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Category Archives: pronunciation

>By Daniel T. Parker

A neat little trick I’ve tried before is to give your students little pieces of paper to put in front of their mouths as they practice making the f/v, p/b, d/t sounds. If you have a room of students making the sounds at the same time, you can’t possibly hear who’s doing it right or wrong, and it’s time-consuming, and possibly intimidating to the student to have them do the sounds individually. But when you’re standing in front of the class, it’s easy to tell whose piece of paper is fluttering and whose isn’t.

>By Karen Stanley – Charlotte, North Carolina, USA

I work with students teaching them elision on a regular basis right from the very beginning. Most listening-speaking books and pronunciation books include lessons on at least recognizing elided sounds starting with the lowest levels. It is possible to introduce it in an organized way, focusing on different parts of the whole system of elision. With the exercises I do, I often end up commenting on a mix of different aspects of pronunciation even though the specific lesson itself may have focused on just one or two.

One important aspect is that stress and intonation on both a sentence and word level are very important in English to being comprehensible, and if students elide their words just as ALL native speakers do ALL the time, we understand them better. Elided speech is not “slang” – it is a *regular* feature of all spoken English, although I’ve had native speakers tell me “I don’t do that” just before doing it in their own speech.

I have found that students who have difficulty with final consonants, often because of coming from a language with a CV (consonant-vowel) syllable structure, become much more comprehensible when they use elided speech because much of English, when it is spoken, actually moves into a CV structure. That is, final consonants are often pronounced with the beginnings of the next word.

Something very important for Chinese speakers, though, is to recognize a couple of things about the length of vowel sounds; this is related to some degree to elision:

(1) vowel sounds in stressed syllables get more time than those in unstressed syllables – Chinese speakers generally want to give all vowel sounds the same amount of time, rendering their speech *much* less comprehensible, and

(2) a voiced consonant lengthens the time given to the vowel before it. Often, in fact, we don’t pronounce the final consonant (it’s an “unreleased” consonant, similar to a glottal stop, especially before a word that starts with a consonant), and our knowledge of whether someone said “had” or “hat” comes not from /t/ or /d/ but from how much time the ‘a’ gets.

One book (now out in a new edition, which I haven’t seen) which presents the sounds from at least a recognition aspect is “Whaddaya say” by Nina Weinstein. However, in the first edition, although she has students learn elided forms for recognition, she tells students (more or less) to use citation (dictionary) pronunciation, which I disagree with. None of us actually pronounce one word separately from the next when we are speaking (try really doing that some time if you disagree). So, I think telling students to use citation form actually *decreases* students’ comprehensibility. However, I agree that elision needs to be explained in an organized way, because getting it wrong is just as bad as getting any other aspect of pronunciation wrong.

Blurb from the book:
“Whaddya gonna git? I dunno. Wanna go fer a soda? Is this English? You bet it is–this is what English often sounds like in everyday life–and now students can understand it, too through this user-friendly listening program! The 30 humorously illustrated, workbook-size units tackle the most common reduced forms such as wanna, gonna, and gotta. Each chapter opens with a conversation (dialogue) on a “hip” topic from the Internet to bungee jumping. Students listen to the conversation spoken with careful, slow pronunciation. They contrast this pronunciation with the same segment spoken with relaxed, fast speech that uses target reduced forms. All scripts are in the book for optional “following along.” After the conversation, students complete comprehension questions and a translation exercise. They then expand their practice by listening to a continued segment of the conversation, doing a fill-in-the-blanks exercise, and working in small groups to discuss final questions. Ten review tests appear at the back of the book and at the end of the audio program.”

>By Pete Marchetto

I think the central problem with the teaching of English in China is that it’s an examination subject and the examinations here seem to have precious little connection with natural use of the language focusing instead on relatively or purely academic aspects. This is what I meant when I said that a solid grounding in grammar, language history and so on are all well and good but I feel I have been of most benefit here when I have released the pent-up ability to actually USE the language.

At my last place of work a fellow teacher – Chinese – told me of a friend of hers who got 19 out of 20 in an examination and was deemed to have failed for his one wrong answer though he was an excellent student. The question asked which of the following forms was correct – ‘The bird is IN the tree’: ‘The bird is ON the tree’. The student declared the latter correct and afterwards argued strongly that a bird perched on the exterior of the tree could be said to be on, rather than in, the tree – but this, unfortunately, didn’t concur with the Chinese Manual of Prescriptive and Occasionally Inaccurate English Grammar. I don’t know about everyone else in here but I’m on the side of the student in this one – I have no qualms about saying ‘The bird is ON the tree’.

One of the biggest blocks I suspect all of us have to overcome is the belief students have that they can’t speak English. Indeed, two of the teachers here have told me they can’t use English to express themselves. I pointed out to them, as I point out to the students when they make the same complaint, that they seemed to be doing a perfectly good job of expressing themselves to me. This is what I mean by a ‘pent-up’ ability; the schooling they’ve received in English is far from useless but the ability to use the language it creates exists merely as a potential until someone comes along and encourages them to use it. Not having used it they believe themselves incapable of doing so.

In releasing that potential I have to give the students the revelation that it is fine for them to make mistakes. Inevitably mistakes are made, and many of them given that students have so rarely been called upon simply to speak. Not being chastised for mistakes, however, seems almost alarming for some of the students. If they make mistakes, they ask, and aren’t corrected for them, won’t those mistakes become entrenched? I point out to them that the continual mixing of he/she, for example, if corrected on each hearing, will fragment any conversation beyond its value as communication and a promotion of fluency. It’s not as if the students don’t know the gender rules; it’s merely that lack of practice has those mistakes so oft repeated. Such problems will work themselves out, wrinkles in language that will be ironed out the more they use it and the more natural it becomes for them to use it. Correcting them each time negates the value of the practice and, ironically, of itself is liable to entrench the errors – along with many other problems – in their conversational English.

Students also worry that in having conversation with one another mistakes will become entrenched. On that issue I point out to them that parents don’t stop children acquiring their native tongue speaking with other children lest they reinforce each ‘s errors. With further exposure to the correct use of the
language at other times again the errors are ironed out. Do they think that a four year old Chinese permitted only to speak to adults who use the language properly and never allowed to speak to other four year olds even though adults are rarely available to them in comparison to other four year olds would grow up with a better or worse grasp of Chinese? Where I will make corrections – as far as possible at the end of conversations, not within them – is in other areas such as the inappropriate use of vocabulary and common errors where something is clearly misunderstood; the excessive use of ‘very’, the cultural error in the frequent use of ‘delicious’ are two examples; the pronunciation ‘clothIES’ or ‘clothESIES’ for ‘clothes’; a word poorly understood from a dictionary as recently where students in debate were gaily throwing around the word ‘moribund’ to describe a group of healthy dogs that were about to be put into a situation where they would almost inevitably die which fitted the dictionary definition of the word but missed out on some of its subtleties.

When someone tells me they want to improve their English I ask them bluntly whether they want to improve their English for use or for exams? If the latter I will gently suggest they find themselves a Chinese teacher. English exams in China are so abstruse that I suspect I, as a mere native speaker, erstwhile professional writer and ex-member of MENSA, would not only fail in teaching for those examinations but also be very likely – if faced with them – to fail the examinations themselves.

I realise that none of this holds anything new for anyone who has been teaching here for over six months but there are new teachers who might be saved some of the confusion all of us felt on arriving in China to teach for the first time. For those of you yet to arrive you are in for a treat; where else in the world can you get students who are unable to speak English and bring them up to the level of fairly fluent conversationalists in under a year?

>David Henry – International Language Center, Autonomous University of Guadalajara, San Antonio TX USA

My first encounter with English language sound peculiarities came in my youth when my family lived in the mountains of Maryland and cousins came to visit from Pennsylvania. I remember that for them the vowel sound in “roof” was that in “book” rather than that of “boot.” Much later in life, thinking about the African-American dialect, I discovered the work of William Labov at the University of Pennsylvania who has created a map, “The Atlas of North American English: Phonetics, phonology and sound change.” It was much too complex for my modest needs, but may be of interest to some on this list. ( )

Talking with a speech language pathologist in Pittsburgh, I was surprised when she asked me which African American English dialect in Pittsburgh I was interested in. There were, she told me, three. Pittsburgh’s African American population has immigrated from three different parts of the country.

So much for rules! We can analyze distinct populations, but we always come up against environment, both in the sense of the area of the country we’re talking about and with reference to the neighborhood vowel and consonant sounds find themselves in in different words. I hadn’t even thought about the effect of /s/ in words like “listen” which Dr. Bland draws our attention to.

While it is true that education has some effect on pronunciation, it seems to me that educated people are different in that they have the luxury of being able to code-switch: they are able to use both what they imagine “proper” English pronunciation to be and the down-and-dirty pronunciation most of us use in rapid and informal speech–just as many African-Americans can switch from African American English to Standard American English (whatever on earth that is).

While I suggest that students listen to National Public Radio to help with their various needs, I’m aware that they will hear brilliant astrophysicists, celebrated cardiologists, distinguished professors of this or that including Nobel Prize winners say something like: ‘This book represents years of research by Professor Jones and I’ and my favorite: ‘This is Public Radio In’ernational.’ So, educated in what?

Comments by listers demolish the myth that there is a firm set of rules for pronunciation or any firm basis for being “schoolmarmish.” Bottom line is preparing students to listen and speak at two levels as each of us understands those two levels so that students won’t be confused when they hear Elvis Presley sing: “I wanchyu, I needzyu.” Students pay my school, the In’ernashionul Laengwidge Cen’er, to help them cope with life as strangers in a strange language, and to do that in a limited amount of time. Disappearing /t/, reductions including schwa, assimilation, and vowel sound differences are facts of life in North American English. All who have responded, while giving different weight to “high” and “low” forms, agree that students need to be aware of pronunciation possibilities.

>by Pete Marchetto

A couple of thoughts on this one. A few students have told me that they had good intentions when it came to English-only dorms and classroom time but that it broke down after a day or two. Only the most motivated of students will manage day in, day out and they will usually succumb to peer-group pressure and give up when most of
their fellows do. They set their ambitions too high and then give up altogether.

I think the best thing in convincing the students of English-only is to give them the analogy of, say, learning how to play tennis. For an hour or two a week you, the pro., are there to show them how to hold the racket, swing it and hit the ball. But if they put the racket down for the rest of the week until they see the pro. again they won’t improve. That ain’t the way to learn tennis and it ain’t the way to learn English.

The next thing I do is tell them a true story. (If you have no such true experience tell them this one or lie). At my last post one of the students complained she didn’t like speaking English with her classmates because they laughed at her. The irony was – as I pointed out to her and all her classmates – she was the best of ’em when it came to English. She rounded her vowels properly instead of mumbling them into some convenient quasi-Chinese approximation and was careful with her difficult consonants – even if that did mean a glimpse of tongue for ‘th’ – and consequently, of course, she looked and sounded ridiculous to her fellows in much the same way we did when we were at school and got the knack of pronouncing Frrrrrench properly. I’m coming to the conclusion that a large proportion of pronunciation problems come from the embarrassment of saying things correctly – it sounds so odd to the Chinese ear.

Also, it is good to do is convince the students they don’t need to be given a topic or an exercise in order to speak English. I’ve had many students tell me they can’t express everyday thoughts unless in Chinese – even some teachers have told me that – but I’ve yet to have any university student (or teacher) want to express something to me and fail. Again, point that out to them. They are so unused to using the language in anything besides a formal exercise they genuinely believe a lot of the time that that is all they CAN use it for.

Many are concerned that errors made in the course of speaking, if not corrected, will become entrenched. For that one I ask them to think of a local three year old speaking Chinese. Do they really think that three year old will be making the same oft-repeated mistakes at the age of ten? And do they think the best thing that three year old can do to improve his or her Chinese is to stop talking it until he or she has learned more rules of Chinese grammar?

What I do, having gone through all that, is set them the task of speaking English only for one hour a day when they are together, Monday through to Friday; the same hour each day. They don’t have to say anything in that hour if they don’t want to… but if they want to ask to borrow a pen or draw attention to something happening outside the window then they must do it in English. I also give the monitors the task of seeing to it that THEY arrange the hour this is to be done and that they enforce it. (This is best done of course if the students spend a lot of study time in the classroom – otherwise you will have to find someone else to be ‘in charge’ or assign dorm-leaders if dormitory hours are chosen). I give my monitors permission to punch anyone who speaks Chinese though sadly this form of enforcement is rarely taken as seriously as I’d like it to be.

Another possibility I’ve toyed with – but not used – is an English-only space; say a computer room or television room which the students like to be in. (A TV room might be difficult as it will be difficult to break out of watching Chinese programmes to
comment in English and then switch back again). The price of being in there is they must converse in English. If the worst comes to the worst then select a room they have to go to every day; the dining hall perhaps, or you could take advantage of a mass break-out of food-poisoning and allocate the lavatory.

At my college all this is all easily done, admittedly; the students are used to taking orders AS orders and are highly motivated. However, at any university it’s worth while convincing the students that the best resource they have for learning oral English is each other. When students complain to me that the college doesn’t provide them with an English-speaking environment I tell them it’s their job to create it for themselves. And should it happen – which thankfully it hasn’t yet – that students at the end of a semester complain to me their English under my tuition hasn’t improved as much as they’d hoped then I can always blame THEM for
not following my directions. Even if you can’t convince them to do it, at least you’ve covered your own butt…

>By Merton Bland


A few years ago the author was assigned to the prime TESOL institution in southern Vietnam, the University of Social Sciences and Humanities. What he found was quite a challenge: an educational system, centrally administrated, mired in traditional practices. The grammar/translation methodology, a legacy of the French, held sway in the classrooms, producing, in spite of six years of English in the secondary schools, a nation of graduates unable to communicate in the target language. Discussions with Vietnamese colleagues, usually trained abroad, resulted in plans for a lecture tour to the major teacher training institutions of Vietnam (including Hanoi, DaNang, Hue, and about a half-dozen others) with a message stressing alternatives to the status quo, and the present format was developed. The author was subsequently invited to speak at institutions of ideological training (Communist Party Cadre) and information diffusion (schools for journalists) previously off-limits to Westerners, as well as the teacher training institutions previously noted.

The Commandments

(1) Do not teach English. Teach something, anything, IN English, using English as a vehicle of communication rather than an object of study. This is sometimes called the content-based curriculum.

(2) Do not teach grammar. Ingesting rules can be counterproductive: We are all familiar with students who are unable to apply rules learned through rote memorization. Instead, the grammar of English is best acquired inductively by the students formulating their own hypotheses. (This reflects Krashen’s acquisition vs. learning.)

(3) Do not teach vocabulary. The schema, the concept pods which constitute the lexigraphical units of language, vary from language to language, even from person to person. No language is a direct translation of any other. Thus, vocabulary must be forged within the target language itself in a manner not unlike that of first language acquisition. To do otherwise is to risk forging the chains which prevent the bifurcation of the native and target languages and forever making your students translate in their heads word for word.

(4) Do not teach pronunciation. There is no longer any standard English. Well over two-thirds of the world’s 1.5 billion English speakers are non-native speakers. Their English is certainly as acceptable as the Received Pronunciation (RP) of a tiny fraction of the British or the Broad Midwestern of Hollywood–as long as their English is comprehensible to the greatest number of persons who do not share that particular accent.

(5) Do not give tests. While testing is well embedded in many parts of the world, scaling is to be preferred to testing. Usually tests only require the regurgitation of knowledge. Scaling, placing people on a scale from beginner to educated native, has much more validity.

(6) Do not use lesson plans. Teach students, not lesson plans. Many teachers come away from their teacher training institutions with a mandated compulsion to spend hours writing lesson plans. Such planning is quite counterproductive since in an actual teaching situation the teacher must be alert to the reactions of the students–stressing pragmatic considerations, putting more time and effort where the lesson needs it and shortening or eliminating parts where the students seem to be in command of the concept being stressed. Yes, the teacher should have a general idea of the objectives of the lesson. Certainly the teacher should have available any materials which will be needed. Most importantly the teacher should leave time after the lesson to reflect on it and evaluate its strengths and weaknesses. But the focus of any teaching should be on the students, not on the constraints imposed by any preconceived lesson plan.

(7) Do not use the native language in the classroom: Never, never, never! If our aim is the successful bifurcation of the native and target languages, any use of the native language is by definition counterproductive. Draw a chalkline on the doorsill and proudly use the native language outside the classroom, but create an immersion situation inside.

(8) Do not use textbooks. You know your own students better than any textbook author. Authentic materials are all around you. For example: Record the news from the VOA or the BBC. Videotape CNN or Australian TV. Bring in any expatriate Anglophone in town and have him chat with the students. Have your school subscribe to the “International Herald Tribune” or “Time” or “Newsweek.” Borrow English language videos. If they have subtitles put a book in front of the bottom of the monitor to cover up those subtitles. Buy, with your own money if necessary, paperbacks. After you read them they can be the nucleus of an individualized reading program (each student reads his own book and then reports on it to the class). Have your class keep journals in English, and write their own English to English vocabulary lists. Have the class write their own book.

(9) Do not teach the microskills: reading, writing, speaking, listening. English is one language, indivisible. And English is a living language; one only dissects the dead.

(10) Do not teach. Empower your students to take responsibility for their own learning. This reflects a general trend, especially in North American education, to deemphasize the role of the teacher as the font of all knowledge and provide the students with the means to further their own educative process beyond the classroom. This is called the student-centered classroom (as opposed to the teacher-centered classroom).

Thus Hath Dr. Bland Spoke

On the international plane, a focus on communication is overtaking traditional methodologies. This is reflected in most of the commandments. On the other hand, some of the commandments, i.e. Number 4, were reactions to local controversies. Number 4 was a response to the discussions as to which English represented the standard: British (RP), Midwest American, or even, in the Vietnamese context, Australian English. The answer was none of the above, but rather a Vietinglish comprehensible to the greatest number of non-Vietnamese.
Obviously, no immediate revolution was planned, nor did one occur. The aim, rather, was to present some alternatives and allow them to foment. Someday one of those teachers-in-training will become minister of education, and perhaps he or she will remember Dr. Bland’s seminar and institute some of those reforms.

(Versions of this list have appeared in other publications, including the “WATESOL Journal.”)

Merton L. Bland has worked as a K-12 teacher in the USA; a US foreign service officer in Africa, Asia and Australia; and as an ESL/EFL teacher and teacher trainer in the US, Asia, Africa, and Europe. <>

>By William Donnelly

Two kind of dictionary makers: prescriptive and descriptive.

Prescribers are users of helpful labels telling one what is appropriate in what situations. (Or,more likely, not appropriate.) This is very helpful to foreign speakers and writers.

Descriptive lexicographers work from written excerpts mainly, documenting contexts in which the word has recently occurred in print. And they include words that have a spoken life, too. They avoid judgmental labels. The irdictionaries are helpful with new words, or new meanings for older words.

Since people take the dictionary as authoritative, they are annoyed when they haves een it tabooed for a lifetime and it shows up as a word in the (descriptive) New Merriam Websters International. Say, for example, “disremember.” Ear spellings, like “would of” occur in everyone’s first drafts, but if we don’t catch them, our editors will. So we are talking about talking. Should we waste emotion on “would of” in speech? Among Chinese learners maybe the problem is more like this.

We over-enunciate when we speak slowly. And when we say the particle “a” — as in “a house”, we do not pronounce it schwa (as in the first a sound in “again”), but instead teach our students that it should be pronounced like the “a” sound in “bane.” But in real spoken English we never say “a [long a sound] house.”Or, we may put the “t”sound in “often” — which rarely occurs, at least in American speech. A word like “clothes” now pronounced “close” in American English (a pronunciation that is acknowledged by the Oxford Dictionary as coming into British English) is better elided. Have you ever wondered what a Chinese person was talking about when he said “clo-thes” voicing the “th” sound as the beginning of a separate syllable?

>By Geoffrey Vitale, Quebec, Canada (illustration: Russian MIG pilot, source unknown)

In the days of “secret classrooms”, I learned my Russian, day-in, day-out at the British joint linguists camps in Coulsdon and Wythall. One of the activities was to learn to recognize and understand a wide array of NN Russian speakers (Poles, Czechs, Ukrainians, etc) who were communicating with their bases from planes, tanks, trawlers, etc.

This was done by having us listen to recorded live conversations between, for example, Mig pilots and their control towers; Russian tank commanders communicating with their lieutenants as they rolled through East Berlin…. Much later, working in teacher training, I was emphaziing the problem of numbers, addresses, telephone numbers, etc and how frequently indeed NNS found themselves required to understand numbers – over the phone, in a railway station, a shop, etc. etc.

I devised a number of tapes of conversations using a wide range of accents –“native accents” for the most part — middle class English, cockney, the classless “Michael Caine” accent, Tarheel, Texan, and New England, Irish, Glasgow .. oh yes and a few Indian, Quebecs and Iranian speakers .. all in home-made sketches involving numbers and directions.

The early activities started with repetitions, especially when there was a radical change of accent, and then got up to a more aggressive one-time only speed.The students job was simply to listen and fill in grids.

At the end of each test, we went over the answers, checking for mistakes and misunderstandings orally — and students would reproduce them in the more neutral accent they were actively learning to emulate. It was effective. It also confirmed what I had long suspected — once a students gets used to hearing a range of accents, comprehension accelerates. Obvious.

Of course — just as obvious as realizing that a NNS hearing “non-English” accents every day of his life will soon find his or her way around and recognize them. As someone pointed out, the NNS often spends more time with other NNS than with NS– for reasons that have nothing to do with linguistics.

I would have thought that a more serious problem would be the danger of their adopting the NNS accents they hear and spending their lives sounding like Peter Sellars..! If disheartened, always remember Ludwig Bemelmans, the delightful Austrian writer, and author of the “Madeleine” books, who once claimed that he spoke “five languages … all with an accent.”