Pronunciation teaching: doing your homework on the L1

Why the myth about ‘native speakers’ being better language teachers? If you want to learn a language, you’d be well advised to look for a qualified teacher who shares the same first language as yourself, or at least knows it well. I can testify from my own experience that teaching pronunciation to someone whose language I know nothing about is like wading across a river when you can’t see the bottom: you just don’t know where the slippery boulders are! I will call this situation, ‘teaching blind’.

When you are teaching blind, you may know where you want your learner to go, but you don’t understand where they’re coming from. You are quick to notice ‘faults’ but slow to understand their causes. Unable to assist the learners in walking on their own legs, you end up dragging them along behind you.

On the other hand, there is also an important danger for teachers who share the same L1 as their class, or know it well. Your very familiarity with it can also cause another kind of blindness, where something just seems so normal that you fail to see it. Between you and your class, you may end up developing a version of the target language that few people would understand in the outside world. You can become anaesthetised to error. You need to somehow remain alive to the strangeness of your own language.

There are then two kinds of ‘teaching blind’: 1. Teaching in ignorance of the learner’s L1 (typical of multilingual classes); 2. Having an over-familiarity with the learner’s L1 (typical of monolingual classes).

1 Multilingual classes

In ELT, the first kind of ‘blindness’ is typical in schools in English-speaking countries. Learners arrive from various different parts of the world, and have a range of different language backgrounds. It’s a multilingual class. The teacher may know one or two of the languages concerned, but they are very unlikely to know them all.

One thing you can do if you are in this scenario is some background reading on the L1s of your learners. A useful reference here is the book Learner English by Swan and Smith (see below). You may also find helpful notes through internet searches. The other thing you can do is try to find out as much as possible from the learners themselves. Ask them questions about their language, such as

Is the pronunciation of your language reflected in the written form?

How many vowel sounds are there?

Does your language have long and short vowel sounds?

Do most words end with a vowel?

Do any words have two or more consonant sounds together?

2 Monolingual classes

The second kind of ‘blindness’ is typical in schools in the learner’s home country, often with a teacher who is also from there. It’s a monolingual class. If you are in this situation, you have the great advantage of knowing your learner’s L1, but it may seem so familiar that you overlook its idiosyncrasies. Ironically, when it comes to explicit knowledge, many teachers are better informed about English than about their own language. This is a situation that you may want to remedy by reading as much as you can about the phonology of your L1.

One benefit of having such detailed knowledge is that you may find that it has unsuspected similarities with the target language. For example, there may be a phoneme in English which is not a phoneme in the L1, but does occur in certain specific contexts. Robin Walker provides the following example from Spanish: While /z/ is not a phoneme in Spanish, the sound does occur in certain contexts, for example between the ‘e’ and the ‘d’ in desde (since). If learners are having difficulty with /z/, it can help if you point this out.

So it seems that whatever kind of language teacher you are, in whatever context, there is always some pronunciation homework that needs doing!

Swan, M & Smith, B (2001) Learner English Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Walker, R (2010) Teaching the Pronunciation of English as a Lingua Franca Oxford: Oxford University Press

Whiskey versus Güisque

For a Spanish speaker, it seems perfectly natural for a [w] sound to be closely associated with a [g]. The Spanish dictionary entry for hueso, for example, gives the pronunciation as [(g)wéso], the bracketed (g) indicating that it is optional. Similarly, there’s an optional [g] at the beginning of huevo (egg).The g may be explicit in the spelling too. For example, the loan word for whiskey is often written güisque. For an English speaker, by contrast, this g comes as a surprise, and teachers are mystified as to why Spanish learners sometimes insert a g before words that begin with a w.  

If you encounter this mysterious g when teaching Spanish speaking students, you first need to make them aware of it. Show them that a [g] is formed when the back of the tongue makes contact with the roof of the mouth. Get them to say the sound, but while sucking in instead of breathing out. If they do this, they will feel a distinct coldness in the area where the tongue makes contact. Once they are aware of this contact point, you can then advise them to make sure there should be no such contact before the [w] in words like when, wood or whiskey.

In the case of wood, this problem gets compounded further when the [w] goes missing completely, so that it sounds like good. The missing [w] problem comes from the fact that for Spanish speakers, the [w] is a variant of [u] – a kind of harder alternative that you get as the first element in diphthongs such as the ua in cuatro – [kwátro]. So if the vowel that comes after the [w] is something like [u], then for the Spanish speaker it will just seem to be a doubled [u]. Consequently, a word like woman will come out as ooman.

If you encounter this problem in your teaching, then I think the thing to do is emphasise the difference in muscular tension between the [w] and the following vowel. For both the [w] and the [u] sounds, the mouth is rounded, but the mouth visibly relaxes as it moves from one to the other. Demonstrate this, and get students to make sure they can see this visible relaxation in the mirror (or camera) when they say this sound sequence.

To provide students with some intensive practice of words beginning with w, try this activity called Woman and Wolf, from PronPack 5: Pronunciation of English for Spanish Speakers (Hancock McDonald ELT 2020).