I was asked recently “What is an intelligent approach to teaching second language pronunciation?” A disarmingly simple question which I perhaps unwisely attempted to answer…. though very much in the spirit of an ongoing and open-ended inquiry. I’m sure all language teachers have their implicit or explicit beliefs and assumptions about this, and here are some of mine. Feel free to push against them and improve them.
- Pronunciation is a whole-body thing, not just a head thing. If you (the teacher) learn to find the sound in your body (ie mouth, throat, tongue lips etc) you will be much better able to understand the student’s specific difficulty and help them, at the point of need.
- The second follows from the first, let your teaching be guided by local inquiry into the problem as it manifests here and now with this student, rather than be guided by too much prior knowledge and ‘what worked last time’. Learn your way into the problem, using your own body as the drawing board for your insight. Start afresh with the problem in front of you. Even the way you do that will instruct the student.
- Having said that pronunciation is a whole body thing, to be taught and experienced physically rather than intellectually, it is also useful to remember that pronunciation permeates all four skills. It is not just a speaking thing. Even when we think language we probably do so with some form of inner pronunciation.
- Teach the sound (ie the physical posture, that the student can recall physically) not the (phonemic) symbol. When the sound is really physically experienced and heard, the symbol will fall into place. Conversely students cannot easily remember a symbol if the sound it is supposed to represent is still a mystery. That way the symbols also become a mystery (which is often what happens). The same goes for sound spelling relationship. Yes, it is wobbly, but much less so if the pronunciation is securely and physically experienced.
- Use a phonemic chart that catches all the magnificence of pronunciation in one simple gestalt, a chart that is uncluttered, and that has intelligent design: information about how sounds re made that is built into the layout. You probably expected me to say that.
- Such a gestalt also illustrate the holistic nature of the phonemic set of any language: the sounds all affect each other, and need to be learnt as an emerging whole, rather than in a linear sequence. You cannot really prioritise sounds (as you perhaps can for words and grammar) They are all need from the first moment.
- Integrate pronunciation fully into all language activities. This is not conventional, but nor is it very difficult. And such integration gathers momentum. It has to important consequences: You don’t need special ‘pron materials’, you just use whatever is going on, and you no longer have a ‘pron slot’ because work is done at the point of need, not later when the point has passed and the ‘wrong’ pronunciation internalised.
- Actively exploit the Inner Workbench (as I call it) which is the power of listening to our inner ear and our inner voice as an inner practice and rehearsal, that is in a sense closer to the source, and not yet quite as tainted by the grip of the mother tongue muscular setting.
- Discover ways to thoroughly enjoy it, especially the mistakes, the challenges and the frustrations… And use pronunciation to upgrade every student utterance: first get the right words in the right order, but that is not yet ‘correct’ because then make it sound really striking…