|ESL class (Photo: Newton Free Library)|
Let us face it.
Most ESL professionals are under the misconception that pronunciation is primarily and solely related to accent reduction work and/or to improving the learners' intelligibility only after being deemed proficient in other areas such as grammar, vocabulary, reading comprehension, academic writing etc.
Although pronunciation does indeed improve the learners' speech clarity and reduce/eliminate the impact of their mother tongue on English, there is so much more to it.
When used as a method (as opposed to a separate skill) and taught systematically, pronunciation can do wonders to a learner's listening skills.
Like speaking, listening is somewhat underrated in ESL and, in my opinion, not given the importance it deserves. Improving the ESL learners' listening skills is crucial for the continuous and even rapid development of the other skills and areas.
So what role does pronunciation play in listening? When the students receive intensive pronunciation training, not only does their speech production improve but also their speech perception, which enables them to retain and then retrieve a larger number of vocabulary items more effortlessly.
We tend to remember the words we know the sounds of. Furthermore, by freeing the students of the constraints of their mother tongue and reprogramming their brains to process the natural sounds of English, they will be cognitively more capable of grasping its syntax.
It is said that the brain of a native speaker is usually able to efficiently hear and process up to 300 WPM.
A significant number of advanced ESL learners complain that they are often unable to hear or comprehend (hearing and comprehension are obviously two different things but hearing the sounds as produced by the speaker has a bearing on comprehension) the English spoken outside the classroom, the English spoken at natural speed.
Now, an average native speaker of English produces between 120 and 160 words per minute, so it would be reasonable to believe that those learners' listening comprehension is critically affected by their speech perception, which is, in turn, reliant on the phonemic categories and structure of their mother tongue.
Needless to say, listening comprehension is affected by a number of different factors that are beyond the scope of this article, however, it is almost certain that speech perception is one of those factors and therefore should not and cannot be overlooked.
The reason is that the English speech produced by native speakers (outside the ESL classroom) is drastically different from that produced by ESL learners as it is governed by different rules such as assimilation, compression, elision and other types of co-articulation which pose a great challenge for the learners' comprehension skills especially when these learners, by default, filter the sounds they hear through the phonemic system of their native language.
Any form of pronunciation training delivered to ESL learners should target speaking and listening in parallel as opposed to tackling them separately.
Although the nature of the interface between speech perception and speech production remains unclear in linguistics, strong evidence, supported by a significant body of academic research, indicates that it does exist.
Therefore, I believe that effective pronunciation training is one that aims to enable the students to mimic as that would be the ultimate proof that they are now able to hear the sounds of English as produced by native speakers and to reproduce these sounds as accurately as possible.
The trainer needs to help the students to overcome the physical, cognitive and affective challenges they are likely to encounter in the process effectively causing a transformation in their speaking and listening skills.
Learners with good listening skills could have greater potential to improve their grammar and vocabulary quicker than those with poor listening skills and my argument is that speech perception can severely affect listening comprehension and consequently hinder the process of second language acquisition.
Do you find it hard to hear the short and long sounds in English?
Do you know what word linking is? And do you know how to connect the words when you speak English?
Can you understand native speakers on TV when they are speaking naturally?
Do you know how to use English slang and idioms in your conversation?
Do you know what you are doing wrong with your mouth?
Do you feel frustrated that you still make grammar mistakes although you know the rules?
If you answer no to any of the questions above, chances are that you have already hit a plateau and that you need to use the tips mentioned in the article.
Visit my English website for heaps of free materials:http://englishspeaklikenative.com/ or subscribe to my YouTube channel to watch our free clips: https://www.YouTube.com/user/ELITenglishcoach
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