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Should Chinese ESL Students Have Explicit Phonetic Instruction?

Should Chinese ESL Students Have Explicit Phonetic Instruction? | ITTT | TEFL Blog

During nine years of teaching English as a Second language, I have discovered how important phonetics is in learning the correct pronunciation of the English language, and in fact, in any language. Derwing and Munro (2005) emphasize, “It is essential to have an accurate understanding of the target language phonological system to enhance the quality of pronunciation".

This post was written by our TEFL certification graduate Mark B. Please note that this blog post might not necessarily represent the beliefs or opinions of ITTT.

We should look at some of the problems that L2 learners have when trying to produce accurate L1 language patterns.

A vast majority of language books are aimed at L2 learners from all over the world and don’t necessarily cater to the “localized” needs of a particular country. These books usually have to be disseminated by the teacher to produce a lesson plan with which to teach the content. One problem may be the teacher. He/she may be able to correct an incorrect pronunciation problem a student has, but may not have an accurate understanding of the phonetic system itself and therein lack useful strategies to correctly teach phonetics. Morely 1991. This could hurt a student potentially causing a lack of confidence, thus not helping the student to self-correct any similar problems in the future.

Also read: How Important are Phonology and Pronunciation in the English Language Classroom?

We also have to take into account the students.

Other problems may include motivation, age, lack of understanding of their L1 phonetic system, the number of students per class. Anyone of these problems would make the learning of an L2 phonetic system, particularly English, much more difficult. Therefore pronunciation is probably one of the most neglected parts of English language teaching.

Chinese students are very reluctant to speak in a classroom setting.

Xu Li Hua (1991) says: “The Chinese students are comparatively quiet and shy, which works to their disadvantage in speaking. They are afraid of making mistakes. They feel uncomfortable in their first attempt at a speech in English and they are afraid of failure, laughter, and ridicule”. This is the case, in my experience. Even students that attempt to speak or answer a question are not 100% confident in their speaking ability.

In a personal reflection of one of my students, who at the time was one of the top speakers in the class, became very nervous at speaking after I corrected a pronunciation mistake.

chinese students

Also read: The Most Common Problems Students in Russia Face When Learning English

So what pronunciation mistakes are most common?

A student’s first language has a huge influence on the target language being learned. Many sounds that exist in the English language don’t exist in the Chinese phonetic system. So we can assume that one of the main reasons for Chinese learners to not speak in class, is fear of making a mistake and losing credibility among their peers. Two of the most common pronunciation problems are the /ð/ /θ/ voiced and unvoiced respectively and /r/. Both these sounds do not exist in the Chinese language. However, a student may be able to produce the /th/ sound, (dental in this example) with instruction. My own experience has shown that when the correct speech organ articulation is achieved, students make the sound very easily. The problem lies in maintaining articulation during regular speech.

A similar problem occurs with the /r/ sound. As the sound is an approximant palatal alveolar sound utilizing the larynx and tongue, students find it difficult to form this shape in the mouth. Often /r/ is replaced by /l/ which can cause confusion and misunderstanding in conversation. The /r/ sound is an important one as words such as /rice/ become /lice/ and rust becomes /lust/. There are several other pronunciations and phonetic problems Chinese learners have like word stress, intonation, consonant clusters, etc. which could be talked about but unfortunately, I don’t have space here to do. Just from the two examples briefly outlined above one can see just how important phonetics and pronunciation instruction is, in an ESL classroom. With the correct instruction, it can lead to a better understanding of the complexities of the English language.

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It is, therefore, my opinion that Explicit Phonetic Instruction should play a major role in an ESL classroom. Whereas teachers needn’t become a linguistics expert, it is the responsibility of a teacher to school themselves in phonetics and how to teach it effectively. This course has given a wonderful model with which, we as teachers can incorporate that learning into an ESA lesson plan. As mentioned many factors contribute to how effective Phonetic Instruction might be, particularly the number of students in any one class. In Chinese public schools that number could be anywhere between 40-55 students! We cannot get to everyone. On further personal experience, I have many one-to-one students who have benefited greatly from Phonetic Instruction and overcome a lot of the common pronunciation problems found with Chinese speakers. This I feel further compounds my opinion that Phonetic Instruction can and does work and although the numbers are huge if we can get one student to say “I like eating fried rice”. Instead of “I like eating flown lice.” Then your Phonetic Instruction has worked.

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