P is for Pronunciation

Ken Beatty Dr. Ken Beatty

The best gift I ever received was three large boxes of books. My much-older cousin, Donald, was a doctoral student in oceanography and was due to spend the better part of a year far from our homes in Vancouver, Canada, sailing in the Russian arctic. Before he left, he piled about 300 paperback science-fiction novels and short-story collections into boxes and deposited them at my feet with the words, “I think you will enjoy these.”

I was 12, it was the first day of summer vacation, and I was hooked. Over the next lazy months and into the fall, I read obsessively.

I finished them all.

The consequences, I realize now, were profound. My reading speed and vocabulary certainly increased. My imagination was sparked, as was my critical thinking: “How could that alien dinosaur find anything to eat on that dusty moon?!” But one small casualty of the epic reading binge was my pronunciation.

When any language learner acquires vocabulary, there can be mismatches between hearing and comprehension. This is extremely common when we mishear song lyrics, such as the lines of the Bob Dylan song: “The answer my friend, is blowin’ in the wind.” which some have misheard as “The ants are my friends, blowin’ in the wind.”

This type of error points to the mental mechanisms our brains try to employ to make sense of what we hear, approximating new strings of sounds like a smartphone app to find the closest pronunciation that provides meaning. However, in my case, my error was typical of those who learn new vocabulary through reading. For some reason, I had read the word robot over and over, mentally pronouncing it as row-but (IPA / roʊ bʌt /) rather than the standard (for my local Canadian dialect) robot, row-bought (IPA / roʊ bɑt /). Through my adolescence, no one corrected me or, if they did, I paid them no mind.

The blame is not exclusively mine. In large part, it has to do with the irrational nature of English pronunciation. Variations occur to such an extent that it’s questionable whether or not we should teach many of them. In 1922, a Dutch writer by the name of G. Nolst Trenité compiled about 800 challenging words into one poem that he called The Chaos. Most native English speakers have difficulty getting through the poem without making a dozen or more errors. Try it yourself, reading the following 13 lines aloud at a brisk pace (the full poem is further below):

Dearest creature in creation,
Study English pronunciation.
I will teach you in my verse
Sounds like corpse, corps, horse, and worse.
I will keep you, Suzy, busy,
Make your head with heat grow dizzy.
Tear in eye, your dress will tear.
So shall I! Oh hear my prayer.
Just compare heart, beard, and heard,
Dies and diet, lord and word,
Sword and sward, retain and Britain.
(Mind the latter, how it’s written.)

Even with the assistance of the rhyming portions, pronouncing the poem correctly is still a challenge and surprisingly typical of the pronunciation hurdles that learners need to leap over to communicate successfully.

How can teachers help? It begins with understanding the complex nature of pronunciation.

First, as seen with the Bob Dylan example, the brain has to understand what is being heard and match the sounds to meaningful words. Part of this is deciding what is significant in pronunciation. For example, some Asian languages have a different perception of the significance of r and l when they listen and speak. Other languages, and even other English dialects, feature other differences. In addition, native English speakers routinely drop sounds at the start, middle, or end of words, often blending them together or changing sounds so that a simple question like What’s up? becomes Wassup?

Once the sound is understood, there are a variety of physiological issues that go into pronunciation. These include processes that occur in the throat with the control of air, with shaping the mouth, and through arranging the tongue and lips. For students whose languages do not include the same consonant and vowel sounds, there is a learning curve to control the organs of speech. There are additionally cultural issues, such as a reluctance to show the tongue during the pronunciation of l sounds.

Here are five tips to help learners.

1. Separate pronunciation from other lessons. Too often, teachers will correct grammar, usage, and pronunciation together, leading to criticisms like, “That’s the wrong word, and not the right part of speech, and you’re saying it wrong.” Make pronunciation its own lesson.

2. Listen to decide when a student’s errors are simple one-time mistakes or more systematic pronunciation errors that need to be remediated. Let simple mistakes slide so you can focus on the more important errors.

3. Consider when to use implicit and explicit correction. Implicit correction involves repeating what the student has said, but with the correct pronunciation. Explicit involves explaining why the pronunciation is wrong.

4. Use visual aids to make the learning memorable. These might include a chart of a cutaway view of the mouth, tongue, and teeth to show where pronunciation occurs. A colleague used to bring his son’s toy hammer and toy pliers to the classroom. He used the hammer to beat out the rhythm and intonation of sentences on the desks and threatened to use the pliers to pull out students’ tongues when they failed to pronounce l sounds effectively.

5. Instead of always focusing on what is wrong, take time to praise the weakest students when they pronounce something correctly. This shifts students from thinking that they have poor pronunciation to the idea that they have problems pronouncing some words and, with practice, can improve.

I’m an example! After several decades, I’ve learned to pronounce robot!

Tasks for Teachers

1. Ask students to choose a short piece of writing that interests them and that is appropriate to their age and level. Have them record it, checking their pronunciation, and rerecording it until they are satisfied that it is their best effort. Ask them to check it with peers before sharing it with you or the class.

2. Ask students to find a recorded piece of dialogue, such as a speech, and record themselves reading it. Ask them to compare their pronunciation to that of the recording in the same way. Ask them to check with peers.

Tasks for Learners

1. Read the poem The Chaos by G. Nolst Trenité in a group. Help each other by first underlining the words you already know and know how to pronounce, and then teach them to others in the group. Some words, like Melpomene and Terpsichore (goddesses of tragedy and dance, respectively) are uncommon, but you can look up the pronunciation anyway.

The Chaos
by G. Nolst Trenité

Dearest creature in creation,
Study English pronunciation.
I will teach you in my verse
Sounds like corpse, corps, horse, and worse.
I will keep you, Suzy, busy,
Make your head with heat grow dizzy.
Tear in eye, your dress will tear.
So shall I! Oh hear my prayer.
Just compare heart, beard, and heard,
Dies and diet, lord and word,
Sword and sward, retain and Britain.
(Mind the latter, how it’s written.)
Now I surely will not plague you
With such words as plaque and ague.
But be careful how you speak:
Say break and steak, but bleak and streak;
Cloven, oven, how and low,
Script, receipt, show, poem, and toe.
Hear me say, devoid of trickery,
Daughter, laughter, and Terpsichore,
Typhoid, measles, topsails, aisles,
Exiles, similes, and reviles;
Scholar, vicar, and cigar,
Solar, mica, war and far;
One, anemone, Balmoral,
Kitchen, lichen, laundry, laurel;
Gertrude, German, wind and mind,
Scene, Melpomene, mankind.
Billet does not rhyme with ballet,
Bouquet, wallet, mallet, chalet.
Blood and flood are not like food,
Nor is mould like should and would.
Viscous, viscount, load and broad,
Toward, to forward, to reward.
And your pronunciation’s OK
When you correctly say croquet,
Rounded, wounded, grieve and sieve,
Friend and fiend, alive and live.
Ivy, privy, famous; clamour
And enamour rhyme with hammer.
River, rival, tomb, bomb, comb,
Doll and roll and some and home.
Stranger does not rhyme with anger,
Neither does devour with clangour.
Souls but foul, haunt but aunt,
Font, front, wont, want, grand, and grant,
Shoes, goes, does. Now first say finger,
And then singer, ginger, linger,
Real, zeal, mauve, gauze, gouge and gauge,
Marriage, foliage, mirage, and age.
Query does not rhyme with very,
Nor does fury sound like bury.
Dost, lost, post and doth, cloth, loth.
Job, nob, bosom, transom, oath.
Though the differences seem little,
We say actual but victual.
Refer does not rhyme with deafer.
Feoffer does, and zephyr, heifer.
Mint, pint, senate and sedate;
Dull, bull, and George ate late.
Scenic, Arabic, Pacific,
Science, conscience, scientific.
Liberty, library, heave and heaven,
Rachel, ache, moustache, eleven.
We say hallowed, but allowed,
People, leopard, towed, but vowed.
Mark the differences, moreover,
Between mover, cover, clover;
Leeches, breeches, wise, precise,
Chalice, but police and lice;
Camel, constable, unstable,
Principle, disciple, label.
Petal, panel, and canal,
Wait, surprise, plait, promise, pal.
Worm and storm, chaise, chaos, chair,
Senator, spectator, mayor.
Tour, but our and succour, four.
Gas, alas, and Arkansas.
Sea, idea, Korea, area,
Psalm, Maria, but malaria.
Youth, south, southern, cleanse and clean.
Doctrine, turpentine, marine.
Compare alien with Italian,
Dandelion and battalion.
Sally with ally, yea, ye,
Eye, I, ay, aye, whey, and key.
Say aver, but ever, fever,
Neither, leisure, skein, deceiver.
Heron, granary, canary.
Crevice and device and aerie.
Face, but preface, not efface.
Phlegm, phlegmatic, ass, glass, bass.
Large, but target, gin, give, verging,
Ought, out, joust and scour, scourging.
Ear, but earn and wear and tear
Do not rhyme with here but ere.
Seven is right, but so is even,
Hyphen, roughen, nephew Stephen,
Monkey, donkey, Turk and jerk,
Ask, grasp, wasp, and cork and work.
Pronunciation (think of Psyche!)
Is a paling stout and spikey?
Won’t it make you lose your wits,
Writing groats and saying grits?
It’s a dark abyss or tunnel:
Strewn with stones, stowed, solace, gunwale,
Islington and Isle of Wight,
Housewife, verdict and indict.
Finally, which rhymes with enough,
Though, through, plough, or dough, or cough?
Hiccough has the sound of cup.
My advice is to give up!!!

2. Pick ten or so words from The Chaos to write your own poem or story. Share it with other students.

References

Celce-Murcia, M., Brinton, D.M. & Snow, M.A. (eds.) (2014) Teaching English as a second or foreign language (4th ed.). Boston: Heinle & Heinle.

Dylan, B. (1963). Blowin’ in the wind. The freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. New York: Columbia Records.

Trenité, G. N. (1922). The chaos. Retrieved from: http://ncf.idallen.com/english.html

Dr. Ken Beatty, teacher trainer, writer, and TESOL Professor, has promoted best teaching and learning practices from primary through university levels in 300+ sessions in 31 countries. Ken is author of 130+ textbooks, including books in the Pearson series Learning English for Academic Purposes (LEAP).

M is for Motivation

Ken Beatty  Dr. Ken Beatty

“Daddy, can I please help take out the garbage?”

Now that my sons are teenagers, it’s been a while since I’ve heard requests like that. But when they were young, even the most mundane events and tasks seemed to appeal to them as exciting experiences and learning opportunities.

What changed?

All children learn, but some learn better, faster, and more easily than others. Certainly some learners are more able or less able, but a key difference in any learner’s acquisition of knowledge is motivation.

Motivation can be intrinsic or extrinsic. Intrinsic motivation, or internalized motivation, is one in which learners find their own personal reasons for learning. Extrinsic, or externalized, motivation is when learners are driven by others’ ideas of what to learn, how to learn it, and how success in learning might be measured. A challenge for teachers is how to move extrinsically motivated learners to become intrinsically motivated ones. Achieving this shift fosters better attitudes toward learning and develops a culture of lifelong learning. Continue reading

N is for Note-taking*

Ken BeattyDr. Ken Beatty

“Now, remember, don’t tip your hat to another witch unless she tips hers first—you’re still an apprentice. And if you should come across some fellweed, be sure to pick it, but only if it’s the four-leaf variety. The five-leaf kind will rot your fingers.”

“Yes, Grandma.”

Mason made a mental note not to touch anything with five leaves.

Cowel made a mental note not to touch anything. (Anderson, 2007)

I can’t remember the book in which I first read the term mental note, but I remember the author used it excessively. My 12-year-old self was following the adventures of some junior adventurer who used these mental notes as a cheap plot device to foreshadow further adventures and drum up anticipation. But I found the idea enchanting: my own brain could hide a secret vault brimming with my wild ideas.

Now, like all adults, I find my secret mental vault over-stuffed and increasingly less secure with short-term memories more susceptible to decay, and my ability to retrieve mental notes is sometimes akin to reading words written in smoke. To compensate, I make lists, sometimes on paper and sometimes on my laptop. I flirt with phone apps that promise to organize my notes for me, but generally find them unwieldy. Continue reading