Why “repeat after me” never works

  September 6, 2021 | Posted By Jacqueline Sedore

Pronunciation might not seem like a vital part of learning English, but to your students, it’ll be the thing that determines if they are understood by others when they’re using English outside the classroom. As teachers, we often focus on making sure our students are using proper sentence structure, verb forms, and the right vocabulary and we can often forget about or feel uncomfortable when it comes to teaching or correcting pronunciation. If you’ve ever felt that way, listen up!

Your mouth is a muscle.

If you grew up in an English-speaking environment, your mouth essentially had a membership to an English gym. All of the sounds we know how to make in our first language (L1) are made up of a series of muscle movements formed by our tongue, lips, teeth, jaw, and vocal chords all working together. When we were learning language as babies and kids, we constantly gave our mouths long workouts so that we could learn and improve our pronunciation. The longer we use a specific set of muscle movements (read: make sounds in only one language), the less prepared and ‘flexible’ our mouths become when we want them to make sounds from another language. Understanding this as teachers will allow us to approach pronunciation in the classroom from a different perspective – and one that’ll actually work!

Let’s do some exercise. 

Make the sound for “thhh” like at the beginning of the word ‘think’ (out loud, go ahead).

What’s making that sound? You know how they have mirrors in gyms? Yeah, get one. I’ll wait ….

Okay, try that again, “thhhink”. What’s happening? Where’s your tongue, what’s happening with your teeth? Can you hear your voice when you make the “thhh” sound?

Did you know that in the Spanish language for example, the th sound at the beginning of ‘think’ (/θ/ in the phonetic alphabet) also exists BUT only some countries actually use it? In Spain, words that have a c-e or c-i combination (like cena or cielo – dinner or sky) are pronounced as “thena” and “thielo”, unlike in Latin America where their Spanish speakers would pronounce these words with an ‘s’ sound like “sena” and “sielo”. This means that while Spanish speakers from Spain might produce the /θ/ sound for English words beautifully, those from Latin America will likely need some help with it.

If you have any experience teaching English to non-English speakers, you may have found that we have some tricky sounds in this language. Have you noticed that the English R is pretty tough for speakers of Japanese or Mandarin? And if you’ve taught Spanish speakers, you might have realized that even though they are pros at rolling their R’s in Spanish, the English R sound is much different and can be a challenge for them. If you have some experience teaching English, you may have also noticed that sounds like L in ‘light’ or B in ‘bear’ or V in ‘vine’ can be some of the toughest consonants for our students to pronounce.

If you’ve tried asking your students to ‘repeat after me’ in order to produce proper pronunciation, you know that it doesn’t work so well. The key, really, for our students is in seeing and feeling the correct pronunciation.

Get that mirror out! What’s happening in your mouth when you say the word ‘light’? Where’s your tongue? How important are your teeth in making the L sound? What about ‘bear’? Now try ‘vine’. The best thing you can do for your students is to become aware of how your mouth moves when pronouncing English words. When you’re with your students, show them what they need to do (just like a personal trainer would do when teaching new exercises in the gym). Watch, don’t just listen to your students when they’re speaking. You’ll be able to see their ‘incorrect form’ when pronouncing words and you’ll be there to spot them and correct.

Giving them all the tools necessary to succeed with pronunciation means teaching them some vocabulary you may use when instructing them to watch you while you say a word or phrase. Teach them words like mouth, teeth, tongue, lips but don’t forget the specifics like ‘roof of the mouth’ or ‘back of the teeth’, anything that will help to clarify proper pronunciation ‘form’. We encourage you to use photos or diagrams to show exactly what it is you mean. Yes, your students might laugh when you say things like, “watch my tongue, thhhink” but they’ll get it right, I promise! Encourage your students to practice pronunciation at home in front of a mirror. Send them home with some key tips to remember about proper ‘form’ so that when they work out their English mouths, they won’t break a sweat!

What’s your favourite method for teaching pronunciation? If you’re new to this way of understanding and teaching pronunciation, I really recommend looking at some of Adrian Underhill’s work online to take a bit of a crash course in English pronunciation. Let us know how it goes in the comments below!

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