Top Reasons Why Rules of Pronunciation are Extremely Important for Teachers
Many ESL teachers have never even heard of phonetics or phonology, yet they use these aspects of speech naturally when they speak. Phonetics and phonology are two areas of linguistics that study the sounds of language. Phonetics focuses on individual sounds, while phonology studies the features and combination of sounds (McMahon, 1-3). There are two reasons why ESL teachers need to know phonetics and phonology: first, it helps them to conceptualize English in a way that their students can understand; and second, it helps them to address their students’ difficult pronunciation problems.
This post was written by our TEFL certification graduate Victoria I. Please note that this blog post might not necessarily represent the beliefs or opinions of ITTT.
Why Students Suffer from Pronunciation Issues?
Many students face “major challenges” with English pronunciation, even after years of study; however, it is given the least attention in the classroom (Pourhosein Gilakjani, 74). ESL teachers often have difficulty making the leap from instinctively using language to teaching it. A study of phonetics and phonology helps to bridge that gap. To teach their students, ESL teachers must first conceptualize the sounds of English for themselves. This includes familiarizing themselves with the sounds and symbols in the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) chart. The IPA system removes the confusion around English spelling and focuses solely on all the sounds of English: one symbol for each sound. The symbols are then combined to form the phonetic spellings of words, which are included in most dictionaries. This allows teachers and students to look up any word and know its exact pronunciation. Teachers should practice saying each sound until they feel comfortable explaining to another person how the speech organs and muscles operate and how the sound is released (e.g., nasal, plosive, fricative, affricative, approximant, etc.). If teachers can conceptualize sounds themselves, they are better equipped to help their students do the same.
Lack of Subject Knowledge
However, the sounds of language are more than just phonetic sounds. Teachers should also study the phonological aspects of language as well. This includes the combination of sounds, volume, pitch, intonation, stress, and rhythms of language to create smooth and intelligent speech. Surprisingly, phonological errors in speech affect pronunciation and intelligibility more than phonetic errors in single sounds (Pourhosein Gilakjani, 78). Phonological sounds communicate personality and meaning; when any of them are off or absent, speech sounds unnatural. For example, text-to-speech technology may read the following text in a halting, monotonous manner: “I’m going to get a sandwich, ice cream, grade ‘A’ eggs, butter and jam.” Actual speech often joins or changes sounds so the words flow better, such as: “I’m gonna get a san’wich, iscream, grayday yeggs, budderan jam.” Actual speech may also have a rising intonation on the last syllable of most of the shopping items listed (indicating the list is on-going), but a falling intonation on the last item (signifying an end). Additionally, natural speech includes stresses and rhythms to give the sentence a musical quality that makes the list less mundane and easier to remember. Teachers can gain insight into phonological sounds by reading various text aloud and changing the phonological aspects to convey different emotions, attitudes, personalities, and meaning. By conceptualizing phonetic and phonological sounds, ESL teachers can be armed with greater confidence, knowledge, and skill to address the difficult pronunciation issues that their students face.
Pronunciation is much more than just saying a “sound” correctly: it involves both phonetic sounds and phonological properties to create intelligent speech. Luckily, poor pronunciation is not due to a lack of ability. Young babies are known to babble a whole range of possible sounds not present in their native languages; however, later a “language-specific cognitive system” sets in that limits sounds to languages they are exposed to in their early years (McMahon, 1-3). This phonological “cognitive” system is why pronunciation problems exist. Students perceive the sounds in the context of their native languages. Teachers should be aware of students’ native languages and find new ways to help students re-conceptualize the sounds in a way that works when speaking English. For example, some students may confuse the labio-dental /v/ with the bilabial /b/ sound. Teachers can help students differentiate the two sounds by creating new associations for the sounds, such as comparing /v/ to /f/ and /b/ to the /p/ sound. Both /v/ and /f/ are produced in a fricative manner, where the air is forced through the teeth and lower lip. However, /v/is voiced and /f/ is unvoiced. Similarly, both /b/ and /p/ are produced in a plosive manner, by putting both lips together and then releasing the sound in an explosive manner. In this case, /b/ is voiced and /p/ is unvoiced. By separating /v/ and /b/ and linking them to different sounds, students may be able to conceptually see how these sounds differ and have an easier time with correctly pronouncing the /v/ and /b/ sounds.
Teacher as a Role Model
ESL teachers play a major role in helping their students overcome pronunciation problems and improve their English-speaking abilities. As teachers embrace and teach the concepts of phonetics and phonology to their students, the students will be able to conceptualize and use the combination of sounds, intonation, stress, and rhythms of English--consciously at first, until it starts to flow more naturally. Renowned phonetician Peter Roach explained it perfectly when he compared phonetics and phonology to a car mechanic’s knowledge: one can drive a car without knowing how it works, but mechanical knowledge is needed to fix it (Roach, 1-2). Likewise, as teachers understand phonetics and phonology, their understanding of the mechanical workings behind language fluency increases, and they are better equipped to tackle their students’ difficult pronunciation problems.
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