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  Home > TEFL Clinic > Teaching Knowledge > Speaking Skills

Pronunciation


Every student dreams of having native speaker pronunciation. Unfortunately for most, this will never be a reality as a result of mother tongue influences. That, however, should never be used as an excuse for not trying to assist your students to improve their pronunciation. As will become evident, many of their errors are correctable, and only require the teacher to either visually portray mistakes using a phonetic chart or to engage the students in pronunciation games and activities. Like grammar, a thorough knowledge of the sound system of the English language is fundamental.

So as to acquaint the teacher with this sound system and to maximize the teacher's classroom performance in this area, the following sections have been written.

  • Pronunciation
  • Phonemic Symbols
  • Accent
  • Stress
  • Intonation
  • Pronunciation Errors
  • What is Pronunciation?

Pronunciation is comprised of 3 components.

  • The first being the physical ability to articulate sounds, where to place your tongue and lips!
  • The second is stress, both in individual words and in sentences.
  • Thirdly, intonation, the pitch and 'music' used to change this (falling or rising).

Why use phonemic symbols?

The alphabet we use to write English has 26 letters but English has 44 sounds. Inevitably, English spelling is not a reliable guide to pronunciation because:

  1. Some letters have more than one sound. "O in Nose, Hot, Ton and For"
  2. Sometimes letters are not pronounced at all. "Knife"
  3. The same sound may be represented by different letters. "Eye, Tie, and Pine"
  4. Sometimes syllables indicated by the spelling are not pronounced at all. "Vegetable, chocolate and clothes"

The letters of the alphabet can be a poor guide to pronunciation. Phonemic symbols, in contrast, are a totally reliable guide. Each symbol represents one sound consistently.

Is it important for teachers to know phonemic symbols?

To be frank, yes. Every profession has specialist knowledge that is not widely known outside the profession. If you are a doctor, you will be able to name every bone in the human body, which most people can't do. If you are a language teacher, then you know phonemic symbols, which most people don't. Students can learn these symbols by themselves and one day you might meet a student who asks you to write a word on the board using phonemic symbols. It is best to be prepared.

Is it difficult to learn?

Absolutely not! 19 of the 44 symbols have the same sound and shape as letters of the alphabet.

The Known IPA Symbols

These can be seen below. You already know them! Note that most of these are consonants.

*Note that with the last symbol / j / you need to be careful. It is pronounced as in "Yes" and not as in "Jack".

The Unknown IPA Symbols

That leaves just 17 to learn. Compare that with the hundreds of different pieces of information in a grammar book or the thousands of words in a small dictionary. Moreover, it is visual and shapes are easy to remember. Anyone who can drive is able to recognize more than 17 symbols giving information about road conditions. Even if we go beyond separate, individual sounds and include linking, elision and assimilation, there is still a limited and clearly defined set of things to learn.

The 17 phonemes that we need to learn can be seen below. Note that most of these are vowels.

IPA Diphthongs and Tripthongs

In addition to the 19 consonants which you already know, and the 17 new symbols for the IPA, there are also 8 diphthong combinations of vowel sounds (and even a number of triphthongs). These are straightforward to learn once you have mastered the single vowel sounds. An example can be seen below:

Do I need to have a perfect English accent?

Not at all. It is true that the 44 phonemes in British English are based on Received Pronunciation, an accent which is not frequently heard nowadays (approximately 7% of the current British population speak it and often it is called colloquially 'The Queen's English').

Most native-speaker teachers do not have this accent but still use phonemic symbols. When the symbols are arranged in a chart, each one occupies a box. This indicates that the real sound that you actually hear can vary up to certain limits, depending on the influence of other sounds and on individual ways of speaking. There is not just one perfect way to say each sound - there is an acceptable range of pronunciations. Think of the pieces in a game of chess. They can vary considerably in size, shape and appearance but we can always recognize a knight because it behaves like a knight and not like a king.

The point is that such words such as 'ship', 'sheep', 'sip' and 'seep' should sound different from each other, not that each sound is pronounced exactly like the sounds of RP.

Learning phonemic symbols will help students to understand the importance of length and voicing. Simply knowing that the symbol : indicates a long sound can be very helpful.

There is no end to our study of grammar and vocabulary but phonemic symbols are limited, visual and physical. They may seem challenging at first but it is like learning to swim or ride a bike. Once you do it, it is easy and you never forget.

What students need to learn:

Students need to be understood and to be able to say what they want to say. Their pronunciation should be at least adequate for that purpose. They need to know the various sounds that occur in the language and differentiate between them. They should be able to apply certain rules, eg. past tense endings, t, d or id. Likewise, a knowledge of correct rhythm and stress and appropriate intonation is essential.

Phonetic Chart

The standard IPA phonemes can be seen in the chart below:

Stress

This is more important than mispronounced sounds! Getting the stress wrong can make the word incomprehensible to native speakers. There are two kinds of stress; word and sentence.

Word Stress

For ALL new words show the stress on the board. Sometimes it is easier to grasp stress by seeing, not listening.

  • Use ' before the stressed syllable, or a box above, even use your hands and clap
  • Highlight changing stress i.e. photograph/photographer
  • Show the grammatical function ie. 'permit' as a verb and a noun: 'permit' and 'permit'

A suitable technique to highlight these ideas is:

a) Write a list of new vocabulary on the board
b) Teacher models using correct and incorrect stress and elicits which are correct
c) Students listen for stressed syllables (the teacher can even use nonsense syllables i.e. da-da-DA
d) Return to the first list, students identify correct stress by clapping (to emphasize louder)
e) In pairs, student reads dialogue and partner marks the stress

Sentence Stress

There are two aspects to this, 1) important words and 2) meaning

Have you ever PLAYED VOLLEYBALL? I can RUN can be compared to I CAN run

The Schwa, the most common sound in English which sounds like "uh" is used in unstressed syllables of words and weak forms in a sentence. It can replace every vowel in English.

Some techniques that are useful are:

a) Use list games i.e. I'd like a cup of coffee, please. I'd like a cup of coffee and a sandwich, please etc.
b) Students highlight words that they think are the most important in a sentence; this is useful for listening skills as
students identify the main message.
c) Use songs: the stress and schwa are usually clear and singers exaggerate stressed syllables.
d) Newspaper headlines are reduced to keywords, therefore stressed. The contrast highlights stress patterns.

Intonation

This is very important for intelligibility, it says something about the speaker's intentions.

Misunderstanding occurs when the speaker, for example, sounds bored as they use different pitch/variation in their language.

For example,

"What time's the Amsterdam train?" (with downward intonation)
"Eleven"
"Sorry, what time?" (with upward intonation).

Common Pronunciation Errors by Russian Speakers of English

Sounds Confused

is confused with

There is no short and long vowel differentiation.

is confused with

Use of A instead of E For example in sat/set or bed/bad

is confused with

Again there is no short and long vowel differentiation. Note, also, that there are often no differences in these two sounds in various dialects of English (Scottish etc).

Sounds Mispronounced

is trilled

Use of a trilled R instead of the soft R is the most recognizable aspect of a Russian accent!

is pronounced as in the Scottish word "Loch"

This sound needs to simply be made softer and aspirated. Teach the students that it DOES NOT sound like the first phoneme in the Russian word for bread, "Xleb" but is a far softer sound like in the English word for "House".

This sound is often separated in Russian into two distinct sounds. It should be taught that this must be a soft, singular sound.

is said as

Often there is the use of G or N instead of NG i.e. Wing-wig or win. This is because the Nasal NG does not exist in Russian. Students will need to be shown the position of the tongue and the airflows diagrammatically on the whiteboard.

is said as or even

There is the use of S/Z instead of TH i.e. Sin for thin, useful for youthful, Zen for then. To correct this, have the students start with T and then show that the tongue must protrude from the teeth in order to make the TH sound.

is said as

We often also see a use of V instead of W. This causes real problems with work, worm, worth and worse etc. The students need to be shown that the teeth rest upon the bottom lip in and English V, and vibrate, while the W is a rounded mouth sound.

is said as or even

Long Vowels that get Shortened

is said as

For example, Cart will become Cat.

is said as

For example, Bird will become Bed.

is said as

For example, Torn will become Ton.

Miscellaneous Russian Pronunciation Points:

a) Generally, long vowels sounds like short vowels i.e. field-filled, seat-sit.
b) T/D/L/N are aspirated by the tongue touching the top teeth-this sounds "foreign"
c) Final voiced consonants (T, D, G) are devoiced in Russian ie. lab-lap, said-set
d) P, K, T are not aspirated. Therefore, mispronounced at beginning of words ie. Pit-bit, come-gum.
e) Dark L (full, hill) replaces Clear L (light, fly)
f) Consonant Clusters are very difficult for Russians! i.e. Months, clothes, sixth.
g) Initial Clusters; TW, TR, PR, DR, BR cause problems i.e. twice, tree, price.
h) 2nd part of diphthongs and 2nd/3rd part of tripthongs tend to be over pronounced.







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