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.

Let me briefly introduce these four broad areas:

  • There is clearly a very physical aspect to pronunciation – the use of muscles, which control the articulation of speech. We could label this area muscle.
  • But as with grammar and lexis, there is a strong cognitive element too: the recognition and understanding of rules and patterns. This we may label mind.
  • As with speaking, there is an interactive element to pronunciation – communicating meaning and adapting your speech to an interlocutor. We could label this as meaning.
  • Finally, we should remember that pronunciation is not only a productive skill, it is also receptive. Learners must build up a mental repertoire of how chunks of language sound, and develop the ability to recognise and remember these in the speech of a variety of different interlocutors. This area we could label memory.

For each of the four areas outlined above, the classroom implications are different. Let’s look in a bit more detail at each of them in turn.

1 Muscle: Pronunciation as articulation awareness

Feel it
This aspect of pronunciation concerns the physical articulation of the sounds and prosody of the language. Everybody is an expert at doing this in their own language, and we can enunciate things without any conscious awareness of how we do so. However, in learning a new language, we have to master new articulation habits, and this requires focusing our attention onto what we are doing. For example, we have to make a sound and be aware of how the muscles around the mouth feel while we are doing it, so that we can make the sound again in future. Adrian Underhill calls this muscle awareness ‘proprioception’

Teach it
Demonstration may be sufficient in some cases, especially when the articulation of a sound is easy to see – for example, the closed lips for the phoneme /m/. However, articulation is not usually so visible. For example, you can’t see what is going on when you make the phonemes /s/ and /z/. In cases like this, you will need to use guided discovery techniques. For example, to raise awareness of place of articulation, help the students to become aware of their tongue position for /s/ and /z/, with the tip almost touching the alveolar ridge. For manner of articulation, get them to notice the vibration in the throat which accompanies /z/ but not /s/.

Apart from guided discovery, we will need to provide opportunities for practice, and repetition is a useful form of practice for the more physical aspect we are discussing here. I call activities for this purpose ‘workouts’. A workout consists of a drill in which the students repeat chunks of text containing a high concentration of the target pronunciation feature, so that it is very noticeable. While your students are repeating, encourage them to pay attention to their articulation. In this way, they build a mental association between how each phoneme sounds and how it feels.

2 Mind: Pronunciation as knowledge

Think it
This area of pronunciation concerns the students’ awareness of rules and patterns in the pronunciation of the target language. An example of a rule might be that the past tense -ed ending is an extra syllable only when the root verb ends with the phonemes /d/ or /t/. An example of a pattern might be that the final e in a word like tape usually means that the preceding vowel is pronounced as it is in the alphabet (in this example, the a of tape is pronounced /eɪ/).   Notice that this aspect of pronunciation is clearly distinct from the previous, physical articulation aspect. The students may be physically capable of saying the /eɪ/ phoneme easily, yet fail to do so in the word tape, because they aren’t aware of the spelling pattern

Teach it
We may choose to present pronunciation patterns explicitly. Alternatively, we may present activities which are designed to make the patterns very salient and let the students work out the patterns for themselves, implicitly or explicitly. Games and puzzles work well because they provide a motivating way of obliging the students to pay attention to the rules and patterns of the target phonology. You may notice that your students can do pronunciation puzzles silently, without exercising their mouth muscles at all, which attests to the fact that these kinds of activities focus more on mind than muscle. Interestingly, however, students tend to say the words and phrases to themselves while they do the activities. Sometimes the doing helps the thinking!

3 Meaning: Pronunciation as an interactive skill

Use it
This area of pronunciation involves adjusting your pronunciation to make yourself understood, as well as tuning into your interlocutor’s pronunciation as best you can, in order to understand them. It is about communicating meaning in a cross-linguistic context – a process known as ‘accommodation’. The importance of accommodation in pronunciation learning has been highlighted by Jennifer Jenkins. She points out that English now plays the role of a lingua franca, used as a global medium of communication. In this context, accent variation is bound to be the norm rather than the exception and, consequently, the need for flexibility in both speaking and listening is paramount.

Teach it
Classroom communication activities usually involve some form of information gap – one student has information that another needs in order to complete the activity, and must communicate it verbally. The activity may be designed in such a way that the successful transmission of the information depends on a specific pronunciation feature, and the classic examples of this are minimal pair activities, such as distinguishing Can you collect it? from Can you correct it? Success in a minimal pair activity depends on the students being able to articulate and/or hear the difference between words which differ only in one phoneme. The idea may be extended beyond the phoneme to other features such as word stress and tonic stress – for example, distinguishing the workers protest from the worker’s protest.

Minimal pair type activities work well for practising accommodation in class if the teacher highlights the fact that the objective is to get across the intended message, rather than pronounce the words like a ‘native speaker’ or some other idealised model. In this area of pronunciation, we need to evaluate in terms of what works, rather than in terms of what is correct.

4 Memory: Pronunciation as a receptive skill

Hear it
This area concerns the overlap of pronunciation with listening. All too often, students have an idea of how words and phrases look on the page, but not how they sound in speech. They may understand the written form and expect the spoken form to resemble it closely. The way that words sound in the stream of speech, possibly in different accents, comes as an unwelcome surprise. I’ve used the label memory for this area to capture John Field’s idea that part of what listening involves is building up a repertoire of mental traces – memories of specific instances of chunks of language heard in the past, which can be used as a reference to aid comprehension in the present.

Two areas of special difficulty emerge when we consider what makes listening difficult. The first is connected speech. There are features such as linking, elision, weak forms and assimilation, which students may find difficult to decode. The other area of special difficulty is accent variation, and this takes on an even greater importance in a lingua franca context (see above), where accent variation is so pervasive that there is no longer any type of pronunciation which may be considered ‘standard’.

Teach it
We can give our students samples of language which contain a high density of a given pronunciation feature, so that that feature becomes very noticeable to them. This high density of a given feature is a typical property of texts with word-play such as rhyme, alliteration and rhythm – for example, poems, raps, chants, limericks, and so on. We may ask the students simply to listen to these, since the focus is receptive. However, in practice, it is better if they attempt to recite the texts themselves, because there is no better way of enhancing awareness of a feature than attempting to produce it. To this end, we can use micro-drilling – where you repeat very small fragments of the text over and over, and the students repeat. This forces attention onto the sound substance (to use Richard Cauldwell’s term), rather than the meaning of the fragment.

As regards accent variation, we can make sure there are a variety of accents in any recorded materials we use. We can also point out areas of pronunciation which are particularly prone to accent variation, such as /r/ and /θ/.

The purpose of this article has been to highlight the plurality of areas involved in teaching pronunciation. It is a plurality which arises because of the particular position that pronunciation occupies across the distinct domains of language and skills. It is important for teachers to keep these different facets of pronunciation in mind, to ensure they provide an appropriate balance of classroom activities. In short: when teaching pronunciation, keep the four Ms in mind – muscle, mind, meaning and memory.

Cauldwell, R Phonology for Listening Speech in Action 2013

Field, J Listening in the Language Classroom CUP 2008

Hancock, M PronPack 1–4: Pronunciation Workouts Hancock McDonald ELT 2017

Jenkins, J The Phonology of English as an International Language OUP 2000

Underhill A ‘Proprioception and pronunciation’ 2012

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