How to teach English pronunciation – with Dr Maciej Rataj

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In recent times, I’ve published several posts concerning accents and dialects in the UK and even East Midlands English. However, it’s been a long time since I did a piece on the sounds of English. I think I’ve gone one better this time though with a guide on how to teach English pronunciation. 

I have a reasonable grounding in English phonetics. Nevertheless, my interests mainly lie in the Lexical Approach, language learning strategies and fossilisation in second language acquisition. Therefore, I set out to find a crackerjack of an expert on English pronunciation to help produce an insightful guide on how to teach English pronunciation.

Out of all my contacts on LinkedIn, Dr Maciej Rataj stood out from the crowd. 


All about Dr Maciej Rataj

Dr Rataj holds a doctorate in Linguistics from the University of Gdańsk (Poland), where he currently works as a Reader (Assistant Professor) at the Institute of English and American Studies. 

Dr Rataj has instructed on a wide range of linguistics courses, such as Sociolinguistics and Descriptive English Grammar. He’s also delivered courses which are part of the Practical English module at the University of Gdańsk. These include Phonetics, Writing, Grammar, Public Speaking and Business English.

Dr Rataj has written papers on topics such as Margaret Thatcher’s pronunciation and its portrayal in films as a case of sociolinguistic boundaries and ideologies. Back in 2009, he also wrote an article titled "The lady of the house speaking": the language of snobs in selected British sitcoms for the international journal Beyond Philology. Dr Rataj has also authored the book Attitudes to Standard British English and Standard Polish.

Dr Rataj’s research interests extend far beyond teaching English pronunciation and British culture and accents. He’s also well-read in the areas of World English, cognitive linguistics and English for Academic Purposes (EAP).  

In the past, Dr Rataj worked as an English-Polish/Polish-English translator. He also prepared students for Cambridge ESOL examinations and the Polish high school final examinations in English (Matura).

Apart from British culture, Dr Rataj is also interested in Finnish culture.


Introduction - A brief overview of accented speech, teaching a variety of pronunciation models and Received Pronunciation (RP)

Before getting into the ins and outs of how to teach English pronunciation, I asked Dr Rataj a few questions related to several of his linguistic passions - accented speech and RP.

1. Do you subscribe to the view of accented speech as a normal fact of life that does not necessarily impede communication if ‘comfortable intelligibility’ is achieved? 

I believe I’ve found a ballpark range for my students when it comes to comfortable intelligibility. However, as I don’t consider myself to be an expert on non-native English phonology, I find it tough to let some things fly.

If a Polish person can see the suffix -able at the end of the word and ends up saying vegetable /vedʒə'teɪbʊl/ instead of /ˈvedʒ.tə.bəl/, to what extent does this affect intelligibility? Or what if a Polish person pronounces the schwa sound as a Polish /ɛ/, /a/ or /ɔ/ - is his or her speech still intelligible? 

And what about someone who speaks with a flat intonation? This may confuse listeners as to whether the person’s asking a question, giving a command or simply making a statement.

My approach has to be conservative, based on a standard British model as opposed to, for instance, Lingua Franca Core*. After all, I'm mentoring potential future teachers of English.

* What is the Lingua Franca Core?

The Lingua Franca Core (LFC) is a selection of pronunciation features of the English language which appear to be     necessary to produce accurately in order for communication to be intelligible. 

Check out this post for further details on the LFC.

2. Trudgill* speculated that RP was used only by a small minority of L1 English speakers, which he put at approximately 3% of the British population. Do you, therefore, think that attempting to expose students to RP English is a fruitless task considering its relative scarcity in the UK?

It depends on what we define as RP. Conservative RP is spoken by King Charles and a few other members of the Royal Family. 

For the masses, however, some people would say that RP no longer exists. It’s simply Southern Standard British English [SSBE] of the more educated variety. This particular version of speech is a highly codified and well-recognised standard around the world. Therefore, it makes a great deal of sense to introduce the Standard British English pronunciation model to students, translators and future teachers. We need to do our best to conform to a certain norm, regardless of whether we’re connected to a particular social group or class. 

Of course, unless you are a historical linguist or have a desire to become an actor in nineteenth-century plays, it no longer makes sense for you to study Conservative RP.

Ideas such as the Lingua Franca Core don’t offer teachers a particular accent to teach. So what a ‘good accent’ means to a Polish person, according to Lingua Franca Core, might be very different to what a ‘good accent’ means to a Chinese speaker of English. As a result, a Polish speaker and a Chinese speaker might not be able to communicate. This goes against the idea of the Lingua Franca Core. So, I can understand the criticism of English as a Lingua Franca in terms of pronunciation. We need to strive towards the same kind of established models, or internationally-recognised models such as General American English or Standard Southern British English. Otherwise, we might not be able to communicate because too many L1 sounds would continue to be heard in one’s idiolect.

* Trudgill (1974, in Pennington and Revell, 2018: 127-128). For a full reference, see the reference list at the end of this post


How to teach English pronunciation 

3. Do you believe that pronunciation teachers should follow pronunciation materials and syllabi which start with individual phonemes and gradually work up towards prosodic features such as intonation, stress and features of connected speech? Does this linear approach help learners to understand how the various elements of the English sound system interrelate?

It’s an interesting question because, on the one hand, lecturers like me work with individuals who arrive in an English Department such as ours with varied English skills. This includes, of course, varied pronunciation skills. 

On the other hand, it’s obviously necessary to teach them as a group. One simply can’t focus on individuals. This means that ordering all the course material has to be done as logically as possible. The seemingly most logical approach is not to jump between single sounds and suprasegmental features*, but to start with vowels or consonants. Personally, I prefer to start with vowels, such as the schwa. This is because vowels are at the centre (or nucleus) of syllables. Since Polish vowels are markedly different from English vowels, it stands to reason that, for most students, negative transfer as regards vowels needs to be addressed before consonants. Correspondingly, the schwa needs to be introduced before word stress, sentence stress or weak forms** can be covered in detail.

After dealing with individual sounds, I’d shift the emphasis on to word stress and intonation. As I mentioned, this somewhat traditional approach makes a great deal of sense in teaching groups. It appears that in English departments in Poland, nothing has really changed since the time I was a student over twenty years ago. 

Naturally, not all individuals require a thorough survey of all English sounds. They simply need to focus on more advanced features, such as connected speech***.  

* What are suprasegmental features?

Suprasegmental features, also known as prosodic features, refer to intonation, tone, rhythm and vocal stress in speech.

** What are weak forms?

In stress-timed languages such as English and German, stressed syllables tend to be said with a regular rhythm, which reduces most of the vowels in unstressed syllables. In English, most unstressed syllables contain /ə/ or /ɪ/. Most function words like articles, prepositions, auxiliary verbs, conjunctions and pronouns, are unstressed as a rule and thus become weak in native English. Learning weak forms is crucial to understanding connected speech as well as producing it, in particular if a learner is keen on communicating with native English speakers. 

*** What is connected speech?

Basically defined, connected speech is a continuous stream of spoken language exactly as you’d hear it in a normal conversation. It’s called connected speech as the sounds at the end of words run smoothly into the opening syllables of words which follow.

4. I’ve always believed that the schwa sound is one of the keys to fluency. In particular, I refer to the ability of learners to reduce vowel sounds in prepositions and articles (a/the) to schwa in order to create smoother and swifter transitions between these function words and surrounding content words. What’s your view on this, and how should teachers go about teaching schwa?

Schwa is a vital sound when it comes to fluency.

I advocate the view that teachers should first introduce the schwa sound and return to it at a later date. Students tend to forget the schwa and return to Polish unstressed vowels unless they’re reminded of the schwa every once in a while.

I tend to introduce schwa right after the long ‘err’ sound [ɜː] as they’re very similar. Later on, teachers might want to return to schwa when covering weak forms*. 

In year two, my students also have to use the schwa sound in order to study sentence stress and intonation. This is where revision of schwa makes sense. 

It might also be handy for teachers to present the various ways in which the schwa sound can be spelt. For example, the second syllable of ‘nature’ is firmly schwa, unlike the second syllable of the word ‘mature’ which contains a diphthong in the more conservative form of RP and a monophthong in contemporary SSBE*.

All in all, recycling the schwa is the name of the game - just to remind students of the importance of the sound.

* Variations of the pronunciation of 'mature'

SSBE - m ə ʧ ɵ́ː

Conservative RP - /məˈtʃʊə(r)/

5. What do you think about some of the more traditional techniques used in pronunciation teaching, such as spontaneous error correction, phonetics training, reading aloud and the listen and repeat method?

Some of those traditional techniques are not wrong simply because they are traditional.

However, when it comes to reading texts aloud, it’s important to select these texts carefully. Texts which are written with the intention of being read silently, as opposed to being recited or read aloud, are perhaps not always the most suitable option. For example, it would always sound a bit artificial to read a text which is from The New York Times or The Guardian aloud. Teachers should lean towards using dialogues, for instance, particularly if they’re accompanied by audio recordings. 

One technique which is missing from that list of common techniques used in pronunciation teaching is proprioception*. This approach is firmly connected with Adrian Underhill**. The technique revolves around making students aware of what their tongue and lips do. Students become aware of the extent to which they have to open their mouths, round their lips or move the tip of their tongues forward or back in order to produce different sounds. All in all, proprioception is the idea that pronunciation is physical - not theoretical. 

Moreover, through proprioception, students become more aware of the extent to which the sounds of their mother tongue differ from English sounds. It’s relatively easy to implement the principle of proprioception with groups that just consist of Polish students. I do try to apply this contrastive approach from time to time. However, it’s not always possible as we have many international students whose first languages are very different from Polish. 

Showing a few videos by Adrian Underhill in class, and then following his techniques and advice, may resemble speech therapy sessions rather than pronunciation teaching. However, I believe this helps me to achieve a balance between textbook-based listen-and-repeat tasks or minimal pairs exercises on the one hand, and the very basics of arriving at the target sound, on the other hand.

Overall, for any graduate English language teacher confused as to how to teach English pronunciation, they won’t go far wrong with studying Underhill’s techniques.

* What is proprioception?

Proprioception refers to the teaching and learning of the pronunciation of a second language physically.

The approach seeks to enable learners to connect with four sets of mouth muscles to make new sounds. These sets of muscles are the tongue, the lips, the jaw and the voice.

** Who is Adrian Underhill?

Adrian Underhill is a world-renowned teacher trainer and ELT consultant. He is well known for his book Sound Foundations and his intriguing talks on how to use the phonemic chart.

6. Are there any other techniques you’d like to mention with regard to how to teach English pronunciation?

There’s something else, which is comparing and contrasting English spelling and pronunciation. We teachers shouldn't overdo this because it’s generally not our job to teach students to spell. Nevertheless, when learning the pronunciation of a so-called non-phonetic language, like English, we need to remember that a letter or a combination of letters can be pronounced in lots of different ways. 

Many mistakes result from the fact that speakers who use the Latin alphabet may look at the spelling of a word and try to guess how a given letter should be pronounced. So, for instance, Polish learners of English may not be aware of how many possible pronunciations of the letter "a" exist, or how many different spellings stand for the schwa.

So, in dealing with the question - how to teach English pronunciation - it’s handy if a teacher is aware of how linguistic interference, or negative transfer, occurs. In such a process, learners may apply certain rules from their first language or they may overapply certain rules from English. For example, when it concerns the letter ‘u’ in the word ‘butcher’, students may think of the ‘u’ in ‘but’, ‘cut’, ‘duck’ etc. and assume that the vowel needed is the /ʌ/, as in 'strut'.

Teachers may contrast cognate words, namely those which are Latinate, in the student’s mother tongue with their English counterparts. For example, regarding Polish to English phonetic variation, a word which is pronounced very differently, even though it looks similar, is calendar. The Polish word kalendarz is actually stressed on the second syllable, unlike on the first syllable in English. 

7. In terms of materials and textbooks, what would you advise a budding pronunciation teacher to use?

There are some classic textbooks of course but no textbook is perfect.

I occasionally use some of these classic textbooks, such as How now, brown cow? by Mimi Ponsonsby. The speakers put on funny comedy voices. They also speak in what is clearly a rather conservative version of RP. This book is good as it has dialogues - so ideal for getting students to do pairwork. Still, the accent presented is no longer relevant to what we need in the twenty-first century.

There are some other textbooks such as the English Pronunciation in Use series. These books promote a more modern approach. However, teachers need to be careful when using these books because many exercises are more about spelling. For example, students have to categorise words with the same letter that can be pronounced in different ways. Putting words into different columns has very little to do with actual pronunciation.

When it comes to a coursebook series which focuses on sounds typical of both British and American English pronunciation, teachers may try the Say It Better* handbooks which I co-authored. The books are also ideal for self-study. 

Overall, there are no perfect examples of textbooks in the mainstream world of ELT publishing. Some are too simplistic - with only listen-and-repeat exercises and little or no explanation of phonetic rules. However, I think the key is to keep students on their toes with many different kinds of stimuli. Let’s not forget Adrian Underhill’s videos based on proprioception.

*  Say It Better British English courseSay it Better American English Course - in conjunction with the SuperMemo method

8. Another sense of broad-based or macro-focused teaching would provide large doses of listening input, that is, extensive listening, at an early stage of language learning, as a way to build the learner’s internal database of L2 sound. Where do you stand on this approach?

It’s a rather controversial approach because flooding students with listening material might be rather discouraging for them. This is because this kind of input is probably not comprehensible for them at all, regardless of whether they get to grips with some phonological elements of English.

I recall how I learnt French at university. Our textbook contained lots of listening material and our teacher played many recordings which were in very fast French. This was a deliberate ploy of course from the get-go. Frankly, it was terrifying because I hardly understood anything. I immediately gained the impression that French was far more difficult than German or Latin, which I'd taken a few years before.  

Coming back to how to teach English pronunciation to beginners, teachers and learners need to take their time. Teachers could do with introducing bits of pronunciation to students as early as possible. However, I do not believe that such an excessive amount of listening material can ever be compelling input* for them. 

* The Compelling (not just interesting) Input hypothesis - one of Stephen Krashen’s comprehensible input hypothesis

9. Just to round things off. Many trained teachers must wonder about how to teach English pronunciation when the English language throws up complete pronunciation mysteries, such as the many different ways to pronounce words ending in -ough. Do you sometimes feel like you’re hitting your head against a brick wall in this game? What are the major difficulties you’ve encountered as a pronunciation teacher?

My job can be quite challenging when students make mistakes and repeat things incorrectly even though concepts have been clearly explained, they’ve heard the recording several times and they’ve also been corrected. Then, the next student makes the same mistakes and the cycle continues. This frustrating state of affairs even occurs during the test they have to take a few weeks after instruction has taken place.

Most of my students come from schools where, unfortunately, their English teachers had little time to focus on pronunciation teaching. Hence, many of my students work under the assumption that how they pronounced English at school was good enough. Of course, I cannot blame the teachers. Many know how to teach English pronunciation and have a desire to impart knowledge on their students. However, the root of the problem is the school curriculum which is too focused on grammar and writing. 

Back to the mysteries of English pronunciation you mentioned in your question. Cases such as the one you just brought up with the -ough words occasionally crop up. Honestly, I haven’t noticed too many issues among my students with -ough words. However, I can mention a few other things. For example, in British English there’s an open vowel [ɒ], as in 'long'. The equivalent in American English sounds more like [ɑː] as in 'lager'. Polish students tend to replace these sounds with the short Polish vowel [a]. This Polish vowel is quite similar to the English 'strut' vowel [ʌ]. In this way, lots of students may pronounce ‘dog’ as ‘dug’ and ‘got’ as ‘gut’ and so on.

The most important thing for me is to get my students up to a level of comfortable intelligibility. Issues such as the TRAP-BATH split* or whether students pronounce the [ɒ] sound I just mentioned in a British way or American way are secondary concerns, irrespective of my preference for British English.

* What is the TRAP-BATH split?

For more information on the TRAP-BATH split in a British English context, check out this interview with Professor Natalie Braber of The Nottingham Trent University.

 

Reference:

Pennington, M.C. and Rogerson-Revell, P. 2019. English Pronunciation Teaching and Research: Contemporary Perspectives, London: Palgrave Macmillan

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