The Value of Perfecting Pronunciation
Learning another language has many different components. There is vocabulary, grammar, new sounds and sometimes a new alphabet. There are the receptive (passive) skills of reading and listening and the productive (active) skills of writing and speaking. Ideally, all components are learned at a similar pace to achieve a well rounded grasp on the target language. Unfortunately, this often isn’t how language learning transpires. Instead, it is common for learners to excel in certain areas while others will require more time and effort. As a teacher, it can be easy to lean into students’ strengths and focus less on their weaknesses. Generally, the receptive skills will develop at a faster rate than the productive skills. Despite this, one fundamental that should not be ignored is pronunciation.
What exactly is "pronunciation"?
Pronunciation is the utilization of the mouth, tongue and lip muscles to produce ‘correct’ sounds. In English, pronunciation is more than just correct phonics. It encompasses word stress, sentence stress, intonation and blending. The ‘correctness’ of the sounds also change between British English, American English, Australian English and so on. Anyone learning another language can probably attest to having an experience of mispronouncing a word in conversation and having it take on a completely new meaning. While this is part of the fun and joy of learning, it’s not something you want to continuously encounter.
What exactly is "mispronunciation"?
Mispronunciation greatly hinders our ability to communicate. You might be able to craft a perfectly grammatical sentence with high level vocabulary and complex structure, but if your pronunciation inhibits people from understanding you, communication is compromised. This can easily result in your audience underestimating your language ability and assuming you understand less than you do. In my experience as a language learner, few things are more frustrating than having your language level assumed to be and treated as less advanced than it is. Although the technological world is increasing the amount of written exchanges between people (especially during the pandemic), it is usually speaking and listening that will be the main way people interact with each other’s language ability. When someone’s speech is incomprehensible, it could lead to demotivation and a hesitation to speak due to a lack of confidence.
The importance of pronunciation
Conversely, having stellar pronunciation on par with native speakers will add a level of fluency to your speech, giving listeners the assumption that you are proficient in that language. This perceived competence is beneficial for two reasons. The first being that people may sometimes hesitate when they realize they are communicating with a second language speaker. This could be due to their lack of exposure to second language speakers and not knowing how to proceed, or because of a prior experience with second language speakers and miscommunication. The second reason perceived competence is beneficial is that it will help improve your language skills. Being forced into situations that challenge your language level may be overwhelming at first, but it will allow you to push your language ability and in turn improve your skills. Having correct pronunciation will also increase the amount of people who can understand you. You will be understood more easily not just by natives, but by other learners or second language speakers of that language as well.
It may seem easy to put off pronunciation practice during the first stages of language learning, not just as a learner but also as a teacher. But the longer you wait, the harder it will be. Unlike vocabulary or learning an alphabet, rote memorization isn’t the solution to this issue. Time must be invested in training the ears to hear and the mouth muscles to produce the correct sounds of the target language. Once your students have formed the habit of mispronouncing words, it will become difficult to break as sounds must be relearned and mouth muscles retrained. This of course is possible, and is how many people learn to overcome speech impediments, but it takes lots of time and practice. It will also be increasingly frustrating and feel rudimentary to practice basic sounds and speech patterns when your students possess a high level of competency in comprehension.
When to focus on pronunciation
It is best to master pronunciation right from the beginning, and as a teacher it is imperative that you focus on this with students. Be generous with the time you invest in teaching the new sounds of a language, and be careful not to try to convert these into similar sounds in students’ native language/alphabet. Writing out pronunciations in a different alphabet will often add a subtle change, leading to mispronunciation. When starting out, be sure you clearly enunciate the individual sounds, especially ones that don’t exist in your students’ native language. From there you can move on to focus on intonation, rhythm and stresses. Don’t wait with pronunciation. It’s a small investment that will yield a big result for your language students.
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