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.

PronPack on the Road

Mark Hancock with PronPack at English UK South West 201

PronPack has been out and about this October. The month began with a visit to Stirling in Scotland for the 40th Anniversary event of SATEFL. I gave a talk on how pronunciation teaching needs to assimilate the fact that English is a global Lingua Franca. The following week, I spoke at the International House conference in Milan, Italy about how different pronunciation activity types match up with different objectives. Finally, at the end of the month PronPack had a display table at the English UK South West conference in Somerset, England. At this event, I spoke about how to boost the attention given to pronunciation when teaching with coursebooks. It’s been an exhilarating month!

Don’t Sweat the Schwa

Mark Hancock presenting online pronunciation teaching course with T Veigga ELT

Coursebooks are big on schwa. Is it because schwa is said to be the most frequent sound in the English language? Is it because it’s an “issue” for all students, no matter what their L1? Whatever the reason, students get a lot of exposure to it, and sooner or later, someone is bound to ask something to the effect, “How exactly is it pronounced?”

Cue the teacher making little grunting noises and talking about how relaxed the mouth must be to make this sound. At this point, we are on thin ice. When a student asks how schwa differs from the the vowel in duck, the thin ice cracks. Because no matter how clearly the teacher demonstrates his/her version of the two phonemes, the difference seems to be barely perceivable to the student.

Student thinking, “Surely such a small difference can’t be so important!”

Teacher thinking, “Aargh, get me out of here!”

Books sometimes present schwa as if it were just another phoneme, equivalent to any other. Phonemic charts may encourage this perception, with the occupants of each little cell seemingly equivalent to one another, like chocolates in a chocolate box*. The chocolates are all the same kind of thing, but just with slightly contrasting flavours. The schwa however is not the same kind of thing – instead of contrasting with other vowel phonemes, it may substitute for them in unstressed syllables. It’s precise sound quality is not its essential feature. When teaching it, we should focus on it’s role in differentiating stressed and unstressed syllables rather than its exact sound quality.

Attempting to demonstrate and drill the schwa sound is what takes us on to the thin ice mentioned above, because it is not sufficiently different from some other vowel sounds – the duck vowel in particular. Ironically, the distinction becomes even less clear the more we focus on it: all that attention causes us to place stress on the sound, which is precisely what it shouldn’t have. So to sum up: Don’t sweat the schwa!

* This is the reason why, in the PronPack Sound Chart, the schwa is given an exceptional position, to discourage the impression of equivalence with the other phonemes.

Letting our Standards Drop

This article first appeared in the EL Gazette Magazine May-June 2019:

Everybody has an accent. Nobody is exempt, although many of us perhaps feel we are. That’s because we tend to perceive other people’s accents relative to our own, which we perceive as neutral and accentless.

An accent may come to be considered as ‘standard’, and again this may be perceived as neutral and accentless by the people who speak it. Hence the nonsense phrase, ‘getting rid of your accent’. On the face of it, this is impossible – but clearly, what it means is developing an accent which is more like the one which is considered ‘standard’.

Speaking with a ‘standard’ accent confers advantages – opportunities may be denied to people ‘with an accent’. This is what lies behind the one time popularity of elocution lessons – people seeking to improve their life prospects by modifying their speech. However, we should remember that ‘standard’ does not mean better: as Linguist John Wells puts it, ‘… a standard accent is regarded as a standard … not because of any intrinsic qualities it may possess, but because of an arbitrary attitude adopted towards it by society…’ (Wells 1982 p34).

In Britain, the accent long seen as standard is ‘Received Pronunciation’ (RP), where the word ‘received’ is used in the sense of ‘accepted’. In elocution lessons, RP is typically the target model, and ELT has followed the lead: pronunciation teachers have been expected to present the RP model to their students. But can RP be plausibly described as ‘standard’ in the sense of ‘widespread’ today? Geoff Lindsey of University College, London, argues that it can’t.

Review in English Australia Journal

PronPack reviewed by Arizio Sweeting in English Australia Journal

“Truly innovative and packed with fun activities”

“Follows the approach that pronunciation should be taught for intelligibility rather than ‘correctness in terms of a particular accent’”

“Written in a language that is accessible to teachers with any level of classroom experience”

“Your eyes will be caught by the professional and appealing infographics and illustrations”

“The ready-to-use worksheets have been laid out to be easily projected, printed or photocopied for classroom use”

“A perfect example of quality self-published supplementary material”

Pronunciation: Muscle, Mind, Meaning, Memory

This article first appeared in English Teaching Professional Issue 22 May 2019

Pronunciation straddles two domains: it is part language – like grammar or vocabulary – and part skill – like speaking or listening. This unique position makes pronunciation teaching interestingly varied, and potentially very enjoyable too. It is so much more than the ‘listen-and-repeat’ stereotype that is sometimes attached to it, and can’t be reduced to one single thing in this way. In this article, I will suggest that we can, in fact, divide it into four general areas, and I will label these with a mnemonic of four words, each beginning with m: muscle, mind, meaning and memory.

English After RP by Geoff Lindsay

Review of Geoff Lindsey (2019) English after RP: Standard British Pronunciation Today Palgrave Macmillan

If you teach English pronunciation, you will know that most text books present a model which claims to be either standard American or standard British. The latter is often referred to as RP (Received Pronunciation), and is usually represented by a set of phonetic symbols chosen over half a century ago by A. C. Gimson. Geoff Lindsey makes the point that if a person speaks in exactly the way that these symbols indicate, they will sound comically old-fashioned. His new book English after RP sets out to describe they ways in which standard British has evolved away from RP. He suggests alternative phonetic symbols which would be more appropriate for modern Standard Southern British English, but he also recognises that the traditional set will not be changed overnight, given the number of text books still using them. If we are to stick with the symbols currently in use, we will need to avoid taking them at phonetic face value – the symbols no longer accurately describe the facts.

Humanizing Pronunciation

We sometimes dehumanize pronunciation in the way we talk about it. If a learner mispronounces a word, we might say, ‘It isn’t pronounced like that; it’s pronounced …’ (and then we model the ‘correct’ way). In the dictionary, there are transcriptions to tell us how words are pronounced. Talking about weak forms, we might say, ‘In these words, the vowel sound is reduced to a schwa’. On the topic of word stress, we might say, ‘Most two-syllable nouns are stressed on the first syllable’. I’ve highlighted the verb forms above to demonstrate how easy it is to slip into the passive when talking about pronunciation, which is fine, but what it does is conceal the identity of who is doing the action. It doesn’t tell us who pronounces things this way – it removes the human from the equation.