Saturday, September 6, 2008

If You Say it Right, You Hear it Right, Part 2

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

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.


Comment from Ismael Toahri
September 9, 2008 at 2:04 am

Dear Ricahrd,

First off, I would like to thank you for that informative post and I wanted to ask you for a third, and fourth, … post on the same topic since it is interesting and practical.

BTW, can’t we change the title to be ” If You HEAR it Right, You SAY it Right”?

Comment from Grammar Guy
September 9, 2008 at 12:50 pm

Hi, Ismael! Thank you for your comment. I’m glad you’ve found this entry informative and useful. : )

Your question is very interesting! You might think this would work, that when people hear something right, they can reproduce the sounds right. Unfortunately, that doesn’t usually work. Most people are not very good mimics. In addition, most people find it very difficult to know right away if what they’re pronouncing is being done properly.

I remember when language labs first started coming out with recording machines for the students’ use. The students would hear a native speaker pronounce a word or phrase, then the students would record their own voices as they repeated what they had heard, and then they could play it back to hear themselves and compare what they had said to what the native speaker had said. More often than not, they’d be very surprised at how different their rendition of the word or phrase was.

Those recording machines served a good purpose in that they helped sensitize students to hearing themselves more acutely, and I’m sure that it helped some students to develop better pronunciation in the long run.

So, in answer to your question, I’ve got to say I’m afraid that just hearing it right doesn’t mean you’ll say it right. : (

Thanks again for leaving your comment and asking such a good question!

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