Pronouncing Stupid

I’m currently teaching students on a summer programme largely from the Far East. This has placed different demands on my teaching – particularly in pronunciation – which is understandable: for Chinese speakers, the sounds of English couldn’t be any more foreign!Pronunciation.JPG

A lot of teachers I’ve met can be quite adverse to pronunciation. Many don’t demand exact pronunciation from their students – as long as the word is understandable, it’s enough, they say…

The issue there is that the vast majority of teachers are well-trained in the art of understanding poorly pronounced English. So, what happens when a student meets a regular native-speaker whose experience of speaking with foreigners goes as far as British holiday resorts in Spain? You’ve guessed it – communication breakdown.

In my EAP pre-sessional course yesterday I had two extreme situations of communication breakdown due to inaccurate pronunciation.

One extremity was when I thought the student was telling me about her online account for her Nintendo Wee – but she was just saying “contact with”…. Luckily, with a bit of drilling, she happily came round to pronouncing the phrase correctly. Un point pour le teacher!

The other extreme was a student who said something which unfortunately I didn’t understand at all, no matter how many times it was repeated. With the other students in the class, we eventually figured out the word was ‘rare’, albeit it with rolling r’s, a short /a/ and an additional schwa at the end to top it off. So, I modelled the word and drilled it. Didn’t work. So I tried it again. Still didn’t work…

At this point, I would normally recognise the silly feeling both me and the student would be feeling and call it a day, perhaps recommending to practise it at home. However, that wouldn’t solve the students pronunciation problem.

They say timing is everything and luckily the day before I had read a great article by Adrian Underhill on pronunciation ( where I found the missing link!

In short, when students pronounce words incorrectly, it’s usually due to the fact they don’t know how to shape the mouth, where to place their tongue and how to position their lips. What they’re missing is the mechanics of pronunciation!

So, I went through it with the student, explaining how to shape the lips (somewhat like a kiss in this case) and to feel where the tongue should lie in the mouth to make the correct vowel sound. Hoping for the best… Lord behold, she did it!

The student, however, pointed out the fact she felt pretty stupid when pronouncing the word, albeit correctly. So, I got her to teach me a word in Arabic. We went through the mechanics of the mouth, drilled it and eventually I pronounced it correctly…. but I also felt very silly – I didn’t know some languages gargle their vowels!

With the rest of the class, we came to the conclusion that you’ve got to feel a little bit silly in order to make sure your pronouncing the word correctly. My class also reckons the feeling will disappear with time…. let’s wait and see.

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