Pronunciation refers to the perception and production of the significant sounds of a target language (or any language, in fact) in order to achieve meaning within the context of language use (Seidlhofer 56). To put is more simply, pronunciation is defined as the particular sounds we use in order to derive meaning (AMEP 1). Pronunciation is a vital component of every facet of English, for it is at the forefront of our personal and social lives, it identities us as belonging to a specific community and often times, pronunciation is responsible for our intelligibility (Seidlhofer 56).
Like all other aspects of language, pronunciation has several principle elements that must be followed in order for effective speech to take place: Segmental sounds, stressed and unstressed syllables (suprasegmental sounds), voice quality/and intonation; each of these elements have their own ingredients that need to be followed in order for the recipe to be complete.
Segmental sounds deal with the phonemes, allophones and sound combinations that occur in the English language. Some foreign speakers may have a difficult time articulating some of the sound clusters we have in English. For example, the ending –z sound for some Vietnamese and even Chinese speakers is a difficult task to teach, for this sound seldom appears at the end of any word in their native language. Or the –ea combination is in the word read or lead may pose several obstacles as well. Likewise, the ending –t sound as in “Walmart” is difficult for many Portuguese speakers, for in many areas of Brazil, for example, the ending /t/ sound is pronounced as –ch; thus, Walmart becomes “Wal- march” or cat becomes “catch” (both words, of course, are actual words in English, which, in turn, cause several other problems). By extension, if we look at Spanish, for a moment, and the constant –b and –v sounds, we will see that there is no difference between the two sounds in that language. Thus, vacation, in English, is sometimes pronounced by a native Spanish speaker as “bacation” and vase as base, etc. Moreover, many students have problems with the placement of their tongue/teeth or mouth when saying certain words/letters/combinations. For instance, the word “that” requires the tongue to be placed between he bottom and top of one’s mouth for the beginning “-th” sound; many languages, such as some dialects of Portuguese, do not have “th” sound, and so pronounce “that” as “fat” or “dat.”
Perhaps one of the most arduous tasks ESL teachers face is not only teaching segmented sounds and the articulations needed to make such sounds, but they also have to devote a great deal of time to practicing, repeating and correcting students.
Suprasegmental (stressed/unstressed sounds)
This facet of pronunciation deals with teaching students which syllables in a word are stressed and which ones are not. English is a language based on sounds—stresses and intonation— and thus, for one to speak effectively and to be understood by the common listener, one needs to ensure that he or she stresses the appropriate sounds.
For example, suppose the word is record. How should it be said? Is it record, RECORD, ReCoRd, RECord, REcoRd? A foreign speaker may not know and might, in fact, as it happened with one of my Arabic speakers, that any one, if not more, of these stresses might be spoken. To remedy this, teachers should first teach how with nouns, the first syllable is stressed (REcord) and with verbs, the second (reCORD). After this, students need context to figure out which pronunciation is correct.
Bruce Springsteen has released a new record.
You should record your professor’s lecture.
Likewise, the word permit:
Joe just got his driver’s permit
Don’t permit Joe to eat in class.
Following stressed and unstressed sounds is the idea of intonation, or the pitch (rise and fall) of one’s voice when speaking. For example, suppose this sentence was spoken by someone:
Joe’s new car must’ve cost him a lot of money.
Now, when you first read it, I want you to read it monotone—that is, devoid of inflection and intonation. Sounds robotic, does it not? Now, I want you to read it again with a falling pitch at the end. Which sounds best? The correct way to speak this sentence is the latter—as a falling pitch hints at the end of a sentence or thought. Now consider this:
Are you coming over for dinner?
I want your primal reading to be that of no intonation, your second with a falling and your third, with a rising? Which one sounds best? As a native speaker, we know that a rising pitch should occur at the end, for rising pitch suggests a yes/no response or a possible continuation of a thought.
Thus, when teaching pronunciation, the teacher needs to ensure that all three of these major components are adhered to, for they are not distinct entities, but rather, are all related to each other and ought to be considered simultaneously.
By Robert J. Platt, M.A.