronounced differently because it is in connected speech. Students need to be made aware of areas such as assimilation (where a sound is affected by the other sounds around it, often by sounds that follow it but sometimes by those preceding it), elision (where a sound disappears completely because of the sound that follows it) and liaison (where a sound is added that is not normally part of the word or words).
This type of focus needs to be included right from the start of learning English and not left until students are at intermediate level or higher. Examples of assimilation, elision and liaison are common with even the most basic phrases and word combinations in English. For example, How do you do? is not said as /,haʊ,du:,ju:ˈdu:/ but as / ,haʊdju:ˈdu:/ or even as / ,haʊdjəˈdu:/. Not only are the words not articulated separately, but some sounds disappear, i.e. the /u:/ from the first do is assimilated into the word you rather than repeated.
Thus, regular work on connected speech is essential if students are going to be able to deal with English as it is really used.
Quite clearly, pronunciation is both incredibly complex and an important area for teaching and learning. In this article we have barely scratched the surface and yet have managed to show why it is important to include pronunciation in our lessons. Pronunciation is not just about producing the right sounds or stressing the right syllables, it is also about helping students understand what they hear.
Some practical ideas
- Correct the teacher: Choose two sounds that your students mix up and choose some words that are similar but differ because of that sound, i.e. pack/back, pat/bat, poor/bore OR know/now, row(/rəʊ/)/row(/raʊ/), etc. Write these words up in two columns on the board. Ask a student to say one of the words and you point to it. If you point to the wrong word (i.e. the student wanted to say one word but said the other) the student tells you, the teacher, ‘No’ and then tries again. The great thing about this activity is that it appears that it’s you, the teacher, who is getting things wrong, not the student.
- Using your mouth: Use a phonemic chart to practise sounds and to make students aware of how sounds are formed using their lips, tongue, etc. For example, point to the /ɪ/ phoneme and ask students to make the right sound. Then point to the /e/ phoneme and get them to make that sound. Finally, point to the /æ/ phoneme and get them to make that sound. Now get students to make each sound in turn starting from /ɪ/ and ending with /æ/. Ask students what they notice about their mouth – it should be narrow and (almost) closed to make the /ɪ/ phoneme and gets slightly wider, but still narrow for /e/ and then quite open, but still narrow, for the /æ/ phoneme. You can then do similar awareness raising activities for other sounds using the chart.
- Who’s my partner? Choose a set of words that all have different stress patterns (it’s nice if you can use words your students have recently learnt). Write out two sets of cards, the first set containing a word on each card and the second set containing the corresponding stress patterns, i.e.
telephone, computer, kitchen, machine
Cut up the cards and give one to each student in the class, making sure that each word has a corresponding stress pattern card. Then ask students to walk around; those with the words should read them out and the students with the stress pattern cards should decide if they have the matching card.
- Which word?Choose words that have two stress patterns depending on whether they are a verb, noun, adjective, etc. For example, convict, refuse, desert. Write out a sentence and give students the two choices, they then need to decide which one fits. Next put students in pairs and ask them to write a sentence containing the other word (stress pattern). i.e.
refuse (v)/refuse (n)
I hope he doesn’t __________.
I ______________ to do it.
Students should choose the first option for this sentence and then write a new sentence containing refuse. .
- Saying it right: On the board write up a series of short phrases using phonemic script and ask your students to say them and work out exactly what is being said, for example /ˌtentəˈtu:/ (ten to two), /knaɪˌhelpˈju:/ (Can I help you?), /ˌneksˈpli:z/ (Next please!) or /ˈɪzðeərenɪƟɪnˈtu:ˌwi:t/ (Is there anything to eat?). This kind of activity is both fun and informative.
Tonic prominence: The placement of stress on a particular syllable/word within a sentence. Prominence is usually given to the meaning carrying words.
Contrastive stress: Grammar words (also known as function words) such as auxiliary verbs, prepositions, pronouns, etc are usually unstressed. However, any word can be stressed where the meaning requires it, i.e. contrasting or correcting something a person has said or is likely to think, for example I got a taxi from the airport. Not to the airport. He did it. Not she.
Syllable-timed: A syllable-timed language is one where each syllable is given equal stress or weighting. This means that the length of each syllable is equal and there are no unstressed syllables. Languages such as Italian and Hungarian are syllable timed. In many cases the same syllable is always stressed, i.e. in Hungarian the first syllable in each word is always stressed.
Stress-timed: In a stress-timed language the syllables are not always the same length and the stress can move depending on meaning, syntax, etc. Often the stress tends to recur at regular intervals, i.e. every fifth syllable of a sentence. This means that some words can be unstressed. English is an example of a stress-timed language.
Assimilation: Where a sound is changed either by the one following it, or by the one preceding it. So the sound affected might change from voiced to unvoiced or might disappear completely, e.g. in the sentence He’s in bed. The words in bed are pronounced as /ɪmˈbed/ and not /ɪnˈbed/.
Elision: When a sound disappears completely through assimilation, we refer to this as elision. For example, in the phrase Next please the ‘t’ sound in next disappears so that what is said is /ˈneks,pli:z/.
Liaison: Sometimes a sound is inserted where one does not occur in order to link two words together smoothly. The most common forms of liaison are linking /r/, intrusive /r/, intrusive /w/ and intrusive /j/. For example, when you say the words you are, a /w/ sound is inserted between the two words joining them together: /ju:ˈwɑ:/ rather than /ju:ˈɑ:/.