Pronunciation and phonetics are obviously popular subjects (and perhaps deserve more attention in coursebooks, but that’s just me…)—this talk was packed beyond capacity. To begin, Frank reminded us of the common belief that for non-native speakers to improve their accent, it suffices to go live in a target-language country. Of course we all know how much truth there is to that!
To improve one’s accent, one must hear the difference between one’s own output and a native model. Often, this difference is simply not heard. Eric got into some deep phonology with an English consonant chart to show learners the manner and place of sound production, as in bilabial plosives (p,d) and alveolar fricatives (s, z). However, this chart lacks an indication for aspiration—imagine the how a French pronunciation of “Paris” differs from an American’s “Paris” in terms of how the P is aspirated.
A very practical way to practice this is to put a small bit of paper on the back of your hand and practice pronouncing aspirated consonants. Hold your hand in front of your mouth and pronounce the target word. If the paper is blown off, the learner is aspirating!
Eric also pointed out that the “voiced” and “unvoiced” separation is not subtle enough. He took the example of the German “gut” and the English “good,” which are both voiced, but to different degrees. Many non-native speakers don’t feel comfortable voicing as much as native speakers generally do.
To help grow their voicing, he suggested starting with a nasal sound. Something like “n-book” or “n-good” to add voice to these consonant sounds. Gradually, you reduced the nasal sound but keep the voiced sound of the consonant. Eric cleverly called this “switching on their vocal cords” before they have to pronounce the voiced sound in question.
To help with rounding, (not over-emphasizing the –ch in “much” for example) he suggested asking learners to hold back the corners of their mouth when practicing the pronunciation. This way they are forced to say “much” and not something like “mutsche.”
Then we moved on to vowels and a comparison of the French (and most romantic languages) vowel inventory. They simply don’t have the same sounds as English and other Germanic languages. Eric reminded us that this is why many German composers once preferred Italian to German for operas. German vowel sounds simply weren’t singable the way Italian vowels were!
This also explains why Romance language speakers often substitute cardinal vowels (the ones at the extremeties of vowel placement charts) for the schwa sound in English. We can advise learners to keep their lips and tongue round or even, for French learners, to try speaking with a sort of Molière-age pronunciation—“je parle” as “je parl-uh.” A schwa-like sound existed in these languages, but many times, even learners aren’t aware of this! Using old French as a means to English pronunciation—who would have ever thought?
On the other hand, learners should practice not rounding their lips when pronouncing words like “turn,” “nurse,” and “heard.” NNS will again often substitute a cardinal vowel for the proper English sound, giving something like “NuRHse” rather than “nurse.”
Eric then went on to short vs. long vowels, which is a legendary problem for many speakers—shit vs sheet, bitch vs beach. You can see where this could lead to problems! He suggested approaching this through the schwa sound. For example, suggest learners use a schwa instead of the cardinal vowel, which will help shorten the vowel sound. From here, you can show learners how to move their tongue accordingly, for example from a schwa-sound “bit” move your tongue up and a bit forward and thus more towards a more natural-sounding “bit.”
To sum up, Eric reminded us that students often pronounce the way they hear. When they say “beet” instead of “bit” it’s because they really are hearing a cardinal vowel rather than a short vowel. So they can live in a native-English country as long as they like, but if they aren’t hearing the difference, they’ll never replicate the sounds. But as teachers, we can help them to hear the differences and in turn begin to improve their pronunciation.