English Pronunciation for the ESL Learner

dscf0229By using a comprehensive approach towards teaching English pronunciation, the teacher can create a basis for many of the tasks in the ESL class. Pronunciation can become not only an alternative to daily grammar and structure lessons and exercises, it can also support activities such as listening comprehension and word order.

Though improving pronunciation is an integral part of learning a language, you should first offer a general explanation of the physical articulation of the sound system of English, illustrating the ways in which these sounds are combined to create meaningful utterances.

In addition, you should emphasize the importance of reproducing these combinations in a way that most closely resembles the natural speech of a native speaker.

Articulation: keep it simple

The sounds that make up any language are the result of complex combinations of air, vibration and articulation, among other factors. You should present concepts such as “consonant” and “vowel” with an understanding that they will be the basis for creating meaningful sentences in English. However, a general overview of these concepts can be sufficient. A simple approach may include:

Consonant: a sound produced through the explosion, friction or obstruction of either air or tone.

The production of consonants depends on the placement or movement of the throat, lips, tongue, teeth, and can even involve the nose or the chest. Examples of the three types of consonant sounds abound in any sentence in English. The terms “plosive”, “fricative” and “obstructive” become self-explanatory. Students should understand these concepts, but not necessarily see them on tests. These concepts are mainly useful in explaining the physical articulation of consonant sounds.

More detailed explanations, such as “voiced” and “unvoiced” consonant sounds, can be explained, but are not of supreme importance. For example, though a change in the voicing of a consonant may also change the meaning of the word itself, its position in the structure of the sentence should serve as a clue as to its meaning. This can reinforce the importance of word order in the English sentence.

Vowel: a tone, unrestricted by the explosion, friction or obstruction of sound.

Teaching each and every one of the 28+ vowel sounds found in English can become an uneconomical use of class time. Up to 40% of the vowel sounds are either reduced to a neutral sound or simply disappear because of the stronger sounds that surround them once a word is in a sentence.

You should take special care with the graphic representation of words when the ESL student uses a similar alphabet when writing their native language. “Visual interference” brought on by pronouncing certain letters in written English as they are usually pronounced in the native language can slow progress in learning to pronounce English. This can apply both to vowels and consonants. In general, English is not a language which is pronounced based upon its graphic (written) representation.

Combination: reduction and liaison

Single sounds and single words rarely stand alone. It is true that such exclamations as “Oh!” or “Ah!” can be considered complete, communicating surprise or understanding of something just heard. Likewise, words like “me” , “Yes” or “Hello” can easily stand on their own. However, most other words that make up English are accompanied by other words to communicate an idea or thought.

You should instruct your students that words will be combined in a certain order to help the listener understand what is going on in the speaker’s mind. In writing, words are separated from one another by spaces. This makes the task of assimilating the written word much easier. In speaking though, words are hardly ever pronounced one-by-one. The correct use of reduction and liaison should be presented and practiced.

Reduction is the natural tendency to NOT produce the same or similar consonant articulation twice. For example, in the combination of the words “bad dog”, a native speaker would not pronounce both the ending [d] of “bad” as well as the beginning [d] of “dog”: a reduction would take place. The ending [d] of “bad” is not pronounced and the words become a two-syllable chain that would sound like [ba dog].

It is, in many cases, this natural reduction that native speakers use which contributes to students’ not understanding spoken English. Students often expect to hear two clear, distinct [d]s in “bad dog” because of what they have seen written. The lack of one doesn’t ring a bell with what they have seen and practiced. In the case of “Miss Stewart”, for example, if both of the [s] sounds are pronounced, we end up addressing an unmarried woman as if she were married: [mis esteu wart] (Mrs Stewart).

Liaison is the bridging of vowels with consonants into meaningful components of utterances. Most Indo-European languages are pronounced in a consonant + vowel syllable construct. Languages such as Spanish or Italian are even represented graphically in this manner and pronunciation can be studied and learned from the written word.

In the case of English, however, the phonetics of the language are not based on a finite sound value of the alphabet. The teacher should make this distinction from the beginning of any course that will include pronunciation: English is not written as it is spoken, nor is it spoken as it is written. Letters that are included in spelling are not always pronounced (reduction). Sounds that are not written are often inserted to make the stringing of syllable chains easier to articulate (liaison).

Basic liaison is the stringing of sounds creating syllables that begin with a consonant followed by a vowel. An utterance such as “Yes, I am” might be phonetically represented for a Spanish speaker as [iye sai yam]. The [s] that obviously ends the written word “yes” becomes the beginning sound of the second syllable of the utterance, thus avoiding beginning a syllable with a tone.

A more complex liaison is the insertion of unwritten semi-consonant sounds which build bridges between vowel tones. In this example, the [y] in the third syllable in “Yes I am”, though not written, is the natural result of the voice moving from the final vowel of the second syllable to the first vowel of the third. Separating these two vowels, with however short a pause, only places more stress on the vocal apparatus. In addition, it does not accurately represent the way a native speaker would pronounce.

Though not graphically represented, this [y] and other sounds do exist. Contrary to what occurs in reduction, the addition of these sounds by the native speaker seems to create words which the non-native listener tries to find in their personal vocabulary bank. These “words” either simply don’t exist or don’t fit into the context of the sentence.

Reproduction: pronounce well, understand better

If a student pronounces in an unnatural way, that student will probably use this unnatural pronunciation as a reference for later listening comprehension, expecting to hear this same unnatural pronunciation from native speakers. Comprehension is based on recognition: if the utterance is produced consistently in an unnatural way, it can be impossible to recognize it when a native pronounces it naturally.

The teaching of pronunciation, though a complex and important facet of the ESL classroom, should be integrated into the teaching of structure and grammar. Teachers should investigate thoroughly before embarking on the task. Investigating these concepts and presenting them as an integral part of the learning process can help students to improve in speaking, listening as well as reading

Further reading: Pronunciation: Is or Is not


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