Friday, July 25, 2008
If You Say it Right, You Hear it Right
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].