English pronunciation - specifying priorities for a given group of learners

ESSAY TITLE: How would you assess the priorities for pronunciation teaching for a given group of learners?

Refer if possible to a group you have actually worked with.

Specifying priorities for Swedish learners of English

I have chosen as my sample a group of Swedish learners of English. The learners are all employed by Fagersta AB steel works in Central Sweden. I have based this study on the accompanying recording of a class discussion. The students were clearly involved in the discussion subject and had forgotten that they were being recorded. Although the recording was not made with pronunciation in mind, it contains a spontaneous sample of speech unlike those elicited through picture stories or reading passages in formal examinations.

The choice of a monolingual group of fairly advanced learners was deliberate. Fagersta is by no means a mono-cultural town. Manual workers in the steel works are predominately Fins and there are many East Germans, Poles, Danes, Norwegians and Turks employed in the local service industries. My lower level classes would contain a high proportion of non-Swedes, especially Fins. However, serious consideration of priorities for pronunciation teaching has to refer to differences between learners' native phonological systems and the target system:

Unless the teacher understands how the student is using his speech organs in producing a native language sound and what he should be doing to reproduce the foreign language sound acceptably, he cannot help the student beyond a certain stage of earnest but inaccurate imitation.
[Teaching Foreign-Language Skills Wilga M Rivers 1981].

In the interests of economy, I have limited my contrastive analysis to Swedish. The purpose of choosing a fairly advanced group is to allow two levels of analysis. The first is a broader level, which was the main reason behind the phonemic transcription. In elementary groups of learners, priorities for pronunciation relate closely to intelligibility. Moreover, the test for intelligibility is fairly cut and dry. At higher levels of attainment, priorities can relate to more detailed judgements such as maximum intelligibility and social acceptability. I therefore wish to include a second level of analysis, which is sufficiently narrow to account for both phonemic and phonetic differences.

For a quick overview of the different areas of analysis and the progress of my students in pronunciation, stress, rhythm and intonation, initial reference can be made to an Appreciation Scale used for grading Examination candidates: "Arels Certificate Oral Examination" candidates:

0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

0 unintelligible
2 poor pronunciation and intonation patterns
4 fair control
6 very few errors but hesitant
8 accurate control of pronunciation, stress & intonation
10 fluent and with natural pace

Useful scales for assessing language skills can be found in the English Speaking Union's "ESU Framework 1989" by B.J. Carroll & R. West.

My students (as can be heard in the recording) oscillate between 6 and 8 on this scale. In order to diagnose the priorities for future pronunciation teaching, a fuller analysis of the recording must now follow.

The Phonemic Transcription

Phonological description relates closely to the standard of intelligibility since the phonemes of language systems distinguish between the meanings of words as well as allowing recognition of words. The transcription revealed phonemes which were not realised as a result of non-existence of the sounds in L1, differences between Swedish and English orthography (i.e. students had written forms in mind) or free (idiosyncratic) variations. There were also some lesser allophonic variations which came close to being phonemic.

Vowel Sounds

Consonant Sounds

The differences in sounds rarely threatened intelligibility in their contexts in the transcript. However, some of the substitutions could possibly lead to confusion if duplicated in other contexts. It is therefore worth considering questions such as learnability, teachability and functional load.

There is generally much greater allophonic variation of vowel sounds than of consonant sounds among native speakers of languages. Consonant sounds play a greater part in signalling meaning in words, so usually they are less redundant and carry a greater functional load. Vowel sounds however may relate more closely to the standard of social acceptability that the advanced learner is also trying to achieve.

Vowel quadrilateral showing the 12 English monophthongs and the 16 Swedish monophthongs.

Since Swedish possesses many vowel sounds, the English vowel phonemes should not present too much difficulty for Swedes (Arabic has far fewer vowel sounds so Arabs will need far greater help).

It is probably worth doing some work on the /ɪ/ /i:/ contrast which distinguishes a large number of minimal pairs in English. Swedes tend to replace English /i:/ with [i] because their own [i:] is produced with the tongue so close to the hard palate that it ends with a fricative sound [j]. Confusion results when they also replace English /ɪ/ (which they have not got) with [i] if the context is ambiguous. Similar considerations apply to the /e/ /æ/ contrast which also bears a relatively high functional load.

Like English, Swedish has a marked difference in the force of articulation between stressed and unstressed syllables. It uses full stress, reduced main stress, weak stress and lack of stress: it has the neutral vowel 'shwa' [ə]. Swedes will generally not require as much practice of 'shwa' as speakers whose native languages are syllable-timed (e.g. French speakers). Their under-use of 'schwa' probably arises from interrelationships between intonation and stress (Swedish is a tone language) and poor teaching. The placement and production of 'schwa' on unstressed syllables is vital in marking stressed syllables by contrast, thereby signalling both the redundant and the meaningful elements of the utterance. Poor use or non-use of stress will inevitably lead to poor rhythm and intonation. In this context, the teaching of 'shwa' is of extremely high priority for Swedish learners of English.

The substitutions for the back vowels are less likely to affect intelligibility providing Swedish [o:] is not substituted for English /u:/. The Swedish pensioners, whom I teach some summers in Portslade, often ask for [kɪʧ ɪ n so:p]"kitchen soap" in the student canteen when they really want /ʧɪkɪn su:p/ "chicken soup". Note that /u:/ does not exist in Swedish. The letter 'C' in Swedish, is nearly always followed by the letter 'k'.

Consonant sounds

There is a relatively high degree of correspondance between Swedish and English consonant sounds. [p] [t] & [k] occur with aspiration in both languages. (The aspiration is more vigorous in Swedish) at the beginning of stressed syllables. [m] [b] [f] and [v] are pronounced similarly (Note: Orthographic Swedish *v* is pronounced [f] before an inflexional -s or following a shortened vowel).

Swedish [t] [d] [n] [l]* and [s] differ slightly from their English counterparts. They normally occur as pure dental sounds produced with the tip of the tongue against the upper teeth. However, when Swedish [r] is immediately followed by any one of these consonants, an assimilation takes place and they become post-alveolar or retroflex in their articulation. Although Swedish [k] & [g] occur as fricatives before all front vowels (except [w] [k] [g] and [ng] are pronounced much the same as in English. * Swedish [l] in all positions is a clear font sound.

My students make fairly good substitutions for those consonant phonemes which exist in English but not in Swedish. Goran's substitution of /f/ for /θ/ and the general tendency of Swedes to substitute [dj] for [ʤ] (as all three do) will probably not be noticed by most English ears.

More noticeable is the substitution of [j] for [ʤ] which could easily cause misunderstanding or social irritation. When my Swedish pensioners tell me of all the different 'yobs' that they have had, I usually guess that they mean 'jobs', though I have often confused the Swedish pronunciation of 'just' [as spoken by Goran] for the word 'yes'.

A story often quoted is that of the Swedish couple who go out together for a drink. The wife is acting as chauffeur, so the husband's order to the barman is:

/ə paɪnt əv bɪtə fə mi: pli:z ənd hæv jʊ enɪ ju:s fə maɪ waɪf/
"a pint of bitter for me please and have you any use for my wife?"

[ʤ] (or [dj] if they cannot manage it) is therefore relatively important, as is the voiceless English affricate [ʧ] which is often replaced by the fricative [ʃ] or [ʂ] e.g. /aɪ laɪk wɓʃɪŋ ðə telɪvɪʒn/ "I like washing the television".

Of the two affricates, [ʤ] will prove the most difficult to teach because of orthographic interference from Swedish "j" and the rarity or non-existence of voiced fricatives in L1 ranging from dental to alveolo-palatal articulations. Swedish orthographic j [j] the voiced palatal fricative has considerably more friction than English [j]. Its alternative pronunciation [ʂ] (in French loan words such as [ʂɞɳɑ:l] "journal") does little to lessen the confusion.

To complete this summary of my priorities in the teaching of English consonant sounds to Swedes, I shall have to include a few additions to the problem areas represented in my sample. An important addition is the /s/ /z/ contrast (e.g. in 'piece' v 'peas'; 'police' v 'please'; 'is' & 'was' (z) since the Swedish letter z only occurs in words of foreign origin (e.g. zon [sɞ:n] 'zone') and is always pronounced [s]. A similarly difficult contrast, but one which bears a lower functional load, occurs between /v/ and /w/. The Swedish letter w is also rare, occurring only in loan words borrowed from English (e.g. weekend [wi:kend] ] & whisky [wɪski]. I should probably expect advanced level students to learn not to substitute [v] for [w]. After that, would come more detailed refinements such as slightly lessening the aspiration on voiceless plosives as well as the friction on [j]. Though somewhat aesthetic, the latter have the virtue of being easily teachable.

Intonation & Stress

A general observation about English spoken by Swedes, which I can confirm from my own experience, is that statements may sound like questions and sentences may sound incomplete. The general prescription recommended is further practice at falling tune.

However, although simple prescriptions may help some learners, they are often exposed by more detailed linguistic analysis.

Swedish has a general similarity with English in its use of rising tone in suspensive groups and falling tone in conclusive groups. When a word having a single tone occurs in the body of a sentence expressing a categorical statement and is emphatic, the tone rises; when it occurs at the end, the tone falls. Interrogative sentences seeking verification are also marked by a rising tone at the end (i.e. with similar frequency both languages: Gillian Brown contends that this is by no means always the case). These general patterns would appear to contradict our general observation.

However, unlike English, Swedish can be described as a tone language (i.e. it makes considerable use of pitch, accent or differences in tones to distinguish between different words and word forms). Its two tones are known as the single tone and the double tone.

In monosyllabic words, a similar single tone can be heard in both Swedish and English. 'bok' (Sw) and 'book' (Eng) both have the same falling tone.

But in disyllabic words with one stress, like 'boken' (Sw.='the book') and 'father' (Eng), different patterns occur even though both words have a fal1ing tone.

Whereas the English drops to a low tone on the first syllable and remains low on the second, the Swedish only drops slightly on the first syllable and then drops to a low tone. This is one reason why statements by a Swedish speaker which end in a disyllabic word may sound incomplete or like questions to an English listener expecting a steeper (i.e. conclusive) fall on the last stressed syllable.

Like its single counterpart, the Swedish double tone may not be considered conclusive by the English listener when used to round off a statement ending in a disyllabic word. Again, it is only the last syllable of the word that drops to the lowest tone. The last stressed syllable (i.e. the first syllable of the word) only drops to the middle area of the pitch range.

In interrogative sentences requiring verification, the double tone produces an effect, which is uncommonly heard in English.

There is quite a contrast between the relatively low fall on the last stressed syllable and the rise at the end.

Another sharp change of direction is heard when the double tone occurs in the body of a sentence and is emphatic (e.g. Swedish 'flickan' ).

English is not a tone language (as described in my definition for Swedish). The intonation patterns of English are used to mark the functions of sentences and the attitudes of speakers rather than operating as tones used to distinguish between different words or word forms in sentence surface structure. The occasions where words require emphatic stress are fewer in English than in Swedish, so the movement of our intonation patterns is generally more gradual.

In the recording, Goran, Anita and Bert transmit many signals, which are probably unintended, through sharp changes of direction and other borrowings from their native use of tones. Goran's borrowings involve movements into high key which to the English ear sound over-emphatic. These include his use of the 'rise' and 'rise-fall' tones (r+ and P+) which linguists such as David Brazil associate with the assertion of dominance: (I have indicated many of these movements by inserting red arrows above the words on the phonemic transcript). Goran's over-emphasis is not merely a question of force on stressed syllables. His superimposition of Swedish tones lead to perception of stress on syllables which he probably does not intend to highlight on a semantic scale.

It is probably worth teaching Advanced Swedish learners of English a little about the function of pitch movements and stress in English speech. Even Bert, whose pitch range is generally narrower than Goran's and whose use of falling tune is more frequent, needs to be wary of hopping down to a low tone or up to a high where stress is unintended. The general message for Swedes is that any syllable on which the pitch of the voice moves perceptibly whether the pitch rises or falls - will be perceived in English speech as stressed.

My priorities in the teaching of intonation to advanced learners of Swedes will steer me towards materials which illustrate the English patterns themselves (i.e. the gradual movements of the basic tunes) and which aid recognition of the different functions of intonation in English speech. (Such materials may include books like: Roy Boardman's "Over To You", Leo Jones's "Functions of English" and V.J. Cook's "Using Intonation" which is more functional than his earlier work "Active Intonation which mainly consists of structurally based drills).

In defining the functions of intonation, I shall be covering a fairly broad area involving many language skills. Reference can be made to speech function, attitude (e.g. affective meaning), the interactional structure of discourse (e.g. turn-taking), information structure and topic structure.

In terms of what I would present to my students, these references will translate into functions (headings or topics) such as:

My students are sufficiently advanced to understand explanations given in these terms. They will equally need talking-time when I am lending them my English ear, gathering impressions as to their standards of intelligibility and as to whether the attitudes they are transmitting are those which I th1nk they mean to convey. I suspect that Goran, Anita and Bert would get better feedback if they held their discussion in a multilingual class.

Transcript of speech sample

The pronunciation errors referred to above in the sections on vowel and consonant sounds are indicated in red.

Transcript of unscripted discussion by Swedish students of English on 'male chauvinism' based on:
'International Business Topics' by Davld Cotton (Evans) P143 Equality for women- Sweden shows how.

The participants are from my Business English class in Fagersta, Central Sweden.

T: Are you a chauvinist, Goran?

G: No, not at all. (LAUGHTER). No, not at all.

T: You're not one of those people who says the woman's place is in the home and that they shouldn't be working?

G: Well...er...for fun, for a joke I would say so...in a discussion, but what I mean...

T: Not seriously.

G: No, no... It's nothing to do with that... but er when I came through ... the er Heathrow... tax free shop... and there was a woman cashier sitting and taking up money... and we were three in the queue... I was the third. There were an Englishman first... and he had said something to the girl... just yet... and she said, "I know I'm a woman. I do everything wrong." Yes...next happen. Next Englishman came.. and he paid with Danish crowns, and she put in on this computerized... this er cash machines... so he put in Swedish crowns... so he get thirty percent more when he had paid.......and I thought, "yes, she's a woman and do everything wrong."

T: What's your reaction to that story?

G: Er.. it's true. (A: Oh, yes.) I saw it... but she was so upset... so he didn't know what she was doing... so true now... yes Swedish before Danish...

T: Are women more emotional than men?

G: No, I believe it wasn't typical of women ... but it was in her... it was for her... just at that moment... because she has been in a quarrel with many men before, I believe.... and the Englishmen are not a gentlemen at all ... not at all.

T: Do you think then that some women are too sensitive?

G: Some... some are... I believe so. Would you agree with that, Anita?

A: I can't answer for other people.

B: People's behaviour depends a lot of their experience... and if you take a man ... perhaps with a background where he... perhaps have not had opportunity to put himself forward... I think that he should behave nervously... and stressed, for example. I think that doesn't depend on whether you're a man or a woman. It depend on... you know... your background... and what your experience is to handle the stressed situation.

G: But in the case I was talking about, I believe she has heard many times before that she was a woman and she did everything wrong. I believe the third man was not the first that had told her that she was a woman, but I believe there were many before him.

T: So you think British men are very chauvinistic (G: Many of them.. Yes.) and they put their women under stress.

G: Many of them... Yes.... I believe so.

T: Would it be.... I mean.... the title....

G: Er...I saw it in Edinburgh, too.

B: If you spit on a stone it will be wet at the end.

T: But the title of this is that 'Sweden Shows How'.... I mean... Are Swedish men then less chauvinistic than their British counterparts?

G: I don't think so.

B: I don't know how it is in Britain, but if you ask me if young Swedishmen are less chauvinistic than elder Swedishmen, I should say the answer’s 'yes'.A: Yes... I agree... I think so, too.T: Can you explain that a little? Why is this so? A: Through the last... what shall we say, how many years, we have been taught from the beginning in school... and er everything... every subject in the school is nowadays equal for boys and girls... no difference at all.B: Yes. Boys learn cooking, today.

A: Yes.. Knitting and everything... and girls learn to (--- -) with wood and metal... so they are brought up - - - -.

T: With respect for their peers, or are they afraid of being chauvinistic?

B: Well, my experience is that... these young boys who have learned at school..... their experience is that they can have a lot of use of it .....(T: Take advantage...). They are free in another way. They can make their own food. When I was young and moved from home... studying, it was, of course, I took my dirty clothes home for washing. My son never takes anything at home. He wash up everything himself... and practically every day, he makes... cooks his own food... at least one meal a day.

T: Do you think people prefer.... to be independent... Does your son prefer..?

B: Yes. They are more independent.

T: And do you think this is a good thing, this independence... or does it lead to social problems... loneliness..

G: No, not at all. It has nothing to do with social problems.

A: I think it's very effective.

B: Yes... I think there.... it's more... be fortunate to ... advantage to the man who could make food. (G: They were always could do it).

A: Yes, but they didn't.

G: The best men in kitchen are always men.

Published books focusing on English pronunciation problems by language background

  1. Learner English A Teacher's Guide to Interference and Other Problems" by Michael Swan (Ed.), Bernard Smith (Ed.) [26/04/2001].
    This excellent contrastive linguistics handbook covers both pronunciation and syntax. Book-------Learner English: Audio CD

  2. ESU Framework by B.J. Carroll & R. West].

    This book is aimed at examiners and teachers. It is now hard to get unless you buy a "used" copy. Its use is the help it provides (through "performance scales") in assessing both general competence and individual language skills, including pronunciation among others. It is not a book of tests, but it lists recommended criteria for testing each language skill. B.J. Carroll is noted for his work on performance scales and R. West has a thorough knowledge of the criteria applied by various public examination boards.