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Teaching Pronuncation

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During the present paper I will choose two problems of transfer between Spanish and English that I consider to be obstacles to efficient communication and I will analyse them from two points of view.

In the first place I will explain the causes of the problems as regards phonetic and phonological aspects.

In the second place I will explain how I think the problems can be solved. This will be done considering I am working within the context of a specific language course (which I will describe referring to age, level and type of students).

As regards the problems themselves, I will consider them with reference to the three “E” variables, i.e. Exposure, Exercise and Explanation. I will also refer to Brinton´s five variables: Learner, Setting, Institutional, Linguistic and Methodological.


Of course, needless to say, there are many problems we could analyse here but I will choose two and I will deal with each problem separately.

1) The first problem of transfer between Spanish and English that can impede or cause problems with communication is a segmental one. It is the fact that Spanish learners cannot produce and sometimes even identify the pronunciation of different sounds such as the ones in the words “vet” and “bet”. Here the problem lies in the fact that in the Spanish language we do not have a different pronunciation for short “v” and long “b”. As a consequence, it is very difficult to make Spanish speakers become aware of this difference. And once they have been able to notice the sound difference, they have to acquire the skill to produce these two sounds. It is important to mention that “v” is a labiodental fricative sound and “b” is a bilabial plosive one in the English pronunciation system.

As regards the causes of this problem, we can say that the lack of the difference between these two sounds in Spanish makes it impossible for the learners to hear it in the first place. Secondly, they need to learn that there are different places and manners of articulation of the English consonants- as compared to the Spanish ones- so as to be able to try to produce them.

Something important for teachers to know is what a phoneme means because this knowledge will allow them to deal with the problem more easily. If we consider that a phoneme is the smallest unit of sound that can mark the difference between two words (such as “vet” and “bet”) we have to be prepared to make our students become aware of this difference. If not, they can misunderstand a message or say something different from what they mean.

Another cause for the difficulty in producing these two sounds is that speakers of different languages have a different shape in their vocal tract, mouths and all the organs that are put into action when we have to produce a sound. Besides, the way we breathe, aspirate and press our muscles is also different according to which our native language is. Why is this so? Because due to the passing of time producing certain sounds (the ones belonging to our native sound system), our vocal tact, muscles, etc are shaped and prepared differently from the ones speakers of other languages have.

It is very common to notice that American speakers use the front of their mouths and their noses more than we, Spanish speakers (and even British speakers) do when normally speaking in any context and to any interlocutor.

If I detected this problem in an intermediate adult course, I would explain to the students very briefly some aspects of our mouth organs, place and manner of articulation of sounds and I would show them where to put the tongue, how to place the lips and teeth to produce the sounds in question.

But I definitely would not show them or draw pictures of the articulators on the board. Because I do not think one should go so deep as regards phonetics and phonology with intermediate adult level students attending a regular course and whose aim is to learn general English.

Something I would do is work with minimal pairs. I would design some exercises for students to listen and circle the sound they hear, then I would ask them to produce the sounds themselves and provide more examples of both consonant sounds. But I would not raise this pronunciation issue myself as a teaching item, I would wait for the sound problem to appear to start working with it. I believe that students would feel less reluctant to work on pronunciation if they had realized that there is a real problem that needs action. I think that it is very difficult to work with pronunciation with adult learners. They feel embarrassed about having to imitate either the teacher or recorded material when it is a question of isolated sounds. In my experience, it is not the same as with intonation or any other aspect of connected speech.

If I were working with children, I would approach the problem from a different angle, probably using games songs and tongue twisters . But adults are very special about the question of “sounding right”. I would not only work with the minimal pair in question. On the contrary, I would try to pay special attention to other minimal pairs, that can cause misunderstanding, and I would also work with them but only when produced wrongly by the students.

Another interesting exercise, which is not time consuming, I would use is the following. I would give students a list of words (probably taken from the written and oral texts I would currently be using in the lessons) for them to classify the words according to the sounds they contain. So students would have to write the list of words with the same sound under the symbol of each sound. The exercise would look like this:

Classify the following words according to the sound.

Avoid – between- advantage-five-about-book-variety

/v/ /b/

Depending on whether I had been working with other minimal pairs, I would also include two more sounds in the above exercise.

Another task that can be interesting for intermediate or upper-intermediate students is to ask them to use the words in the previous exercise to invent a story in groups. If the class is a competitive one, the winner can be the group that uses more words naturally and in a story that makes sense, of course.

Besides, I would tell my students (and in fact this is what I do in my classes) that the differences in sound pronunciation I make them notice, and the sound symbols I show them are just there to help them improve their pronunciation and understanding of the language but under no circumstances would I test my students on topics connected to pronunciation. I mean, I would never include exercises connected to phonetics and phonology in examinations, classwork or the like. I believe pronunciation and intonation work is very important in the class and should be part of a lesson but to aid communication, to test students on this matter would be too stressing for them because they do not need to be able to draw the symbols to be able to pronounce them. The aim of teaching pronunciation in my classes has always been to give students a tool to be applied for the sake of intelligibility, not to make them become experts on phonetics and phonology.

As regards the three “E” variables, as I have stated before, I would concentrate on Explanation of where and how the sounds in question are produced and then I would do some Exercise to be sure students have understood the place and manner of articulation of the sounds. As I said before, the Explanation would be as simple as possible, I do not consider it is necessary to be an expert on phonetics and phonology to be able to communicate in English so my students would get just the necessary information. Besides, it is my experience that different groups of adults require different amount and kind of Explanation as regards pronunciation. Although for me pronunciation issues play a key role in teaching English, I know that adult learners do not share this view. And they can, sometimes, see the question of pronunciation Explanation and Exercise as a waste of time. So, I would give them just the Explanation they require from me and being very cautious, going step by step.

As regards “Exercise” I would proceed similarly to the question of “Explanation”. I would present my students with just the necessary tasks for them to be able to produce the sound in the correct form.

Anyway, we all know that (as in cases of grammar, syntax etc) students can produce something correctly today and forget it tomorrow. So recycling and reinforcing of ideas would also be necessary in the case of pronunciation issues as well.

I have not mentioned the question of “Exposure” because I would give more importance to the other two variables but, obviously, the sounds in question will come into the lesson by means of “Exposure” because students will first need to hear them at least once ( in a dialogue or monologue) recorded on tape, cd or video, and then the whole set of procedures will be put into practice (i.e. “Explanation” and “Exercise”). But I did not mention “Exposure” before as I thought it was understood that the sounds in question must undoubtedly come from some aural media.

With reference to Brinton’s five variables, I would say that Institutional variables play a very important role here because there are some coursebooks that include sections on pronunciation practice and there are others that do not. So the materials used, the syllabus and the skills orientation should be in accordance with the idea of teaching pronunciation. Besides, the teacher´s experience, knowledge and preparation are key factors when teaching pronunciation. Because all of us have received instruction on grammar, syntax, language use and usage but not all teacher training courses offer the same amount of instruction as regards phonetics and phonology.

Personally, I had very good instruction and thus I feel confident with the topic. As a consequence I always deal with this topic in my classes. As I said before, depending on the students’ age, level, interests and aptitudes. This leads me to other variables, the Linguistic ones. In the case of Spanish speakers, their L1 modifies the students’ awareness and production of this minimal pair (“v” and “b”) because, as stated before, in Spanish we do not make a difference between these two sounds. So I believe raising awareness on this difference is important even at lower levels, but absolutely necessary at an intermediate level ( the one I am currently analysing).

The last variable I consider worth mentioning is the Learner variable. Here the students’ age, proficiency, aptitude and learning style are very important to be considered. If students are too old and not very proficient, there will be fewer possibilities for them to produce the sound difference correctly. They might do so when the sounds are in isolation but I doubt they can be as correct in connected speech, when they are speaking about a certain topic (especially if they are interested in what they are saying and, of course, not in how they are saying it).

On the other hand, I must say that it is correct to allow them to express themselves freely, without interruptions, if they are in the middle of a debate, discussion or role-play activity. I would leave corrections of all kinds (grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation) for a later stage so each individual according to his proficiency and aptitude would produce different results. Besides, each student would have his own learning style and this would also modify the way he approaches the question of pronunciation.

2) The second problem of transfer between Spanish and English that I think can spoil communication is stress and intonation.

Although we can deal with these two elements separately, I will consider them as a kind of unit because I think they are intimately related when we refer to connected speech. Stress and intonation working together can give us numerous variables as regards what and how to say something.

The fact that English is a “stress-timed” language and Spanish is not makes it difficult for Spanish speakers to acquire the right accent or an accent that sounds similar to the one spoken by a native speaker.

Although nowadays there is a tendency to teach learners a kind of stress and intonation patterns that are intelligible, it is not easy to make students become aware of the way native speakers do so because the trend is that each individual learner should keep his own particular accent and it is not seen wrongly if a learner’s speech reveals where the person comes from. (Something that years ago was considered incorrect, because all English speakers either native or non-native should have the RP pronunciation).

However, stressing the wrong words in a sentence can cause unintelligibility or misunderstanding. That is why I believe stress and intonation are such important issues.

Some of the factors that cause problems to Spanish speakers are the following. In the first place Spanish has no weak forms. English, on the contrary, has a lot. This allows native speakers to produce stressed and unstressed syllables and in this way achieve the stress-timed melody so characteristic of the English language. In Spanish we only have strong forms for vowels. Thus, this does not help Spanish speakers at all when attempting to “sound” like a native speaker of English.

Secondly, in English speakers stress content words and those words and phrases that carry new information in a sentence. Spanish, again, does not have this characteristic, which represents another drawback for Spanish speakers who want to acquire an English intonation.

In the third place, in English according to the words we choose to stress in a sentence we can change the meaning of it. Although Spanish has this possibility, it might be difficult for non-native speakers to do so in a foreign language and still be sure that they have provided the right intonation and message.

In the fourth place, I believe that stress and intonation allow speakers to show their feelings and this is not easy to do if you are not using your native language. Sometimes the wrong use of stress and intonation can cause misunderstandings as regards meaning but also as regards feelings, attitudes to the interlocutor, among others.

As I said before the activities I will describe below are the ones I would use with an intermediate adult learner course and I will relate them to the four problems I have stated above.

The first problem I mentioned before is the fact that Spanish has no weak forms so it is very difficult to teach Spanish learners of English to say a long or short phrase in English at the same speed. Take the following expressions:

Shes´s going to go to the shops in the afternoon.

She went to the shops yesterday.

Although the first sentence has more words, an English native speaker would normally stress three words in each sentence. In the first case we could probably hear: go-shops-afternoon.

And in the second, went-shops-yesterday.

This means the speed at which the utterances are delivered will be different. To train my students to be able to produce this I usually do backwards and forwards repetition of utterances word by word (in case of long and difficult sentences). Or I divide the sentence into meaningful units, i.e. I divide the sentence into as many parts as stresses I have in the utterance and I make students repeat after me, first phrase one, then phrase one and two, and so on.

For example:

She’s going to `go

She’s going to `go to the `shops

She’s going to `go to the `shops in the `afternoon.

Then I usually change some content words and continue the practice along the same lines. In this way I can cater for the practice students need in connection with the second problem I stated above: the question of stressing content words and words that carry new information.

Another technique that I find very useful is to clap my hands or to stamp my foot when I want to mark stress. Then I elicit the phrases or sentences in question and students must make their stressed words coincide with the noise I produce.

Sometimes, especially when working with the intonation of Wh-questions, I give my students the corresponding explanation as regards the fact that these questions in English usually take a falling tone at the end. It is very important to mark this difference because in Spanish we usually pronounce all types of questions with a rising tone.

Students understand this concept perfectly well -however, most of them are surprised- but when they have to put this into practice, for example during pair work, role-plays, etc, they forget and naturally fall into the trap of using their native intonation pattern for questions. Something I do to make them aware of this fact and correct it is repeat the question imitating their intonation. This is a very useful method because when they hear me echoing what they say, they immediately realize this mistake and try to correct it.

Another case of question forms that can cause problems to students are those questions that have the form of a question but function as something different. This is the case of phrases such as:

Could you open the window? REQUEST

Would you like a drink? OFFER

In this case what I usually do is try to be sure to do enough oral practice before my students see the written forms. Why? Because when they do see the written forms, they are puzzled by the fact that the first three words of these questions sound as one. What I always do is tell the learners that what they are thinking is right. The three first words of phrases like the two above sound as only one word due to the presence of many weak forms. Then I explain to them how to effectively pronounce them and, depending on the group level (and I do so at intermediate levels, like the one I am analysing here) I write the phonemic transcription on the board.

As regards the third problem I stated above: stressing different words to change the meaning of an utterance, I give students a sentence with different stress patterns and I ask them to tell me what they think the speaker meant in each case.

An example could be:

`Mary wrote an e-mail. (stressing the fact that it was Mary not Susan or Paul).

Mary wrote an ´e-mail. (stressing the fact that it is an e-mail not a letter and we could speculate about Mary’s age and aptitudes for her age).

On the question of attitude and intonation there are endless activities to do but I find this one simple and funny, especially if done with adults at intermediate level because they can come up with very interesting interpretations!

In connection with the fourth problem I mentioned, I usually work with recorded material taken from commercials or parts of movies, and I ask students to interpret what a simple word can mean. Take the example of a scene where there is a man and a woman in a store. The man asks the woman if she is the shop assistant and she is not. Depending on whether the woman likes the man and would like to continue the conversation with this stranger, she will use a different tone for her answer, which could only be “No”. If said with a falling tone, the conversation would end there. But if she said it with a fall-rise tone, the man could interpret many thing. For example: “No, but I can help you choose what you need.” Or “No, but I’d love to be the assistant to continue talking with you.” And so on. This is an activity that students find interesting and great fun so we as teachers have to take advantage of it because while students are having fun they are internalizing certain English facts as regards stress and intonation, which will be very useful for them in the future.

As regards the three “E” variables I would say that the three of them are present in the procedures and techniques I have described above. I believe that these three variables are very important in the case of working with stress and intonation patterns. But I personally give more weight to the Exercise variable. But as here I am referring to the work I do with adult intermediate students, I must say that I also use the “Explanation” variable. For adult learners it is very important to know and understand why certain processes occur so if they get an explanation -no matter how simple it can be- they feel more confident and ready to work.

In connection with Brinton’s five variables, I believe that Learner variables are fundamental. Age, proficiency and aptitude will determine the degree of difficulty an individual student might have when working with pronunciation. Prior instruction and learning style will force the teacher to adapt his teaching to fit the students’ characteristics. Finally, the students’ attitude towards the target culture is a key factor when talking about pronunciation. If a learner wants (or needs) to learn English for specific purposes (for example: work or study abroad), he might want to retain his own accent and feel reluctant to imitate an English native speaker’s intonation pattern.

On the other hand, if the learner wants to be accepted and included (as a peer) in the target culture, he will probably make a great effort to sound “as native as possible”. I believe we as teachers have to take into consideration all the cases, interests and aims. Thus, we have to be prepared to cater for all our students’ goals and accept those that want to sound foreign in the same way we accept the ones that want to sound as British or American as possible.

The Institutional variables are also important to be considered because an experienced teacher will know how to deal with pronunciation (not an easy subject) better than an inexperienced one; and basically the type of materials used will define whether pronunciation is an important item in the syllabus.

Nevertheless, in my opinion, it is always necessary to do some pronunciation practice regardless of what the general lines of teaching at a certain place are.

Linguistic variables will determine the way a learner acquires the L2 because this process will invariably be modified by his L1, so I think that as suprasegmental features contribute to intelligibility, this variable should be considered when planning the teaching and learning process. Especially nowadays that communication is one of the most (if not the most) important learning goals students manifest when asked about their purpose for learning English. One must not forget that the Communicative Approach in all its variables has always stressed the idea of intelligibility between speakers. And I believe that the better pronunciation a student has, the easier it is for him to speak and understand a native speaker.


In this paper I have chosen two problems of transfer that I believe exist between Spanish and English. I have explained why I think they are obstacles to a good communication between speakers of both languages. I have also explained why these problems occur, what I would do to make students aware of them and then try to solve them. I have also stated which group of learners would find my suggestions useful. I said that I took as reference a group of adult intermediate learners who attend classes twice a week for a total of ten hours a month and their purpose is to learn general English.

I have analysed each problem separately and I have referred to the three “E” variables and the five Brinton’s variables, too.

To conclude, I would say that in my view all elements of pronunciation (either segmental or suprasegmental) should be taught and practised to acquire a good standard intelligible pronunciation. However, some of them can be more important than others to aid communication. In this work I have tried to choose one segmental and one suprasegmental feature that I consider very important for the just mentioned purpose.


HARMER, J. (2001): “Teaching Pronunciation” in: English Language Teaching. England: Longman. Chapter 13, pp. 183-198.

JENKINS, J. (1998): “Which pronunciation norms and models for English as an International Language?”. In ELT Journal 52/2, pp. 119-126.

NUNAN, David. (1999): “Focus on Language” in: Second Language Teaching and Learning.

USA: Heinle & Heinle. Chapter 4 pp. 105-107.

UNDERHILL, A. (1998): “Get an ear for pronunciation”. In El Gazette Issue, nÂş 223, August 1998, p. 10.

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