BaNAna or BanaNA?

A Word Spoken Any Other Way…

Teaching Pronunciation in EFL, Part I

When teaching English as a Foreign Language, we have to be careful not only of WHAT we teach students to say, but of HOW we teach students to say it.  This is pronunciation. And pronunciation is something that new teachers may do quite poorly (and often incorrectly).

If you’re a new teacher, how can you avoid some of the pitfalls your peers will be making when it comes to helping your students with pronunciation?  Read on.

Three main elements to pronunciation

There are three main things to take into consideration when you’re teaching students how to speak with proper pronunciation. Those three elements are

1) stress

2) rhythm

3) intonation

In quick-and-dirty definitions, stress is about the words—and parts of words— we emphasize when we speak, rhythm is the ‘beat’ of the language, and intonation is stress within a sentence.

Confused? Don’t be. The two areas hardest to understand for native speaker teachers are rhythm and intonation—because most native speakers don’t pay attention to these qualities of their own speech.

Your students will probably understand the rhythm of English more intuitively than you will, because the human ear is often more attuned to rhythm in a foreign language than in its own.

The music in language

You may be familiar with the idea of ‘tones’ in language in relation to Asian languages like Chinese, Vietnamese or Thai. Yes, these languages use tones to convey meaning, but so does English! Well, not tones really, but intonation. For example, when we ask a question, we raise our tone at the end of the sentence. This is how we can hear the difference between the sentences “Give me some money!” and “Give me some money?” In the second example, your voice will have a slightly higher pitch at the end of the sentence than it did for the first sentence.

Don’t stress about stress

Now, let’s go back and look at stress. Different languages have different rules and traditions for what part of a multi-syllabic word should carry stress. English has a certain pattern that we use. For example, the homely word ‘banana.’ In American English we say, roughly, ‘ba-NA-nuh.” The second syllable is drawn out to say ‘naaaa.’ That second syllable is longer, slightly higher pitched, and maybe a bit louder than the ‘ba’ at the beginning and the ‘nuh’ at the end.  But a Thai person, using Thai stress rules and applying them to an English word (as many students would do) would say ‘ba-naa-NUH.’

If someone came up to you and said, ‘ba-naa-NUH,’ would you immediately know what they meant? Maybe not, and that’s why it’s important to teach students how to properly stress words they learn in English.

One of the reasons that native speaker teachers are so sought-after is that we use these little tricks of language intuitively. We don’t need to think about whether or not we need to raise our pitch when we ask a question—we just do it. And if you can get a good idea of what your students need to do to speak like you do, you’ll be able to help them immeasurably in their quest for better English.

TED’s Tips™ #1: Remember the three parts of pronunciation—stress, rhythm and pronunciation.  We’ll work more with them in the next post.

TED’s Tips™ #2: Listen to how you say multi-syllabic words. Why do you put stress on one part of the word and not on another. What happens to your ability to understand the word if you change stress?

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