Brown D. - Helping ESL Students Master American English Pronunciation

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Master American English Pronunciation

Text of Brown D. - Helping ESL Students Master American English Pronunciation

  • Helping ESL Students Master American English Pronunciation

    The purpose of the guide is to alert ESL and English tutors to the importance of improving pronunciation of ESL students and assist them in helping ESL students master American pronunciation by providing an insight into the problems adult learners face learning English pronunciation. It will also offer some of the techniques to deal with the problems. It is intended for tutors and ESL instructors with little or no specialized training in teaching pronunciation to ESL students. The following is a summarization of the personal experience of teaching and the review of the current state of teaching Pronunciation to Adult ESL students. First, we need to clarify the term 'pronunciation'. The term is sometimes understood as referring only to the 'correct' pronunciation of individual sounds and words in isolation (so-called segmentals). However, in the words of one ESL instructor -Pronouncing separate words in a sentence correctly leads to poor pronunciation! In this guide 'pronunciation will be used in a more comprehensive way, to include prosody, or functional intelligibility, comprising the following interacting phonological aspects (so-called suprasegmentals): the stress patterns of phrases, the interaction of sounds between ending, and beginnings of words, and the resulting pronunciation, rhythm, and intonation of these phrases.

    I Know English Why Nobody Understands Me? As most experienced ESL teachers are aware, pronunciation is the area of language learning most resistant to change or improvement. By the time ESL students begin our program, they have probably already developed speech habits which have fossilized and become progressively harder to unlearn or change without serious and concerted effort. This problem is often compounded by the students' own lack of awareness of their communication and pronunciation problems. They may well acknowledge in a general way that they have trouble being understood, but they do not know what their specific problems are and have no idea how to improve their comprehensibility. While some may focus on their inability to differentiate /l/ from /r/, /p/ from/b/, or /i/ from /i:/, it is in fact much more likely that their overall patterns of intonation, rhythm, and stress are the real culprits in their communication difficulties. These suprasegmental problems affect not only their own speaking skills, but also affect their comprehension of native speakers. Practically all ESL students, even those who have taught English in their countries, initially have significant difficulty understanding American English and making themselves understood because they have not acquired the English pronunciation pattern adequately. Such students may be stigmatized due to discriminatory attitudes towards accents among segments of the general public, which can lead to frustration with personal


  • success, dropping out of college, and in some cases, even termination of further efforts to succeed in the American society on the whole.

    Just to give an example, here is a quote from an adult student sharing his frustration:"Whenever I speak to a person in America, they keep asking me "What? What?" I have to repeat my sentence again and again. Finally they say "Ah-ha!" and then say my sentence, using exactly my words! It is very humiliating. I know my words and grammar are good, but nobody understands me, just because of my pronunciation

    The Goal is Communication

    As such, pronunciation could be detrimental for the ESL students success in the American society and may condemn the student to a less desired social, academic and work advancement. A number of our students, even having completed the ESL program, realize that they fail on the communication level and come back to school looking for additional help with pronunciation.

    According the study of American undergraduate reaction to the communication skills of foreign teaching assistants (Hinofotis and Baily, 1980), the fault which impairs the communication process in ESL learners most severely is pronunciation, rather than vocabulary or grammar. The arguments presented in the study make pronunciation instruction all the more important in improving the communicative competence of ESL learners.

    The current focus on communicative approaches to ESL instruction and the concern for building communication skills in an increasingly diverse workplace are renewing interest in the role that pronunciation plays in adult ESL students' overall communicative competence. As a result, pronunciation is emerging from its often-marginalized place in adult ESL instruction (Kuo, 1999).

    The Historical Perspective

    From the historical perspective pronunciation instruction tends to be linked to the instructional method being used (Celce-Murcia, Brinton, & Goodwin, 1996). In the grammar-translation method of the past, pronunciation was almost irrelevant and therefore seldom taught. In the audio-lingual method, which some ESL instructors still adhere to, learners spent hours in class or in the language lab listening to and repeating sounds and sound combinations that serve to distinguish words from one another (later those became known as segmentals). Segmentals are the basic inventory of distinctive sounds and the way that they combine to form a spoken language. Pronunciation instruction has often concentrated on the mastery of those segmentals through discrimination and production of target sounds via drills consisting of minimal pairs. This method of teaching pronunciation, although having its own merits, has proved to be rather ineffective with adult learners (ibid).


  • The most relevant features of pronunciationstress, rhythm, adjustments/reductions, logical stress, and intonationplay a greater role in English communication than the individual sounds themselves (Wong, 1993). Therefore, teaching speech from the perspective of suprasegmentals seems indispensable for the purpose of achieving real communication. Learning pronunciation should not be limited to finding primary stress and comparing individual vowel and consonant sounds in a given word, as has often been the case with pronunciation learning in the past. Focusing on individual vowel and consonant sounds is only the first step in learning to speak and understand English. With the emergence of more holistic, communicative methods and approaches to ESL instruction, pronunciation is addressed within the context of real communication. The suprasegmentals transcend the level of individual sound production. They extend across segmentals and are usually produced unconsciously by native speakers and thus are often overlooked when teaching ESL. Since suprasegmental elements provide crucial context and support (they determine meaning) for segmental production, they are assuming a more prominent place in pronunciation instruction. Although in recent years new materials have been developed that emphasize prosodic factors, and despite the fact that some instructors are aware of the need for suprasegmental instruction (Breitkreutz, et al., 2001), many aspects of current pronunciation instruction, to a large extent, derive from speech pathology, with a strong focus on segmentals. Thus, this approach to teaching pronunciation is especially inappropriate in a mixed language class, where the range in need for segmental work is considerable. ESL students will have different requirements, depending on their first languages. Prosodic factors, on the other hand, are likely to have greater importance for a diverse group of students. All ESL learners, without exception, will benefit to the highest degree from an appropriate study of American English stress, rhythm, adjustments/reductions, logical stress, and intonation. Furthermore, research suggests that pronunciation instruction involving these suprasegmentals is also more likely to transfer to spontaneously produced speech than instruction focused on segmentals (Derwing, Munro, & Wiebe, 1998; Elliott, 1997). There are various contributing factors besides the native language, such as age, educational background, experiences with pronunciation instruction, aptitude and motivation, general English proficiency level, etc., that can influence the learning and teaching of pronunciation skills (Celce-Murcia, Brinton, & Goodwin, 1996; Gillette, 1994; Graham, 1994; Pennington, 1994). The pronunciation of any one learner might be affected by a combination of these factors. The key is to be aware of their existence so that they may be considered in creating realistic and effective pronunciation goals and development plans for the learners. Teaching pronunciation should include all of the above-mentioned considerations, factors, and components and not just sounds and presentation skills. Limited


  • pronunciation skills can undermine learners' self-confidence, restrict social interactions, negatively influence estimations of a speaker's credibility and abilities, and limit our students chances for success on the whole (also see Morley, 1998). Help Is on the Way ESL students need to receive such instruction and tutoring so that they have a clear sense where their problems lie. This means that ESL instructors and tutors need the knowledge and skills to provide pronunciation assistance and instruction that will be effective. They ought to be able to recognize the specific difficulty that a certain language background imposes on the individuals perception and production of the English sounds or intonation. As matters stand, pronunciation is one of the most difficult parts of a language for our ESL students to master and one of the least favorite topics for teachers to address in the classroom. Nevertheless, with correct approach, pronunciation can play an important