Pronunciation: the nightmare of all language learners

DISCLAIMER: this entry contains a number of words in pink. The reason they are highlighted so is that while this entry is mainly directed at fellow teachers, English learners might benefit from it as well and might wonder about the idiomatic expressions or cultural references made within. At the end of the article there is a handy list of the aforementioned expressions complete with analysis.

I was flipping through an Assimil book for learning Arabic… OK, one moment, let’s rewind. Some weeks ago, a student whose corporate-paid course was ending asked me about maybe keeping in touch and having private lessons. Naturally, my eyes became like this:

Image by Tumisu from Pixabay

She then asked me if I thought Assimil books might be an effective way to learn a language and if we might use them in our course. Now, I have since done the customary google search to bring me up to speed on what on earth Assimil books are, as despite having been a language teacher for 15 years and having used a variety of language learning books in my lesson planning, these were completely foreign to me.

You never stop learning.

So Assimil books are pretty much self study books (possibly a good reason why I wouldn’t really come across them in my profession), have a rather simple layout, rely heavily on repetition (that’s always a plus) and tend to combine the functions of both a phrasebook and a grammar reference book. All in all, not a bad investment of time and money, at least at a first glance.

However, to evaluate their effectiveness, I needed to test them myself. I couldn’t very well tell my student: “Sure, you’ll learn a language with this!” based purely on the publisher’s promises and wishful thinking. I found one of their books, called Arabic with Ease. I couldn’t help seeing the word OXYMORON!” flashing in my head. Surely, nothing about learning Arabic can be with ease, can it?

So, about 15 minutes ago, I was skimming the introduction in which the authors admit that while written Arabic might look like a nightmare, and pretty much is, it has the advantage of each symbol corresponding to only one sound. UNLIKE. ENGLISH.

To stress their point, they decided to add this lovely example:

…Though still coughing, she bought at a bookshop near the old watering trough in Slough a novel by Meredith; she went through it from cover to cover, but found it rough going

G. Sczeyn

Well played, Assimil, well played.

Indeed, the way English pronunciation appears to have no logical connection to its spelling is possibly one of the most mindboggling aspects about the language, especially to my predominantly Italian students. It will not come as a surprise that after learning that “through“, “though” and “roughly” sound completely different from each other, students often ask me to explain the rules of English pronunciation. Cue all the lessons spent practicing phonemes again and again, with students puzzling over the phonetic symbols they find on their books and me stressing the importance of listening, listening, listening.

Cartoon me reading out the infamous phrase, an excellent example of how ough appears to sound differently in each of those words!
My cat, Ziggy, offering himself as a model for æ as in fæt kæt.

Regarding the effectiveness of Assimil in learning Arabic with ease, I suppose that shall be a tale for another time.

My attention deficit surely but swiftly kicked in and I instead started pondering over how I usually teach pronunciation. While I undeniably will have to dedicate some time teaching the usual basic phonemes such as æ, eɪ, ɒ and the lot, I am not the biggest fan of teaching phonetic symbols to students. If only because it feels redundant to teach them something they won’t need to use once they actually want to speak. It does help with classifying words by minimal pairs and such, so I do dwell a bit on the vowels and the unreliability of English spelling. After all, the only safe way to learn how to pronounce a word in English is to hear someone else say it! (We live in an era where dictionaries are online, free, and come with audio samples! How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world, that has such people in ‘t! I always encourage students to make use of the tools they have available, especially those that come for free.)

However, once tackled those simple, yet essential sounds, I move on because, unfortunately, another characteristic about spoken English is that words do not sound the same in a group as they do when pronounced individually. Which brings me to my next pet peeve.

If you teach English as a second language and you aren’t lucky enough to work in a school, odds are that you’ll find most of your jobs through a language school. And many of them will have their own blended learning course. For those who don’t work in the sector, blended learning is when lessons with a teacher are combined with individual work, usually using an online platform, with listening tasks, grammar notes and lots and lots of repetitive exercises. I am a big fan of blended learning, to be honest, and even with the course plans I design myself, I always make sure to assign a series of tasks for the student to do in between lessons with me. Which is why my previously mentioned student wanting to use an Assimil book would not be an issue.

However, here is my problem with how listening and pronunciation is dealt with in many of these courses. Starting from the assumption that the students are beginners, they have a listening task in which the student can read the text and hear a native English speaker saying it. Which is great, and I approve, but is not a listening task. It’s a pronunciation task. And my second issue is this: while I might understand the importance of enunciating each single word when presenting the text the first time, I absolutely abhor the notion of making students repeat a sentence read in that way.

Let’s give some practical examples, shall we?

The unnaturally slow way nobody will speak to you, ever.

Here’s an example of how nobody ever speaks. However, making a student repeat over and over this type of speech will alter their expectations of how words are pronounced in English. Which I honestly believe does more damage than good.

While I’m all for learning the pronunciation of individual words (online dictionaries! Yay!), I believe we should be teaching students what to actually expect from English speakers right from the start.

Speak slowly, but naturally.

This is how I think a beginner should be introduced to a full sentence in English. I make sure I speak slowly but try not to fall into the error of giving the student the wrong impression that words are separated when we speak, simply because they are not. The fact that this kind of exercise is always accompanied with the transcript of what is being said means that the student will actually start training his ear to capture clusters of words rather than strain to look for single ones. Which is exactly what we want them to do.

Students should be aware that articles and prepositions aren’t usually stressed but rather implied, they should know that words ending with a consonant will often attach to the vowel that follows them, so that they don’t end up wondering “Asa? what is asa?” but rather deduce that it’s “as I”.

Audio samples of intermediate level can increase in speed

As students gain confidence and experience, they will expect people to speak a little faster, rather than waste their time. Which is why when I hear what are supposedly A2 or B1 level audio samples sound exactly like the unnaturally slow one, I cannot wrap my mind around it. Speed is not an issue anymore, length is. The way we speak to students should progressively get more natural, however we need to remember listening to someone speak in a foreign language requires a higher level of attention, which can be quite tiring.

Yas, girl, speak! Speak!

Once we reach what I would call a natural, but not neurotic pitch, we should increase the length of what the listening tasks demand. Not faster, just more! We tend to add follow up comments, or more detail to what we say the more we master a language, and the listening tasks should reflect that as well.

And finally, once someone reaches the level of confidence that allows them to hear someone speak naturally for 50 minutes, they should challenge themselves with the neurotic speakers, or in other words, what the entertainment industry passes for cleverness: speaking really fast.

Sherlock, BBC – Sherlock Holmes being smarter than everyone else and needing his mouth to keep up with the speed of his thoughts, also speaks faster than anyone else in this scene.
Gilmore Girls, Warner Bros – While everyone on the show speaks quickly, Lorelai in particular is the fastest talker, highlighting her wit and quirkiness.
The West Wing, Warner Bros – Considered the creator of the “walk and talk”, these characters not only talk fast because they are smart but also to highlight how hectic life is when you work in the White House.
House M.D., NBC Universal – What if Sherlock Holmes was a doctor? That is the question being answered by the show, and just as in Cumberbatch’s rendition of Sherlock, fast talking is a sign of extreme intelligence and fast deductive skills.

Now, imagine someone who while learning English has grown accustomed to the unnaturally slow way of speaking trying to watch any of these shows.

EXACTLY.

In a nutshell: pronunciation practice can only be done by listening native speakers and mimicking what they do. Some initial focus on the complexity of English sounds is always necessary, but once over that particular hurdle, the focus should be on making learners get used to natural speech or they will always struggle with listening, even after studying for years. Listening is key. Listening is gold. You will get nowhere without a healthy dose of listening.

Notes:

to flip trough – this phrasal verb is used when looking quickly though a book, a magazine, a notebook, etc. The verb flip indicates a quick movement, so it gives an accurate description of when you go from page to page without spending much time on what’s in them.
She flipped through the magazine without paying much attention to it.
I quickly flipped through my notes trying to find what the professor wanted from me.

customary – an adjective we use to describe something that is done habitually.
It is customary to have cake when celebrating someone’s birthday.

to bring someone up to speed – this idiom is used when you give someone the latest / most recently updated information about something.
I missed the last couple of meetings because I was on holiday, but Sally brought me up to speed.

what on earth – this expression is used to show surprise.
What on earth is happening here?
I don’t know what on earth you are talking about.

can’t / couldn’t very well do something – this expression is used to say that you can’t do something because it would be unacceptable.
I can’t very well tell your parents that we don’t want them to visit!

wishful thinking – this expression indicated that you talk about something that is quite unlikely or at least very uncertain as if it were absolutely possible to happen in the future.
The idea that the enemy will just surrender immediately and not fight back is nothing more than wishful thinking.

oxymoron – a noun indicating that two words that are being used together either have or appear to have opposite meaning.
The genre of ‘historical fiction’ is an oxymoron to begin with.

“I skimmed it”

to skim – this verbhas more than one meaning, of course, but in this context we use it to say that we read something quickly in order to understand the main points, without paying attention to the details.
I’ve only skimmed through the contract; I haven’t read it carefully yet.
Didn’t you get my email, explaining the situation?

well played – this piece of slang is used to praise someone’s performance, usually in a sport or game. It has a similar meaning to touché.
A: You realize that I just beat you at chess and in the argument about who would be a better president.
B: I know. Well played.

mindboggling – or mind- boggling, an adjective used to describe something extremely surprising and difficult to understand.
The complexity of some of the legal issues surrounding case histories is almost mindboggling at times.

surely but swiftly – this is a tricky one! So, the correct expression would be slowly but surely, an expression indicating that something might be done or happening in a slow and gradual way, but with definite results. However, today we also use the expression surely but swiftly, with the adjective swift meaning “fast” or “quick”, to emphasize something happening quickly and still with definite results. The conjunction “but” is being misused as there is no contradiction between the two words, however this is how slang is born!
The editors all know their sales figures are surely but swiftly going down.
My subsequent job search surely but swiftly taught me a hard lesson.

to dwell on something – to think or talk about something for a long time or for a long period after it happens.
We shouldn’t dwell on the past.

The Tempest (2010) Touchstone Pictures/Miramax films

How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world, that has such people in ‘t! – This is a line from William Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Miranda, the character saying these words, has lived on a secluded island with only her father and their slave for company for most of her life, and speaks these words when meeting for the first time a large group of strangers. The line is often quoted when wanting to express surprise at society or mankind’s progress.
The Tempest, Act V, Scene I

pet peeveslang, used to indicate something that really annoys you. Here is a link to a list that will surely clarify the concept: 76 Incredibly Accurate Pet Peeves That Will Drive. You. Nuts.
Weak coffee is one of my pet peeves.

Music Video for the song “Against All Odds (Take a Look at Me Now)” by Phil Collins

odds are – the noun odds refers to the probability that something will or won’t happen, so the expression usually introduces things that are likely to happen. If something is against the odds, then it’s not likely to happen. Phil Collins’ 80s hit single Against All Odds (Take a look at me now) for example is about a man imploring his lover to return to him despite knowing that it’s not likely to happen.
If you drive a car all your life, the odds are that you’ll have an accident at some point.
The odds are stacked against a woman succeeding in the business.

Photo by Right Light on Pexels.com

in a nutshell – an idiom used to introduce a summary, a brief recap including only the main points.
“What’s wrong with your car?” “In a nutshell, everything.”
The new organogram is overly complicated, but to put it in a nutshell, we still report to the same manager.

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