Number one for English language teachers

Pronunciation skills: Loosening the ‘grip’ of L1 pronunciation

Type: Article, Reference material

ELT Pronunciation expert Adrian Underhill looks at the emergence of the ‘L1 grip’ and how best to tackle it.

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Practical concerns

Pronunciation is everywhere … and in everything
Pronunciation is everywhere: it cannot be avoided. Take the four skills: when you read silently you probably say or hear the words internally, in your inner voice, and this inner voice has a pronunciation. And, when writing, you rehearse the text in your inner voice or your inner ear before writing it down, and this too has a pronunciation. Speaking and listening directly involve pronunciation. Even when we think and remember we may use our inner voice. The inner voice has its inner pronunciation just as the external voice has its external pronunciation.

This means that you cannot avoid pronunciation teaching …
even if you don’t actively do it, because every time you teach any of the four skills you are requiring your students to use a pronunciation – either the new L2 pronunciation if you have put it into circulation, or the L1 pronunciation if you have not. Thus, there is no language teacher in the world whose students do not practise one pronunciation or the other. The question is: is it the pronunciation of the L2, or of the L1 imposed onto the L2 because there was nothing else?

So here’s the practical point: when students are learning a new phrase or structure or vocabulary item make sure that they have a pronunciation to aim for as part of that new language, that it’s part of the rehearsal. Don’t leave pronunciation for later. It doesn’t have to be perfect, or even ‘correct’, but it has to be the best the student can do at that moment.

How did the ‘L1 grip’ get there? As babies lying on our backs, babbling, we explored and experimented with muscle tone in our lips, tongue, jaw, lungs and voice. We explored every possible sound, whether or not it was part of our not-yet-learnt first language. Gradually, we retained those sounds that had interactive value (some sounds brought mother running, some brought food, some made people laugh, and some even had the amazing effect of making mother repeat the sounds after us!). We gradually dropped the sounds that had no impact, until eventually we were left with the sounds of our mother tongue.

We also gradually automatized and habituated these remaining useful sounds so that they no longer required our attention; thus, our attention was freed for other learning demands such as standing, walking, socializing and so on. For some years we remained quite close to these muscular automatizations and could easily return to them and adapt them and add new pronunciations. But as the years went by we became more distant from the muscles that make the difference. So, what should we do when we do need to learn a new pronunciation later?

How can we loosen the ‘grip’ of L1 pronunciation? Well, as you’ve guessed, the key is in the paragraph above. If we want to learn new sounds, we have to reconnect with the muscles that make the difference, to get behind that muscular automatization, to help the muscles to let go of their habit and to guide them to new coordinations that give new sounds. This is done by proprioception, which is a term from neurology referring to the process of feeling or sensing which muscles we are using and how much force we are putting into them. Teaching pronunciation is a physical process like teaching dance, rather than a cognitive process like teaching grammar. If I want to learn to samba, I have to use my proprioception to sense my muscles, which have been accustomed to different dance movements, and I have to find the muscles that make the new movements. The dance teacher’s job is not just to ‘show’ me the samba, but to help me find the muscles that will enable me to do it. The same applies to pronunciation, and here’s how I go about it.

The four core muscle buttons:

I help my students to re-connect with four muscle groups. I call them buttons that they have to press (they like buttons, like on computers). The four muscle buttons are:

  1. Tongue (moving forward and back)
  2. Lips (spreading and back, or rounding and forward)
  3. Jaw + tongue (moving up and down)
  4. Voice (on / off to make voiced or unvoiced sounds)

I get them to experiment with the first three buttons when we are playing with vowels (either English or L1 vowels). Here are some teaching tips:

Practical ideas for the classroom

1. Start with an L1 vowel sound. Invite the students to choose and say any vowel from their L1. For example, it might be their L1 version of /e/. Invite them to notice and be aware of lip, tongue and jaw position. Get them to whisper the same sound, which also helps the process of noticing. Then, get them to change the sound to make a small noticeable difference using a small movement of: 1) the lips – spread, loose or rounded; 2) the tongue – back or forward in the mouth; 3) the jaw – raise / lower the jaw; or 4) any combination of these.

Example: Take whatever is closest to the /e/ sound in their L1. Have them say the sound alone: 1) as a native speaker; 2) as a native speaker from a different region; and 3) as a foreigner trying to say it and getting it wrong. Then ask them to say it their own way again, but with these deliberate variations: 1) a more open jaw; 2) making it longer or shorter; 3) using more or less energy; 4) trying lips rounded or spread; and 5) moving the tongue back during the vowel. Allow time to play with this. Then ask them to take a single-syllable L1 word containing that /e/ sound and to repeat the above variations, distorting the vowel, and thus the word, in different ways. It is surprisingly difficult to distort your mother tongue sounds, but as soon as you can, and you see how you did it, you are entering a new world of pronunciation learning.

2. Do the same experiments as in 1, starting from an English sound: e.g. /a:/, as in father, heart and ask. Invite them to notice and be aware of lip, tongue and jaw position. Get them to whisper the same sound, and to change the sound to make a noticeable difference with a small movement like a more closed jaw on the vowel, or making the vowel longer or shorter, or using more or less energy, or trying to spread the lips, or moving the tongue forward during the vowel. Then ask them to do the same using an English word containing that sound, such as heart and ask, and then to find their own English words.

3. L1 accents. Invite students to select a word in their L1 that they can say in different accents from different varieties of their L1 (e.g. from different regions of their country). Get them to sense the small muscular movements that make this difference. In doing this they are already practising their escape from the L1 grip!

4. Teachers, learn your own mouth. It’s easy, and there aren’t many key variables. The more you can sense what you are doing internally as you make different sounds, how you move one or another of the articulatory muscles and how that affects the quality of the sound, word or connected speech, the more you will be able to help your learners to loosen the grip of their mother tongue pronunciation. Here are two further things you can do:

  • Every time you invite a student to practise a sound or word, don’t only listen, but do it yourself internally at the same time so you can find the internal movements the student is looking for or having problems with.
  • Experiment sometimes with saying a new word very slowly, one sound at a time, but each sound moving and merging into the next, so nothing is separate, but everything is slow. You can do this in your own language or in English. This activity reveals the inner ‘choreography’ of lips, tongue and jaw, and helps you and your students to sense and feel the movements. None of this is revealed in repetition practice involving static sounds.
  • If you slide slowly between any two vowel sounds – for example, from /i:/, as in tea, to /u:/, as in two – you can notice the movement of the tongue and of the lips, and as they change shape so the sound changes. Just this simple awareness helps liberate learners from the (automatized) grip of their L1 pronunciation. If this interests you there are practical examples of many other such vowel slides in the section ’The Story of Sounds’ on my blog.

Knowing your way round your mouth is, in my view, more important than having a so-called ‘good pronunciation’, or being a native or non-native speaker teacher. If you don’t know what you are doing in your mouth you are restricted in the ways you can help a student (and yourself).

5. A better way than repetition? There is nothing wrong with repetition after a model, but it is not very effective, as it cuts out the work that the student needs to do to learn. I advise teachers to develop a repertoire of activities that do not rely on listen and repeat.

  • Say the sound or word or sentence aloud ONCE, while students listen, and ask them to listen to it again internally, in their inner ear. This means YOU don’t repeat it, but they listen again internally on their ‘internal sound loop’. They may be surprised to find that for several seconds they can hold it internally and even listen to it again internally. Only then ask them to say it aloud. I use this much more than I use traditional listen and repeat.
  • If students are each trying to say a sentence or word or sound aloud around the class, then invite them to ‘listen to the differences’. This is a quite different activity from listening out for the ‘correct’ one and rejecting the others.
  • Note that teaching tips 1–4 above are not based on repetition.

The key? Enjoy it all, have fun doing it. That loosens everything up!

Accents and the L1 grip

The interactive phonemic chart and app

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