Where do pronunciation problems come from?

  November 1, 2021 | Posted By Rachel Laycook

Where do accents come from in a learner’s second language (L2)?  Research shows that the accent someone uses in their L2 is related to their L1.  Based on a learner’s L1, the challenges they face regarding pronunciation may vary.  Teaching pronunciation and addressing the obstacles different student populations face is a challenge that, unfortunately, many EFL teachers don’t receive enough formal training on. If you’ve ever wondered why certain words or sounds are so challenging for your students, wonder no more– we’ve put together a list of need-to-know information that can help you navigate this tricky matter in class! Once you start to understand where some of a learner’s problems or confusion stem from, it’s a lot easier to design tasks and strategies to help meet their needs. Have a look at the four common problems below and some of our tips for how to approach them in class!

Problem 1: Students have trouble pronouncing a specific sound. 

Some phonemes, or sounds, exist in one language but not in another.  When the L2 you’re learning has phonemes that your L1 doesn’t, getting that new phoneme down can be a challenge.  L1 speakers of Tagalog may have trouble with the “F” sound used in English and instead pronounce it as a “P”, while L1 speakers of Arabic may find it difficult to distinguish between “P” and “B” sounds, and L1 Korean speakers might find the difference between “R” and “L” challenging.  Many languages use “h” as a silent placeholder, despite the fact that in English it’s usually not silent (there are a few exceptions, such as “honor”, but not many). For many L2 English learners, the schwa doesn’t exist in their L1, yet it is the most common vowel sound in the English language (featured in “about”, “supply”, “enough”, etc.), and that’s challenging even before we consider that most American English speakers have a tendency to completely delete that sound altogether when it comes in the middle of a word (for example, saying “choc-late” instead of “chocolate”, or “cam-ra” instead of “camera” (though L1 French speakers do something similar with the schwa and thus might pick this up easily).

Try this:

  • Show your students up close how the mouth moves to make a given sound.  Use your own mouth as an example, and if necessary, show them a diagram of what’s going on inside the mouth as well.  Students won’t just pick up a challenging sound from listening to you and trying to repeat.  You’ll really need to help them understand what to do with their mouth!
  • Practice this pronunciation with selected lists of words to give students the opportunity to drill the pronunciation themselves, helping them to build the muscle memory that their vocal tract needs.  This can be a simple word list, or it could be a tongue twister.
  • Use minimal pairs when possible.  If you’re working on the “sh” sound with students, you might have them take turns pronouncing minimal pair sets that help them to distinguish between the target sound and other sounds.  In this example, you might have them repeat pairs like “Ship, Sip” or “Ship, Chip” to help them “turn on” and “turn off” the target sound.

Problem 2: Students have trouble pronouncing a specific combination of sounds together.

Your students might be running up against the phonotactic constraints of their L1 while trying to speak English.  Think of a phonotactic constraint as a rule that a given language has about what order different phonemes (or sounds) can occur in.  For example, combinations like “ng”, “dl”, or “tl” cannot be used at the beginning of a word in English, and you’d be hard-pressed to find an example for a word that starts with “st” and has a consonant that comes next, with the exception of “r” (“strong” works well, but any other option will require a vowel).

Each language has these phonotactic constraints, so the challenges your students face in pronunciation will likely depend on what their L1 is, especially as adult learners.  L1 Spanish speakers are unaccustomed to having a syllable or word end in a consonant outside of “n”, “l”, “r”, or “d”, so encountering the common CVC pattern (consonant vowel consonant) that many of our syllables use can be a challenge for them.  L1 Mandarin speakers may also have this problem because in their L1, syllables typically begin with a consonant and end with a vowel. Coaxing the full pronunciation of each of the letters in a syllable might be necessary because of this feature of their L1.

Try this:

  • Slow a word down to highlight the syllables.  Practice each syllable repeatedly, slowly moving them closer and closer together in time until you’re saying the words.  Consider leading this type of activity as a call-and-response type of activity where you model the pronunciation throughout, asking students to mimic you.
  • Words lists and tongue twisters are useful here as well, as are minimal pairs.
  • Look up the phonotactic constraints of the L1 that your student comes from.  Knowing this can help you predict challenges, understand errors, and tailor some tips or drills to that student’s needs.

Problem 3: Students have a hard time getting the stress right on a specific word. 

Word stress in English is a tricky beast.  It can depend on the class of the word (nouns vs. verbs) as well as the number of syllables, and like most things in English, there are plenty of exceptions.  Other languages might have this level of flexibility, or they may be ruled by a set of many (or just a few) rigid rules.  If these rules are different enough from English, you can expect some of a learner’s L1 habits regarding stress to show their face when the student speaks English.  For example, most Italian words have two or more syllables, and the stress will often appear on the penultimate syllable (fiNEstra, for example). Many languages have this fixed stress phenomenon, in which there are strict rules guiding which syllable receives the stress, based on the number of syllables in a word.  These languages frequently use accent marks to indicate any stress that a word requires which doesn’t follow these patterns, so when a learner encounters English, which considers syllables AND word class, and never marks word stress with an accent mark, they have plenty of opportunities for errors.

Try this:

  • Part of understanding word stress is understanding how syllables work in a language, so having students practice separating words into syllables is a helpful start to working on word stress (don’t underestimate the power of clapping while showing syllables in a  word, either!). When students are able to separate a word into syllables, then it becomes easier to point out word stress.
  • Give students a few concrete rules to practice with– it’s true that there are exceptions, but you can address these as they come up.  Highlight, for example, that most 2-syllable nouns and adjectives have the stress on the first syllable, while most 2-syllable verbs have the stress on the second syllable.
  • Have students listen to you and identify word stress as you speak.  If you say the sentence “I reply to every email I receive”, for example, and ask them to identify where the stress is on each word, you’re helping them train their own ears to pay attention to this detail.  That’s especially important when considering that many words in English look the same but change their stress based on the word class (present vs. present, content vs. content, decrease vs. decrease, etc.).

Problem 4: Students use unnatural intonation patterns when they speak. 

If the word stress happens on a specific syllable, think of intonation as the word in the whole sentence that receives more stress or a change in tone.  While some learners may come from an L1 that is a tonal language (in which changing the tone of a syllable can change the entire meaning of a word), others will come from non-tonal languages, which is what English is.  Students from L1 tonal language backgrounds may have a harder time grasping the intonation and word stress patterns in their second language.

Natural intonation may not be at the top of the list of priorities when working with ELLs, but it shouldn’t be ignored, either– intonation is a helpful aid that gives a listener clues about the purpose of what the other person is saying.  For example, common intonation patterns in English include:

  • Asking a WH- question: intonation falls at the end of the question.
  • Asking a yes/no question: intonation rises at the end of the question.
  • Giving a list with multiple items: rising intonation, rising intonation, rising intonation, and falling intonation to indicate the final item on the list.

Understanding some of these intonation patterns while listening can also help clue the learner in on how they should respond or when it’s their turn to start speaking, for example.

Try this:

  • Start with some of the rules listed above.  Have students over-intone some example sentences (dramatically so– make sure you model for them).  With every repetition, have them bring down the intonation just a bit more until you arrive at a natural-sounding intonation.  This elastic method can be helpful in helping students hear and process the intonation with the very exaggerated version prior to producing the slightly more nuanced and natural version.
  • Work with intonation as it pertains to the emotion of the speaker.  Try saying something like “I’m so hungry” to students.  Change your intonation to sound excited, angry, and sad.  Ask students to say how they think you feel after you say the sentence.  Help them identify the patterns of how a sentence sounds when we’re using it to communicate an emotion.  Invite them practice.  You can give students a sentence in a robotic, toneless voice and ask them for the intonation they think is correct.
  • Invite students to take a sentence and identify the parts where a rising or falling intonation is used (have them draw a line or highlight the text).  This gives you an idea of what they think the sentence should sound like, even if they don’t quite produce it that way yet.  Taking that information, you can adjust your drills as necessary.

Keep in mind that some pronunciation issues are less serious than others, but all of them are important to address in class!  It’s especially important for teachers to be willing to exaggerate in their modeling here to help students really hone in on the differences that they need to be noticing.  Inviting students to mimic you exactly is also important– adults might hesitate from production that sounds too much like an exact copy, but if you explicitly encourage it, you’ll find they take to it quickly, and to great effect. Some of the items on this list, such as the pronunciation of specific sounds, is probably a more important area to focus on before you really push intonation work with students, though that doesn’t mean they’re exclusive from one another (you certainly want to help students intone a sentence properly, but getting a word pronounced correctly is the first level of importance).

Also, keep in mind that students might be discouraged from speaking if you are too heavy-handed on the error correction in a lesson.  To try to avoid this, consider implementing error correction techniques that don’t necessarily interrupt the student (try hand movements to indicate the stress you’re looking for, for example).  Additionally, it’s helpful to start the lesson by letting students know that today we’re going to work on (X) topic– letting them know that you’re going to focus heavily on pronunciation, word stress, or intonation at the beginning of the class can help prime them to receive corrective feedback in that particular area without feeling picked on.  Finally, remember the importance of enthusiastic and specific praise when working with a task in class that’s based so heavily on students’ production– try using phrases such as “perfect pronunciation!”, “that sounded very natural”, “Excellent pronunciation of (X)”, etc. to keep students encouraged as you move through the lesson!

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