Saturday, September 02, 2006

Teaching Pronunciation (10)


What sounds should be focused upon? Some suggest that only those sounds that are not common between English and the native language of the learner should be focused upon for special treatment in a pronunciation lesson. Some others suggest that “when an individual begins the study of a foreign language, the new phonemes are often immediately obvious to him, and he, therefore, tends to learn them rather quickly” (Prator, Jr., and Robinett 1972: xiii).
It may be helpful to make use of a contrastive study of the phonetics of English and the native language of the second or foreign language learner. Through this study we will identify the sounds of English that are not found in the native phonetic and phonemic system of the second or foreign language learner.

Sounds that are used as allophones in the native language may be used as phonemes in English. There may be differences in the number and kinds of phonemes between English and the source language of the learner. Even if all the phonemes of English are found in the source language of the learner, it is possible that their distributional patterns may not match those of the phonemes used in English.

It is also possible that the phonemes of English may occur in combinations that are unfamiliar in the source language. English and the native language of the learner may have similar phonemes at different points of articulation.

However, such a contrastive study may or may not be available to you. If you have to prepare such a contrastive study on your own, you will need more skills in linguistics than you may have right now. Making a contrast between English and the native language of the learner should lead you to set up a hierarchy of possible errors in pronunciation. Otherwise mere contrast will be only a futile exercise. Under such circumstances what shall we do?

Scholars have found out that there are “large categories of speech difficulties which all or many” learners of English have in common. In an exhaustive study of errors committed by a variety of second or foreign language learners of English, Prator, Jr., and Robinett (1972) found out that substitution of one phoneme for anther was relatively infrequent in the speech of their students. Only a few such substitutions—/iy/ for /I/, /I/ for /iy/, /o/ for /ow/, /a/ for /∂/, /s/ for /z/, /t/ for /d/, /d/ for /ð/, etc.— accounted for the great majority of cases.

Most others, while theoretically possible or even likely, were actually quite uncommon and certainly could not be regarded as a problem of major importance. We found our students having no trouble with/m/ or the diphthongs /ay/, /aw/, etc. even in those where the mispronunciation should have resulted in giving the word a different meaning bit as /biyt/ (beat) instead of /bIt/, the context made the intended meaning quite clear. In other words, the substitution seldom seemed to result in a misunderstanding . . . Our students appeared simply to fail to understand a word much more often than they mistook it for some other word. We did not understand them a great deal more frequently than we misunderstood them . . . When an individual begins the study of a foreign language, the new phonemes are often immediately obvious to him, and he therefore tends to learn them rather quickly . . . But he may never notice or reproduce certain other features of the new sound system, unless these are pointed out to him . . . Our own solution has been to regard unintelligibility not as the result of phonemic substitution, but as the cumulative effect of many little departures from the phonetic norms of the language.

The fact that any phonetic abnormality can contribute to unintelligibility does not mean, either, that all departures from the norm should be treated as though they were of equal importance.” (Prator, Jr., and Robinett 1972).

In general, you should identify the main pronunciation problems that your students have. Pronunciation problems will vary greatly from one country to another. TESOL teachers may already have prepared and published a list of common errors of pronunciation found in a particular country. If not, keep a diary of errors in pronunciation committed by your students and prepare a general list which you can use to develop remedial drills.

The most common errors include the following: 1. Difficulty in pronouncing sounds which do not exist in the student’s language. For example, the sound / ð / in the, and / ∂ / in bird. 2. Confusion of similar sounds, for example, /i:/ in eat or /I/ in it, or /b/ and /p/. 3. Use of simple vowels instead of diphthongs, for example, use of /i:/ instead of /i /. 4. Difficulty in pronouncing consonant clusters, for example, desks, fifth. 5. Tendency to give all syllables equal stress, and flat intonation (Doff 1988:112).


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