Mark Hancock interviewed by Stella Palavecino

Interview first published in AEXALEVI Forum Issue XXXI

Stella: How did you get into teaching phonetics and pronunciation?

Mark: I was teaching at the Cultura Inglesa in Rio de Janeiro, and had a few administrative hours on my timetable. They asked me to produce some fun pronunciation materials for the school. I enjoyed the challenge of trying to make sense of the hidden patterns of phonology, and creating tasks and activities which would really engage the learners. I discovered that pronunciation is fascinating, perhaps because it is hybrid. It crosses the frontier between language systems (like grammar and lexis) and skills (like speaking and listening). It also has aspects which are cerebral on the one hand and physical on the other. In this respect, it is like no other aspect of language teaching. To me, language without pronunciation is somewhat two-dimensional. The spoken form lifts it off the page into a fully three-dimensional form. It brings the target language to life.

Stella: Are you teaching at the moment? What sort of people take your classes?

Mark: I teach part-time at a private language school called English in Chester. The students range from teenage through to retirement age. Some are university students, some are professionals. They typically enrol at the school for a few weeks or months. There is no specific start or end date, so that we have rolling intake. Consequently, every lesson needs to have its own surrender value  – you can’t guarantee that all the students in your class will still be there to continue the following week. This means that I have to deliver a cyclical course of pronunciation, with a balanced coverage between segmental and suprasegmental features. I also need to endeavour to take into account the mother tongue of the students in any given class, which may be anything from Spanish to Thai to Arabic to Swedish to Korean – a real mix.

Stella: What types of pronunciation problems do people have with being understood?

Mark: I used to teach in mono-lingual classes in Spain, so I’m finding it really interesting to teach in multi-lingual classes now. The students don’t share a mother tongue, so they have to use English naturally, as a Lingua Franca. In this way, they quickly discover which aspects of their own pronunciation are unintelligible to their classmates. Creating a communicative need was really difficult in Spain; here it is provided automatically.

I notice that many of the students we get here are already aware of the ‘typical’ L1-interference issues associated with their mother tongue. For example, although the Japanese students still have trouble distinguishing /l/ from /r/, it is clear that they have been taught about this problem in their past learning experiences, and they can often self-correct if they concentrate.

When I observe the students interacting, I get the impression that the biggest problem when it comes to intelligibility is when the speaker simplifies syllables by simply dropping sounds. For example, Thai students often cut off any consonants that come at the end of the syllable after the vowel. Meanwhile, Italian students often cut off the /h/ consonant from the beginning of a syllable – and then puzzlingly add an /h/ to the beginning of a syllable which shouldn’t have one. As Jennifer Jenkins once suggested, dropping sounds appears to be more damaging to intelligibility than adding them. Thus, when Spanish speakers add a vowel before an initial s- consonant cluster, for example ‘isport’ for ‘sport’, this does not render them unintelligible to their classmates. But when a Thai speaker chops the end off a word, people have real trouble understanding.

I have the impression that the more common the learner-accent feature (I’m avoiding using the term ‘error’ here), the more easily understood it is. For example, a lot of students have difficulty producing the TH sounds and substitute an alternative, without being unintelligible. Meanwhile, Spanish students who conflate /b/ and /v/ may be misunderstood, because this is not a very common conflation, globally speaking.

Stella: In your opinion, what approach is more beneficial to help non-native speakers to gain confidence in their pronunciation?

Mark: I try to quite naturally refer to accents, both native and non-native, in a way which is non-evaluative. I never imply that any specific accent is superior or more ‘correct’. Sometimes, a student may ask, ‘Yes, but what’s the correct pronunciation?’, to which I will answer something like, ‘Well, in my accent, I say it like this, but in some accents they say it like that …’. For example, when the letter ‘r’ occurs after a vowel, in words like ‘hard’ or ‘bird’ or ‘course’, I don’t pronounce an /r/ in my accent. However, I point out that other speakers in, for example, the USA or Scotland do pronounce that /r/. I find that most students naturally pronounce that /r/ in their own accents, and I make sure that they know it’s not a problem. I point out, for example, that students from a Spanish speaking background tend to pronounce the /r/ in a way which sounds Scottish. I think they like the idea that they sound like a native speaker!

So to answer your question, I think non-native speakers gain confidence in their pronunciation when you present English as a global language, with a rich variety of different accents, and none ‘superior’ to the rest. In more traditional approaches, we tended to limit the target form to a choice between two standards – Received Pronunciation (British) or General American. Few students were able to succeed in mimicking either of those accents, and so the majority were doomed to always be sub-standard. I think the unfortunate consequence of this for their own confidence was all too predictable. And totally unnecessary!

Stella: Can you tell us about your latest series of books PronPack 1 -4?

Mark: PronPack is a set of four teachers’ resource books, with printable worksheets and accompanying teachers notes, plus audio and other materials on the website Each of the four books takes a different angle, which I summarise with the four Ms – muscle, mind, meaning, memory. ‘Muscle’ refers to a focus on the physical articulation of English. ‘Mind’ refers to cognitive awareness of phonological patterns. ‘Meaning’ refers to the role of pronunciation in interactive communication. And ‘Memory’ refers to becoming familiar with the sound of English, especially connected speech, particularly with the purpose of improving receptive skills. Some of the materials are updated versions of activity types found in my first book Pronunciation Games (CUP, 1995). Others, including the drill-type activities in PronPack 1 and the raps in PronPack 4 are a new kind of approach.

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