Saturday, September 6, 2008
If You Say it Right, You Hear it Right, Part 2
I’ve been asked to mention some more of the sounds that I think make the biggest difference in our students producing more native-like pronunciation (“If You Say it Right, You Hear it Right”), and I don’t have to think very hard to come up with the ones I think most important. Actually, I was very glad to be asked, and I’m happy to accommodate. If you focus your teaching on these sounds, I’m sure you’ll see a marked improvement in your students’ ability to understand the spoken language because, as I keep saying, if you say it right, you hear it right.
Let’s start off with the North American flapped d [D], but I should add a disclaimer here. I can’t escape the fact that I’m North American and that I teach American English, so this is a sound that’s found in North American pronunciation. If you happen to teach another variety of English, please understand this.
The flapped d is the sound of /t/ when it’s in medial position in an unstressed syllable. The funny thing is, many ELL’s tend to think they hear a trilled r when they’re not familiar with this sound in North American English. It’s produced by quickly flapping the tip of the tongue up against the hard palette (the front of the roof of the mouth). For example, when I say butter, it sounds like [bә-Dәr], not [bә-tәr]. (Unfortunately I can’t find the correct IPA symbol for the stressed schwa, which looks like a triangle without the bottom line, so I’ll have to settle for the schwa. Sorry about that.) Other words that contain the flapped d are party [par-Di], atom [æ-Dәm], and cattle [kæ-Dәl].
A sound in all varieties of English that I think is very important to accomplish better listening comprehension is the schwa /ә/. Many teachers don’t realize that it’s the most common vowel sound in the English language. In fact, when many vowel sounds are unstressed, they reduce to schwa. Here are some examples: America [ә-me-rә-kә], banana [bә-næ-nә], and giraffe [jә-ræf]. Get your students to reduce unstressed vowel sounds properly to schwa, and you’ll be helping them a lot towards better recognition of the words they hear and therefore towards better listening skills.
Moving right along, one that comes up more often than you might expect is the pronunciation of the final –ate in nouns, adjectives, and verbs. Take the word alternate. As a noun or adjective, that final –ate is pronounced [әt] or even [It], but when it’s a verb, the pronunciation changes to [et]. The same is true with words like associate and intimate. When used as nouns or adjectives, the final syllable is pronounced [әt] or [It], but when they’re used as verbs, the final syllable is pronounced [et]. Such a change in sound can really throw students who aren’t aware of this phenomenon.
And speaking of language phenomena, another gem that really improves students’ listening skills is when they’re made aware of the phenomenon we call juncture, which I discussed at length in my last blog entry (“A Cheap Present of Reef Fish for Ronny”). So make it a point to teach your students about juncture, and their listening skills should definitely improve.
That’s it, folks. Between this piece and Part 1, I’ve now covered the sounds that I think go a long way to giving our students better listening skills. I strongly believe that if you say it right, you’ll hear it right. Am I right? I’d love for you to share your thoughts on this topic and any anecdotes you might have from your own teaching experiences, so feel free to write in.