Saturday, December 22, 2012

Pronunciation in Adult ESL - An Everyday Affair

Cover of "English to Speakers of Other La...
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by Sarah A Shope

It doesn't magically happen that adult learners drop or even lessen their accents when they take an English-as-a-second-language (ESL) course.

Reducing an accent is a process of awareness rather than any tricky teaching techniques.

The strategy for reducing accent is much like physical therapy, a consistent systematic exercise.

Some sounds in English are incredible problematic, but accent reduction is possible.

You can help your students lower their anxiety and get past the embarrassment related to trying hard, being misunderstood, and "sounding funny."

Your students can be hopeful that their articulation is improving.

You can construct drills that act as a kind of physical therapy, in this case speech therapy. Pull the students into the process so that they take responsibility and credit for their success.
The process involves three critical considerations:

  • What happens physically?
  • How do I get rid of the embarrassment issue?
  • How do I construct drills?

Two physical issues are involved with accent: one is the difficulty of new and strange sounds, and the other is the interference of sounds, stress and intonation of first language.

Certainly English contains some sounds that are hard even for native speakers of English to master when they are young: th, ch, r, l, v, j, w, p, b, and a ton of others. Also, there is the complexity of stress and tone and vowel-sound distinction.

It takes developmental time for a child to cultivate control of the lungs, throat, larynx, tongue, lips and nasal passage in order to articulate well. It is easier, however, for a child because articulation control hasn't developed around the performance of another language as with adult learners.

Once that first language is set into our young brains it seems to spread to every fiber of our being. When we think, we do so in patterns, with sounds, stresses and intonation of the language in which we learned to think.

Embarrassment is a monster for adults. Our dignity is so tangled up with our communication skills. When pronunciation is unclear and sometimes even comical, we naturally want to escape the situation.

We'd rather not be heard than to be embarrassed. It takes a special sensitivity and effort on the part of the teacher to reduce that kind of anxiety. Part of that process is the bonding and trust between teacher and students and the other is the classroom environment and the attitude of the other students.

The teacher has the role of influencing that environment and attitude. It doesn't hurt for the teacher to take a try at speaking unfamiliar languages and let the class get a laugh out it. Students are more at ease when they feel human commonalities with the teacher.

Drills can be anxiety provoking or downright boring, so it is necessary to keep them short, sweet, and regular in every session. Construct an effective system of drills covering the range of problem sounds and stress and intonation issues. Get students involved in the process and keep them involved so that they take responsibility and credit for their progress.

Combine sound drills with drills related to syllable stress, intonation within sentences, and the ways that sounds change as they move with and against other sounds. One simple sound drill structure is to isolate the problem sound and then create one list of words with comparison sounds and another list with contrast sounds.

For example, in the word world there are at least two problem sounds: the vowel as it is influenced by the r, and the difficult movement from the r to the l. Compare the vowel sound to that in bird,work, and were; then contrast it with the sounds in words such as ore, shore and bored. The rl can be compared to swirl, Earl and girl, and contrasted with surreal, lure, and rule. Drills require regular practice with patience and vitality. Make them fun!

Pronunciation improves with conscious effort. Learn as much as possible about what happens physically to produce sounds and what interferes with production, including the difficulty of new sounds, stress and intonation and the inter-language between the first and second languages.

Get the embarrassment issue under control and let students and teacher laugh about the challenges. With learner buy-in and consistent frequency of crisp systematic exercises, speech can be significantly improved. Keep drills brief, vital, and always ending on an up note.

Sarah Anne Shope, PhD is founder of Global TESOL Certificate Program, currently offered through University of Georgia Center for Continuing Education and Clayton State University Continuing Education for Professional Development. Website:

She is the author of Global TESOL: Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages, an orientation into the professional of TESOL and a practical guide into developing and teaching courses and lessons for English language learners anywhere across the globe. Author website:

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