Still thinking about essential English pronunciation in 2019

essential pronunciation 3

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thoughts on stepping out of the comfort zone

the Comfort Zone

It’s important to accept ourselves as we are. It is. Yes, we’re good enough as we are.

But sometimes we can use the idea of “good enough” as an excuse for not pushing ourselves to try something different.

I’m not talking about something extreme like white-water rafting or tandem parachute jumping or bungee jumping. It’s not just about facing physical danger.

I’m talking about little things.

For me, who had often given speeches and presentations using notes, it was giving a speech without notes for very first time. The relief and joy I felt was palpable to everyone around me.

For some, it might be walking an hour and half to a destination you’d normally get to by car or public transit. When we travel, we never think twice about walking for an hour or two. Might the neighbourhoods you’ve ignored so often as you passed by suddenly come alive with colour and sound?

For some, it might be finding a restaurant where the “locals” eat, where you don’t recognize a single thing on the menu. You look over at the next table and say to your waiter, “I’ll have whatever they’re having.” Might you suddenly find adventure in the city you’ve lived in your whole life?

For everyone, it can be about making a list of all the routine things we do and asking ourselves, “Why do I always do things the same way? What would happen if I were to do somethings differently?” How might I feel?

That’s what my advanced speakers of English as a Second Language or English as a Common Language face when they come to me for coaching. They’ve usually done fine with their English as it is. And yet, they’ve decided to challenge themselves to do more.

Sometimes it’s to make their pronunciation just a little clearer. Sometimes it’s to take their language abilities to a new level of sophistication. Sometimes it’s to add energy and emotion to their communication skills. They know change won’t come overnight, but they make the commitment to work at it. The excitement they feel as they change and grow feeds them, as does the thrill when other people notice.

Change isn’t easy. Sometimes it comes in a flash. More often, it comes slowly. I admire and applaud their spirit and determination.

There are things that all of us have done throughout our lives that we’ve never questioned because the answers could make us uncomfortable.

It’s unnerving to do things differently when we’ve been comfortable doing them the same way for so long. It’s so much easier to stay in one place with a minimum of stress and no risk – where the outcome is certain.

It’s hard to change. It takes courage. It takes stepping out of the comfort zone.

But oh … the rewards …

Your thoughts are always most welcome.

Don’t forget to check out this week’s One-Minute Words on The Canadian Pronunciation Coach channel.