Racist pronunciation work

I’ve never been a fan of pron work. Back in the day, students learned the symbols then spent hours in the lab listening to natives and covering themselves in saliva as they wrestled with their tongues.

I’ve always felt that it’s something students need to work on at home. I’ve done the symbols and transcription, motor skill activities, recorded pron, analysed pron, used Soundcloud, then all the other stuff like chunking, stress etc etc BUT when it comes to L1 interference I have a problem.

When I used to teach in a language school, I had groups of eager students and did pron sections of books. This went down well but rarely was suitable as about 60% of the class could do whichever sound it was. As for activities, I did drilling, eliciting, correcting, practice, games and also researched which countries had which problems (also on the CELTA) and highlighted them and gave tips.

With 1-2-1s and monolingual groups things are different. I find that students really don’t like being told their pron is bad and they REALLY don’t like t when you say it’s due to L1 interference. 1 local teacher even said I was being prejudice. Probably because he used ERRRR between every other word and that had been what I was discussing with a colleague.

Other private clients have just not wanted to work on their problems. I think for these reasons:

1) They don’t see pron as important.

2) They don’t think they have a problem as they sound the same as the other locals.

3) They take pron correction very personally. They wouldn’t get so upset if I said they added ED at the end of every irregular past tense verb.

4) If they admit they have a problem, they lose face.

5) They see it as an attack on their L1 and some countries, like France, really love their language.

For these reasons, I am very reluctant to go into too much pron work with clients or groups. I just raise their awareness, show them a video of the motor skills, give them some practice and then move on. Yes, they really need more and have to put in the effort but it’s probably not going to happen.

C’est la vie!!!


6 thoughts on “Racist pronunciation work

  1. Hi Phil,

    Here in Brazil everyone (my students at least) seems to think they have a very strong accent that needs working on immediately. This is depsite the fact that nine time sout of ten they ar perfectly understandable and mainly need the odd thing tweeked.

    My apprach then, is just to work on certain areas that harm understanding; -ed endings, a couple of intonation patterns, and a few phonemes. The rest of the time I spend telling them how great their pronunciation is.

    One thing that I have found, though, is that working on other areas of pronunciation really helps some students to improve their listening skills as they are aware of some of the things they need to pay attention to. I preent this to students by telling them it is pronunciation, but to help listening rather than speaking.

    • Hi Stephen,

      I like that approach of Pron to help listening.

      I had a recent private student who wanted to work on pron so I warned him that I would be totally honest about his abilities but give help on how to improve. Yet, he still wasn’t happy about being told things were wrong and wouldn’t put in the work to get upto scratch. I do think the latter is pretty hard though, I mean, how do you know you’re doing OK everyday without a native helper?

  2. I used to start pronunciation points off with the following:

    You can have the most vocabulary, the best grammar and the quickest speech, but if your pronunciation is incomprehensible, none of that matters.

    Usually it was a bit of an overstatement for the majority of students, whose pronunciation did not interfere that much with communication, but it made the point.

  3. Learners need to understand that correcting their pronunciation is not a criticism of how they speak.

    Do not say: “That’s wrong. Say it like this.” Instead try: “I can understand you and/or I can guess what you are trying to say but someone from North America will not.”

    The danger is that if they mispronounce a word they won’t recognize it in natural speech. If a learner insists that PO.liz is an acceptable pronunciation of “police”, then his or her ears will never be trained to hear to hear the sound: po.LEEs. Correct pronunciation will help them be more effective listeners. For that reason listening to chunks of native speech can be a real “ear” opener!

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