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.

The bizarre world of pronunciation

Why is it that when we study English pronunciation, we so often get strange combinations like a ship and a sheep, or a bear with a beer? Why is it that one pronunciation book is even entitled, ‘How now brown cow?’ (Mimi Ponsonby, Pergamon Press). Is this a phrase you’re going to need anytime soon? I think not – the sentence was created for another purpose: to highlight a coincidence of form. The words how, now, brown and cow, which have nothing in common in terms of meaning, all happen to rhyme (or nearly rhyme). Semantics and phonology are worlds apart, so that patterns in one rarely coincide with patterns in the other. Juxtaposing words which share common features in terms of pronunciation is highly likely to result in bizarre meanings. For some, this strangeness has been enough to put them off pronunciation teaching.

Babies and bathwater

With the rise of communicative language teaching, it became deeply unfashionable to present learners with samples of language constructed for the sole purpose of highlighting linguistic form. Instead, materials were expected to show realistic samples of language in realistic contexts. Practice was supposed to resemble normal, predictable communicative activity. If language examples looked weird or unlikely, they were thrown out, and for many teachers, pronunciation went out with them (like the proverbial baby that was thrown out along with the bathwater). But what is it that has lead to this unfortunate outcome?

Slippery slopes

Picture a graph with a vertical axis on the left representing ‘speaking practice’ and a horizontal axis at the bottom representing a continuum from ‘realistic’ on the left to ‘focused’ on the right. The best practice for speaking is at the ‘realistic’ end of the axis. The more ‘focused’ the activity (meaning focused specifically on pronunciation), the less good it is for speaking purposes. This situation is represented by a diagonal line going top left to bottom right – our first ‘slippery slope’.

Equal and opposite

Now add to  the graph a vertical axis on the right to represent ‘pronunciation practice’. Here the situation is the opposite – a diagonal line goes from top right to bottom left. This shows that the less focused (and so more realistic) the activity, the less good it is for pronunciation practice purposes. This situation is our second ‘slippery slope’.


The implication of the slippery slopes graph is this: if we want to make our speaking practice more pronunciation-focused, we’re probably going to have to sacrifice some degree of realism. If we want to make our pronunciation practice more like realistic speaking, we’re going to have to sacrifice some degree of focus. One way or the other, we need to compromise. We need to go part of the way down the slope, but with out slipping all the way.

Speaking with added pronunciation

If we wish to work on speaking skills without going down the slippery slope away from realism, we could keep our original speaking task, but adapt their implementation. For example, before the activity, we can prime the learners by focusing on the kind of pronunciation features that they are likely to be able to make use of in the task. During the activity, we can have the learners in groups, and one member of the group can use a pronunciation check-list to monitor the performance of their colleagues. After the activity, we can devote some class time to reflecting on pronunciation issues that have emerged.

Pronunciation with added speaking

On the other hand, adapting pronunciation activities to make them better resemble real speaking normally involves a compromise between realism and focus; activities can either be focused but contrived, or else more realistic but less focused on the target pronunciation feature. Let’s consider exactly how we can adapt pronunciation activities to make them feel more realistic and communicative. One way of doing this is by conjuring up some kind of context. Alternatively, we can design the task so that pronunciation plays an essential part in a successful communicative outcome. In this way, learners can discover that pronunciation is meaningful: it plays a role in understanding and being understood. Let’s look at these two possibilities in turn:


Adding context to pronunciation practice can be as simple as this idea for focusing on affricate consonants  (from Susan Baker’s book Tree or Three?): there’s a picture of two fridges, one large, one small, and various foodstuffs in them (chicken, cheese, orange juice etc). Learners look at the pictures for a minute, and then test each other’s memory, for example:

A: Which fridge is the cheese in?

B: The large fridge!


At the simplest level, an activity involving a minimal pair such as ship and sheep can be made more meaningful by embedding the words as alternatives in a sentence which requires a response. For example, the sentence is What’s the plural of [a. ship, b. sheep]. Student A asks the question with either a or b. Student B responds with the true answer:

A: What’s the plural of sheep?

B: It’s sheep!

Notice that if B had instead responded with the answer ships, then A would know that a misunderstanding had occurred and needs to be repaired – which is a very useful and realistic outcome. Judy Gilbert makes a lot of use of this type of activity in her Clear Speech books.

Surrealism re-visited

Attempts to add a sense of realistic communication to pronunciation work are very valid and necessary, but in my opinion, there remains a place for a more direct focus on the form at some stage. If that means venturing into the bizarre, that’s not necessarily a problem – as Guy Cook pointed out in his book Language Play, weird imagery can be very striking and memorable. Here, for example, is a short rhyme from my book PronPack 5 designed with Spanish speaking learners in mind, to focus on the distinction between /b/ and /v/ (see video here):

Barry had a berry vest

On it was a berry

The vest was the best

Was it cool? Yes, very!

It’s frankly weird, but it would be pretty much impossible to contextualise /b/ /v/ minimal pairs in a realistic communicative scenario. Would the surrealism put your learners off, or would they find it amusing and memorable? That’s for you to decide!

Leave a Reply

Your e-mail address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.