25. Pronunciation – making yourself understood

Pronunciation can be one of the most frustrating parts of language learning. I know myself that after 8 years of spanish, I still have difficulty with the ´spanish R sound´. But what we need to think about is what really matters when it comes to the way we pronounce?

The general misconception is that young learners (children) make the best language learners but from my own personal experience and this is not always the case, apart from in the case of pronunciation. Teenagers and adults who possess a good knowledge of their own language and the way they learn have an advantage over those who do not. “Research comparing children to adults has consistently demonstrated that adolescents and adults perform better than young children under controlled conditions” (Snow & Hoefnagel-Hoehle, 1978). Another point that is important to mention is the issue of enjoyment, I see it as a fundamental part of language learning, this is why (perhaps) young children acquire language quickly, they use language in a simple way that is both fun and interesting to them (through play, music and story etc.). But adults can also learn through interest, persuing their interests and using language in a way that suits them.

So let´s continue with pronunciation. I teach in Spain and spanish learners have a distinct disadvantage when it comes to pronunciation, those who are used to reading and pronouncing words in exactly the same way can find it difficult when there are more complex pronunciation rules in play. Many spanish learners go as far as to say that English does not  have rules related to pronuncition, but how they are wrong. Many of you have probably seen something like this (image below) in classes of pronunciation and the truth is that it can be useful to associate symbols with individual sounds but my argument is that this is a long winded and arduous process that can be avoided.

Another argument is that pronunciation is a physical process and therefore should be learnt in a physical way. I would say that I agree with this to a point as students will benefit from knowing how to form sounds and being concious of the movements that their mouth needs to make to be able to produce these sounds. This is all good practice providing that it is associated to language in use (actual words) and reinforced in context. What I am trying to say here is that practicing indiviual sounds is not a worthwhile activity if learners are not concious of where it fits into words that they are actually going to use.

Imitation is a fun and easy way to practice pronunciation. It is good way to begin and is perhaps the reason that many language learners request a native teacher. When in the initial stages of language learning and reviewing basic vocabulary and gramatical structures, it can be an easy way to take the first steps towards the use of language and later lead to spontaneous production. There are various ways that imitation can be used in the classroom, such as drilling and role-play, but it is generally a natural process that students pick up on in class. There have been several accounts of the conditions that produce imitation and the conditions under which imitation itself may facilitate language acquisition. An interesting read on the topic is, ´The history of imitation in learning theory: the language acquisition process´ by E Kymissis and C L Poulson.

As we have seen in this post, there are various ways to practice pronunciation and yes, it is an important aspect of language acquisition but the reality is that many learners (especially those who start learning as adults, children are far better are immitating and reproducing sounds) cannot achieve a clean accent that could be mistaken for a native speaker. This is a desirable achievement but not exactly essential to be able to reach an advanced level in a language. At the end of the day, the most important thing is that you are clear and understood. If people realise that English is not your first langauge it really does not impede your ability to communicate and in my opinion makes you seem a more interesting person.

Further reading

Teaching the Pronunciation of English as a Lingua Franca (Oxford Handbooks for Language Teachers)

The Pronunciation of British English: la pronunciación del inglés británico

Gimson’s Pronunciation of English


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