“But, teacher, why do I need to learn those funny symbols? It only makes it a lot more complicated.” This is a question I’ve been asked quite often, and not only by students, but also by teachers. I must say I myself failed to see the purpose of learning the phonemic chart when I was a learner, and even in my early teaching career. Let’s face it, none of my teachers had taught me those “funky letters”, and I was rarely encouraged to look them up in a dictionary whenever I needed to check the correct pronunciation of a word. In those days, I couldn’t see any difference between the pronunciation of close as an adjective or as a verb, basic was pronounced with the sound of /z/, and all words ending with an /s/ were pronounced with, well, the sound of a final /s/ – who would possibly be able to end a word with a /z/ sound?
This all happened a long, long, long time ago. But it was only as a teacher that I finally understood that there was something else to pronunciation than merely trying really hard to listen, observe, and repeat. More often than not, actually, I found myself making the same mistakes over and over again when I thought I had finally got the correct pronunciation of a word. It is as if the brain is split into compartments for each separate sound, and if such sound is never uttered, the brain automatically shuts that compartment and naturally places the sounds you hear in different compartments based on how close that particular sound is to a sound that is already familiar to the brain. Hence, if I had never produced the sound of TH, the brain automatically changes think to sink (way to go, Titanic!), something to some sing (and others dance), third to turd, and so on and so forth.
As Nick Jaworski said on this post of his on pronunciation,
There are no final consonants in Vietnamese so their brains actually never developed the ability to hear a consonant at the end of a word. Since they can’t hear it, they can’t say it. Since they can’t say it, they can’t hear it.
I have, as I said above, quickly learned that this was also the case for me, and for lots of learners as well. If you don’t know how to utter a sound, you will hardly ever be able to hear it. It was back in 2000 when I attended Adrian Underhill‘s session about his phonemic chart that I saw a silver lining. I was a student who was also influenced by the commonly held belief that the only way for you to truly become fluent in a language and sound natural speaking it is by living abroad. Well, I had never lived abroad, nor had I been an exchange student as most of my co-workers until that time. To be fair, my only experience abroad is limited to a family trip to Disney wen I was 11 years old and had just started learning English, and later on another 2-week family trip to New York. Anyway, up until that time, I felt that I had to work on what I could improve as a non-native English speaking teacher – I quickly became a grammar buff. I simply had to be able to do one thing well if I wanted to be an English teacher as pronunciation wasn’t my forte. I’ll just leave vocabulary aside from this post.
It was only after Underhill’s session, then, that I realized that, yes, there was something I could do about my pronunciation even though I wasn’t planning on living abroad anytime soon. Ten years have passed and this still hasn’t happened. Anyhow, I started studying more and more about phonetics and phonology, and when I took the course that goes by that very name at university, I found out I had really learned quite a lot on my own. I did buy many books, and despite my “change of accent”, I clearly remember Ann Cook’s American Accent Training did wonders for my consciousness raising regarding pronunciation. I started paying closer attention to the sounds of the language, consciously trying to understand whatever it is that was going on when I heard someone speaking English – segmental and supra-segmental features alike.
The idea of using the phonemic chart as a teaching aid from the very beginning simply made sense. If we make use of the phonemic chart to raise our students’ awareness to how the sounds are pronounced instead of expecting them to be able to transcribe words using the IPA, it can certainly be helpful. If they understand that there is such a thing as a labio-dental sound (needless to say, teachers use a much more learner-friendly explanation), their brains might just pop open the lid for such compartment, enabling them to both listen and speak the sound. Learners will eventually be able to look at the IPA and reproduce the sounds, but this is not the main goal. We make pronunciation physical and visual through the use of the chart in order to cater for visual and kinesthetic learners as well as the auditory ones.
We are also fostering autonomy and independent learning. Students no longer rely solely on a teacher for the correct pronunciation of a word. They are finally capable to correct themselves simply by using a learner’s dictionary – just the paper version of it. They might finally be able to appreciate subtle differences which may make a difference in connected speech. However, I’ll go back to a point I made above. I truly think it’s important for teachers to have a sound knowledge of phonetics and phonology in order to show learners what they’re doing wrong and teach them how to correctly position their tongue in their mouth, for instance, in order to get a sound right. The phonemic chart is, thus, used as a teaching aid, and not as a teaching goal in itself.
Oh, and I don’t know whether you’ll agree with me or not, but learners do seem to have a lot of fun when learning correct pronunciation. They also see how much their listening benefits from pronunciation teaching. They are a lot more engaged and eager to learn pronunciation than other areas. Why is it, then, that pronunciation is so often overlooked in the language classroom? As a non-NEST who also knows lots of other non-NESTs who can speak English extremely well, I don’t think we can use the NESTs x non-NESTs dichotomy to explain this. Where there’s a will, there’s a way. I see pronunciation and listening as skills that depend on one another, and we won’t get our learners to be better listeners if we don’t teach pronunciation properly – recycling, revising, and constantly correcting it.