Surrealism in Pronunciation


Imagine this: You’re in the middle of the ocean, and you can see two ships. But the top part of the nearest one actually looks like a huge sheep! And above the other ship, there’s a cloud in the sky which is also the shape of a sheep. It’s a surreal scene which looks like a painting by Salvador Dali, but in fact it is part of an advertising campaign for an English language school in Brazil. ‘What on earth is the connection between this image and English?’, you may ask. But of course, you know already; ship and sheep is a minimal pair. The picture represents one of the more well-known pronunciation problems of English.

New Book!

Delighted to announce the arrival of a new member of the PronPack family! Connected Speech for Listeners provides background tips plus a wealth of teaching ideas and materials for dealing in class with the pronunciation of natural spoken English. The main objective is to help learners improve their listening skills. This pocketbook-style volume is user-friendly, with short well signposted chapters providing maximum accessibility for the busy teacher.

Streamlining in Speech

Pronunciation in spontaneous speech does not follow the dictionary form, nor does it obey the ‘rules’ of connected speech often given in pronunciation books. It helps if learners are aware of this.

(This article is an excerpt from new book PronPack: Connected Speech for Listeners)


Why isn’t a racing car shaped like a brick on wheels? Why isn’t a speedboat shaped like a bathtub? It’s all about efficiency, making it faster and easier for the vehicle or vessel to move through air or water. It’s about, in a word, streamlining. Richard Cauldwell uses this term to refer to the changes that speakers make to words and phrases so that they will slip out of the mouth with the maximum speed and comfort. Perhaps the most obvious such change is to simply drop sounds altogether – otherwise known as elision.

The Chocolate Box: thoughts on the use and abuse of the phonemic chart

(Article first published on Cambridge UPELT website)

Caution: May contain nuts

My argument in a nutshell is this: that the point of the phonemic chart is to help you to teach and your learners to learn. It is not there to police your accent. The widespread idea that the chart represents only RP (‘received pronunciation’) speech, or any other such ‘standard’ form, is profoundly unhelpful. I think we need to embrace a more flexible attitude to the chart, one that takes account of the idea that the symbols are phonemic rather than phonetic. We should recognise that each symbol represents not a single, precise sound but rather a range of sounds which listeners may interpret as that phoneme. In other words, the chart allows different accents.

PronPack for Brazilians!

A new book has just joined the PronPack family. We welcome PronPack 6: Pronunciation of English for Brazilian Learners. This volume is packed with motivating puzzles, games and raps, and it’s designed to focus on pronunciation issues which are specific to Brazilian learners of English – the kinds of problems which make it hard to distinguish pairs of words like: rat / hat; teas / cheese; piece / peas; cough / coffee; live / leave; Brad / bread, some / sung; thin / fin or Hal / how. If you teach learners from Brazil, this book is for you, and it’s available in print from is external), and as an ebook from Kobo (link is external) and Apple iBooks(link is external).

I’m an English Teacher: Should I Worry about my Accent?

A cruel mirror

Accent anxiety is a cruel mirror for those of us who are in the business of teaching English. Many of us feel a sense of inadequacy, and we are harsh in judging ourselves. Partly, this is the widely-reported phenomenon of simply hating the sound of your own voice on recordings. But for teachers, it is more serious, because we are a pronunciation model for our students, and in ELT there are some unfortunate preconceptions about what constitutes a ‘good’ model. Here are some examples of the kinds of things teachers say:

The Perils of Pronouncing from Print

Like many people, I’ve been doing some language study during the lockdown. On my daily walk, I’ve been listening to a Greek course delivered entirely through audio, with no reference whatever to the written form. It remains to be seen if this has worked, since I haven’t had the opportunity use it. But one thing I can be fairly sure of is that my Greek pronunciation won’t be subject to spelling-induced error.

Learning through the eyes

Most learners of English, certainly the ones I’ve come across in my teaching career, have not learnt entirely through the ear as in my Greek experience. Most have learnt through the eyes too. They’ve used books, not just audio, and most have been both guided and misled by the written form. We shouldn’t underestimate the importance of spelling in teaching pronunciation, and not only for the productive (speech) skills but also for the receptive (listening).

Pronunciation Models and False Choices

(This article first appeared on the Cambridge ELT Blog)

Which English do you want – American or British? This is a question which students (or their parents and other stakeholders) typically face at the beginning of a language course. As regards pronunciation, this usually means a choice between the two ‘standard’ accents General American (GA) or Received Pronunciation (RP). It’s as if these accents are products on a supermarket shelf and it’s simply a matter of choosing. But I think presenting a choice in this way is misleading, and here’s why.

IPA: Symbols of Power?

I argue for a more democratic use of the IPA symbols in this article, which first appeared in Modern English Teacher 29.3 (July 2020).

There seems to be a love-hate relationship between the English teaching community and phonemic symbols. Some teachers love them, others won’t use them. A third category uses them under duress, but do not feel comfortable in doing so. This article is for anybody, but especially teachers in this third category.

A teacher’s feelings about the material they’re teaching with are often perceptible to the class. If a teacher uses phonemic symbols with confidence and pleasure, that will communicate itself to the class. If on the other hand a teacher uses them but dislikes doing so, it’s likely that this dislike will be part of what the learners take home from the lesson. I would like, if at all possible, to help teachers feel more at home with the symbols – to feel as if they ‘own’ them.