Pronunciation is the icing on the cake …

Hands up, who doesn’t like cake?

In this post, we’re going to explore why it might be helpful for speakers of English as a Second Language (ESL) to systematically work on their pronunciation after they’ve established a solid foundation in comprehension and speaking.

It’s all about headspace

Changing pronunciation is easy, right?

This is not an uncommon view. However, in my experience, the assumption that changing or introducing new pronunciation patterns is easy, is often based on the idea that children learn to talk easily, so changing pronunciation as an adult is easy.

Let’s look at the following video – and keep in mind that Nell’s home language is English:

As a native speaker, Nell knows how to say both ‘t’ and ‘k’, but when she is asked to use them in a different way, she finds it difficult to change her pronunciation. This means she cannot focus fully on what she she wants to say because part of her mind is taken up with working on how to say it.

So changing or introducing new pronunciation (without practice) is trickier than some might think, even for a native speaker.

Speakers of ESL face an additional level of challenge as they have to learn how to pronounce consonants / vowels* that don’t exist in their home language(s).

Speaker effort …

Did you know? Typically, during development of speech and language in children, clarity of speech develops last.*

Let’s use a slice of cake as an analogy for adults learning ESL. Think of it as a representation of the practical language skills to be mastered by anyone who learns a second language.

Understanding language

Bottom layer. This assumes that speakers have good concentration skills, have learned some vocabulary and understand different kinds of spoken sentences.

Spoken language

The top layer (built on the foundation). This assumes speakers can produce grammatical spoken sentences / vocabulary and hold a conversation relatively confidently.

Processing

The filling in the middle. Represents the time it takes for speakers’ brains to process what’s being said and generate an appropriate spoken response.

Pronunciation

The icing on the cake. Native listeners generally understand what is said to them – a speaker is broadly able to say all consonants / vowels** in their new language. Their ability to implement patterns of stress, rhythm and intonation appropriate to a new language varies.

(Note: culturally appropriate use of non-verbal communication such as gestures, eye contact, facial expression is assumed in this analogy).

Headspace and processing …

My point is that the mental effort required (aka headspace) during the early stages of learning in a second language is arguably high and processing speed is often slow.

This is because speakers are learning new words: what they mean; what they sound like; how to sequence them in spoken sentences and, broadly, how to pronounce them. Everyday cognitive processes such as planning / sequencing / conveying thoughts and ideas will also be going on.

It should come as no surprise that the extra mental effort required to learn a new language might cause speakers to feel more tired than usual during this process.

Listener effort …

Then there’s the listener experience. Most listeners will give others extra time when they recognise someone is doing their best in an unfamiliar language.

However, in a professional working environment, the pressure to communicate well is high.

Obviously, if speakers realise that listeners may have ‘switched off’ during a key presentation, this will damage their confidence. Similarly, listeners may end phone calls after becoming frustrated at not understanding what has been said, in spite of the speaker’s best efforts.

What is actually involved in changing / improving pronunciation?

Changing pronunciation requires several skills and high levels of motivation and concentration. These skills include:

  • Systematically fine-tuning listening skills to help a speaker hear phonemes that don’t exist in their home language(s).
  • Training a speaker’s brain, mouth, tongue and voice to consistently and correctly pronounce phonemes they don’t use in their home language(s).
  • Speakers tuning into and adjusting their own rate, intonation, rhythm and stress patterns of speech to the language they’re learning.
  • The provision of clear strategies to help speakers implement and maintain changes consistently over time.

A systematic approach benefits both speakers AND those who listen to them.

Artikul8’s courses incorporate a hierarchy of auditory, visual and tactile cues to achieve this in English.

A practical solution …

The overall aim of good pronunciation in any language must surely be to facilitate confident communication by the speaker and, to minimise listener effort.

I’m not saying that adults shouldn’t focus on pronunciation at all when starting to learn English as a second language.

I am saying it’s a good idea for speakers of ESL to work systematically on pronunciation once good comprehension and speaking skills are established, because at that point, they have the headspace to concentrate fully on doing so.

This is also why Artikul8® recommends clients have a minimum IELTS score of 4.5 before enrolling on our courses.

* In typical development, children develop the following skills from first (1) to last (5) when learning to talk: 1. Attention and Listening; 2. Play; 3. Understanding spoken language; 4. Producing spoken language; 5. Clarity of speech.

** Consonants / vowels = phonemes in this context. See previous post dated 24 April 2020.

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