Friday, July 25, 2008

If You Say it Right, You Hear it Right

By Richard Firsten
Retired ESOL Teacher, Teacher-Trainer, Columnist, Author

This week I’d like to touch on a subject near and dear to me, teaching pronunciation. I’ve never been a fanatic about trying to have every single student of mine learn to pronounce English perfectly. It almost never happens anyway. And the thing is, it doesn’t have to happen. In fact, it shouldn’t even be an ESOL teacher’s goal.

There’s nothing wrong with a person having a foreign accent in English ― so long as that accent doesn’t interfere with communication or draw unwanted attention to itself. You might even know somebody who goes “gah-gah” when he or she hears somebody speaking English with, let’s say, a French accent ― or even a British accent, if that person you know happens to be American. The point being that there’s nothing wrong with having a foreign accent in English.

By the way, when we say somebody has “a foreign accent,” what we’re talking about is when that person uses sounds from his L1 in the L2 (e.g., if he doesn’t aspirate the p when he says pear) or uses recognizable sounds in the wrong environment (e.g., if he says “seen” when he means sin).

When accent reduction is called for, many people overlook perhaps the most important reason to reduce an ELL’s foreign pronunciation in English. It’s not so much to get that student to sound better; it’s to get that student to understand the spoken language better. Yep, that’s right: to understand the spoken language better. I came to the realization many years ago that when you learn another language, if you don’t pronounce correctly, you won’t hear what people say to you correctly. I believe that’s because your mispronunciation of a word sets up how you think that word should sound, so when somebody doesn’t pronounce it the way you expect it to be pronounced, you just don’t understand what’s being said. It’s as simple as that. If I’m Pedro from Honduras, and I always say [dok-tor], when I hear a native English speaker say [dak-tәr], there’s a good chance I won’t recognize what that person has said. If somebody always says [aIs-land] when he means to say [aI-lәnd], well, you can figure out the rest. Not only will he confuse a listener, but he’ll also end up confusing himself when somebody says [aI-lәnd] and he doesn’t recognize the word. Not to mention, of course, the added confusion if the native speaker says [aIs-lәnd], the name of the country, but Pedro thinks that person’s talking about some island!

I’ve noticed over the years that there are some mispronunciations that seem to stick out more than others and that tend to be more universal than others. And I found that I could very effectively reduce my students’ accents by modifying only a few of those sounds that stick out the most. I’ve already pointed out [o] vs. [a] as in [dok-tor] and [dak-tәr]. Along the same lines we’ve got [do-lar] instead of [da-lәr] and [pro-blem] instead of [pra-blәm]. It’s really amazing how often we (in American English, at least) pronounce the letter o more or less like [a]. If you consistently make sure your students don’t get away with pronouncing that o incorrectly, you’ll already have gone a long way to reducing their “foreign accent.”

Here are some other gems that I’ve found tend to be pretty universal and that, when corrected and practiced a lot, go a very long way to reducing a student’s foreign accent:

*[tr] instead of [čr] in words like tree, retry, trouble

*[dr] instead of [jr] in words like dry, withdraw, dream

[tu] instead of [ču] in words like situation, actually, ritual

[du] instead of [ju] in a word like educate

[t] instead of voicless th in words like third (a real doozey when mispronounced!), bathroom, breath

And then there’s the ever popular [va-ke-šәn] instead of [ve-ke-šәn] for vacation.

We also have what I call avoidance substitutions, e.g., using [s] or [f] instead of voiceless th in words like think ([siŋk]) and with ([wIf]).

Last, but not least, we have hypercorrections. My favorite, especially because I’m from Florida, is [hyu-rI-ken] instead of [hәr-I-ken]!

So take it from me, by just focusing on the few sounds I’ve mentioned here, you can go a long way to reducing your students’ foreign accents in English. The closer they come to pronouncing a word correctly, the more they’ll understand the spoken word. In addition, the less attention is called to how they say such words, the more fluent they’ll sound in their L2.

*While it’s true that there are native English speakers who pronounce the t in the combination [tr] as a [t], a great many speakers modify that sound and pronounce it [č]. The same holds true for the d in the [dr] combination, with some native speakers pronouncing that consonant as [d] instead of modifying it to [č].


Comment from Sam Simian
July 26, 2008 at 10:50 am

Beginner’s Mind

Dear Grammar Guy,

I had similar experiences when I studied Japanese (the Tokyo dialect). For example, the “units” of Japanese are usually CV (a consonant with a vowel). Compared to English, sounds are usually not dropped, and other types of assimilation (for example, voiceless sounds ((like /s/, /t/, and /k/)) becoming voiced sounds ((like /z/, /d/, and /g/)), the place where a sound is made — and, perhaps, the sound itself — changing, or the last sound of one syllable ((like the /t/ in “want”)) leaving it and glomming onto the next syllable ((as in “wanted”)) ) are probably less common. One exception in Japanese is the /i/ in the syllable /shi/; it is dropped when it comes between unvoiced syllables or at the end of a word.

When I first studied Japanese, I sat in the language lab, and I tried to faithfully parrot back what I heard while I looked at a Romanized transcript. However, it always confused me when I didn’t hear the /i/ in a word, like, “tabemashita” (ate) that I expected to hear. I told my teacher that it sounded like the people on the tape weren’t pronouncing some of the sounds. (I wasn’t able to express things more clearly because I didn’t understand it very well.) He said, “No. In Japanese, every sound is pronounced.” I don’t remember where I ran across the info’ about the /i/ in /shi/ being dropped in some circumstances, but, when I did, as you said, I was able to speak more like a native Japanese speaker, and I could understand native Japanese speakers better. I was angry at that Japanese teacher for a long time, but I’ve been able to forgive him somewhat because I’ve found, as an ESL/EFL teacher (especially if you’re a native English speaker), it’s hard to keep your “beginner’s mind”: looking at English from the point of view of someone who doesn’t know it.

Even though I teach Level 2 ESL, I try to speak at close to a normal speed. When the students have problems understanding me (And they often do.), I write what I’ve said on the white board. Sometimes it takes me a while to understand why a misunderstanding has occurred. For example, while correcting student sentences on the white board, I will often ask students, “Should the first letter in a sentence be big or small?” Then, the students will often say, “Bigger.” The first time it happened, it took me a while to understand that they didn’t understand that the /g/ from “big” was attaching itself to the next syllable in the sentence: the word “or.” And I think that this misunderstanding was compounded by the fact that this misunderstanding (“bigger” instead of “big or”) sounds like another word in English. Reflecting on the problems that I have had, and have, understanding word boundaries in Japanese has helped me try to look at things from my students’ point of view.

Nevertheless, holding on to your “beginner’s mind” does not come naturally; you have to be vigilant. Just yesterday, a student asked me if “enough” is pronounced like X (with a “long e” ((like the /ee/ in “beet”)) for the first syllable) or Y (with a schwa ((like the /u/ in “but”)) for the first syllable). To be honest, I didn’t even notice much difference in her pronunciations at first, and I blithely said that it was pronounced like X. But after I thought about it, I gave myself a metaphorical rap on my knuckles, I told her that it was usually pronounced like Y in conversation, and we discussed how the vowels in unstressed syllables in English often become schwas. I didn’t notice much change in her pronunciation, but, as you said, I think that it will improve her listening skills.


Comment from Grammar Guy
July 26, 2008 at 1:02 pm

Thanks so much for your very insightful anecdotes, Sam. I just love the cute one about big or sounding to the students like bigger. That’s terrific!

I’m glad you’ve had experiences that do show you how your comprehension in another language is improved if your pronunciation is first improved. This is definitely an approach that I wish more teachers would take.

As for Japanese, I’ve got an anecdote of my own. I was talking to a Japanese chef one day, and he kept talking about [TEM-pra] – or at least that’s how it sounded to me. It took me the longest time to figure out he was saying [tem-PU-ra], as I ignorantly pronounced it. Yep, it was tempura! And it felt so good to feel more comfortable with that word after finally learning how it should really be pronounced. Now, if I hear a Japanese speaker say [TEM-pra], I don’t even flinch. I know exactly what’s being said. : )

Thanks again for writing, Sam.

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