Pronunciation 101: 7 Things Your Students Need to Hear You Explain
Bad pronunciation is bad news for ESL students. It negatively affects comprehension and so, negatively impacts on communication.
The problem is compounded by the fact that good pronunciation is often a mystery to ESL students. Why is it that some words with a similar spelling sound the same but others are completely different? Why are some words pronounced exactly the same in their native language but others are not? Mysteries are not good. Here are some of the things you need to explain to your ESL students to take the mystery out of English pronunciation.
7 Things You Need to Explain to Your Students about English Pronunciation:
The goal of pronunciation practice is to pronounce correctly, not sound like a native English speaker. Only children who are exposed to a second language for extended periods of time are able to eliminate their foreign accent because their brains are still flexible enough to do so. There is such a thing as accent reduction, but a foreign accent in an adult will never be completely eliminated. Furthermore, an accent is a part of who you are, a part of a student’s cultural heritage. Students should accept this and strive to improve pronunciation instead.
Stressed vs. Syllabic
It is tremendously useful for students to understand that English, unlike other languages, is a stressed language. This means that in a sentence some words are stressed more than others. In syllabic languages, like Spanish for example, it makes more sense to focus on pronouncing each word, syllable by syllable. But if we were to do this in English we’d sound like robots. Try saying, “Your book is on the table” by pronouncing each word – doesn’t sound like fluent, human speech, does it? It is vital for students to understand that making the effort to pronounce every single word does not lead to good pronunciation.
How many times has a student asked you how to pronounce an article like the or a? They need to understand that articles and other non-stressed words are not clearly pronounced but rather “swallowed”. This is why two separate words like is or on are not pronounced separately in the above example, but combined to sound like one “ison”.
Related to the previous point, and the fact that pronouncing each word separately is a bad idea, is that quite often two sounds are linked to sound like one word (sometimes even more than two words are linked). This is often the case with the verb is when it’s followed by an article or preposition that starts with a vowel (an, a, on, at). “He’s an architect” sounds like “He – za – narchitect”. This happens when a word ending with a consonant is followed by a word starting with a vowel. Something similar happens when we ask, “What did you do?” (sounds like wha diju do?) In this case, the two sounds are combined to form a new mixed sound.
Just like there are words in a sentence that are not clearly pronounced or stressed, a single word may have consonants that are not pronounced, either. ESL students are often unaware of this. Words they often mispronounce are those that end in a “b”, like bomb, dumb, or comb. Others have trouble with the silent “g” in foreign, sign or champagne. Be sure to clarify in which cases letters are silent.
Sounds that Disappear
There are words that have consonant sounds that are not exactly silent, but simply disappear. This is the case with the “d” in and (often pronounced an) and the “t” in it or but. In “I went there last night” we wouldn’t pronounce the final “t” in went, last or night.
Spelling vs. Pronunciation
Students must understand that quite often the spelling of a word is no indication of how it should be pronounced (and by the same token the pronunciation of a word is no indication of how it is spelled). The “th” for example sounds like a “d” in then or than, but completely different in thing, three or thousand. Students must learn to distinguish between letters and sounds, i.e., same letters may have different sounds depending on the letters that follow it or precede it.
Understanding the Schwa
The schwa sound is one of those little mysteries that ESL students often hear about but never truly grasp. The schwa, whose phonemic symbol looks like an upside down “e” ([ə]), is an unstressed, weak sound that occurs in many English words. In the phrase “a story about a girl” the three “a”s are schwa sounds. The same happens with the “e” in the or the “o” in to. ESL students who master the schwa are well on their way to improved pronunciation.
There is no mystery to correct English pronunciation – not when you explain these basic concepts to your students.
Once you do, they will be better armed to understand the differences between their native language and the one they are trying to learn.
If you have any other essential pronunciation concepts to add to the list, please do so below!
Claudia has been an ESL teacher for 20 years and has taught a wide variety of students from pre-schoolers to senior citizens, complete beginners to advanced students. This vast teaching experience has helped her write over 100 articles for BusyTeacher.org. When she is not teaching, she is also a freelance travel writer contributing reviews for V!VA Travel Guides' upcoming Uruguay edition, as well as travel articles and blog posts for a variety of online publications. She is currently living in Buenos Aires, Argentina with her spunky 7-year old daughter and crabby 10-year old cat, Ulysses. Google +.
You're right. I've met people who've achieved wonders in terms of pronunciation. Not the case of MOST of the students I've encountered, but you're right to say it's not impossible and should not be said about everyone. Thanks for pointing that out!
This is a good article. I disagree with this statement: a foreign accent in an adult will never be completely eliminated. I think a lot of people agreee with the author and for many non-native adult speakers it is true, but to say it about eveyone is just silly.