I hope you had a most wonderful holiday season.
Here we are in 2019, and I’m still thinking about what’s essential for effective English pronunciation? After all, it’s tiring and overwhelming for both teachers and students to have to work on every element of English pronunciation. It’s hard to keep students motivated when they never have enough time to really make progress on any one element. They can end up focusing on what’s “wrong” about their pronunciation rather than being encouraged by what’s right.
In my last blog, Thinking about essential English pronunciation, I questioned the need to teach every single consonant and vowel. So what might be a common denominator, especially in a class of mixed nationalities?
What’s the most important factor for intelligibility?
Personally, I think it’s the music of English. Why? Because music is a universal language. It’s both aural and physical. You don’t need to understand the words to feel its power. It’s visceral.
Chinese speakers may be dropping their final consonants, Japanese speakers over-pronouncing final consonants, Arabic speakers trilling [r], Spanish or Farsi speakers adding the vowel [e] before an initial [s], Russians adding a little [y] before certain vowels. Are these critical issues?
Whether they’re confusing vowel sounds or consonant sounds, one thing that’s very important for everyone is vowel length, combined with volume and pitch, to create syllable stress and sentence stress.
Choosing the main stresses in an English sentence and making other syllables weak can be challenging for speakers of most any language. It takes a little extra physical energy, a little extra breath to create stress. But it’s crucial in order to identify new or contrastive information in words, phrases or clauses. It forces us to listen, take note and interpret.
We can talk about “content” words and “function” words all we want, but more important than the “theory” is the practice. When we’re conversing, there’s no time to analyze which words are “content” and which are “function.” And in any case, those function words can be just as important as content words. They can shift meaning radically. Practice begins with listening and imitating.
Adults spend 40-50% of their communication time listening. That’s more time than they spend speaking, reading or writing. So becoming aware of stress – hearing and feeling how certain words pop out – provides a stronger foundation for imitation, comprehension and intelligibility than working on individual sounds. By starting with the music, we can make students aware of how almost any word can become the focus of a message.
Now I’m a little cautious about using popular songs because sometimes they shift syllable stress just to fit a word into an existing rhythm. Instead, I suggest rhythm games, training the ear using short sentences with single and two-syllable words, then gradually adding longer multi-syllable words, phrases and clauses.
By focusing on rhythm, using a metronome and gradually increasing speed, students are forced to listen carefully to how sounds morph to fit words inside a fixed beat. The challenge is for them figure out for themselves what they need to adjust from the sounds of their own language. We’re not looking for perfection. We just want them to realize that something needs to change.
Then put the metronome aside and explore the same sentences in more natural conversational rhythm, maintaining the stress. Explore how emphasizing different words changes meaning by drawing the ear to a different idea. As sentences get longer, explore the importance of thought groups and pauses.
Starting every class with a rhythm exercise is fun and a great way to create a relaxed environment. As the course progresses, you can challenge students to create their own – bringing a single sentence to teach to the class to teach the others.
Instead of wasting valuable time on trying to perfect consonants and vowels, let’s begin with the music of spoken English.
As students begin to develop awareness, their confidence will build in preparation for the next step – working with vocal mechanics to adjust sounds and with minimal pairs to keep training the ear.
But before that, we need to reinforce stress in other ways. And I’ll write about that in my next blog.