Top Tips for ESL Teachers to Help Students with Pronunciation
Teaching Pronunciation: The Hardest Part of Language Learning - It's extremely common for schools to teach their students the basics of English using long lists of vocabulary words and basic rules for grammatical conjugation. Because of this, students often end up being able to recognize many words in English, and even put together simple functional sentences, but they lack a natural flow in their speech patterns and pronunciation.
The Causes of Poor Pronunciation
It's easy to understand why this happens. In countries where English is hardly used, and a native speaker is almost impossible to find, students never get immersed in the sounds of the language in the way they would growing up in an English-speaking country. This means that even though a learner may conceptually memorize and recognize a word, he or she will only be able to attempt to pronounce it using approximations of English phonetics derived from their own language. Their mouths and ears are simply too accustomed to the sounds and shapes of their native language to instantly shift to English. If you've ever tried to learn a language with vocalizations that don't exist in English, you already know how hard to can be to distinguish and reproduce new sounds.
Theories of Learning
Many theories of language learning hold that phonetics and pronunciation of the basic sounds of a language are the first things a student should focus on. An infant learning its first language starts by roughly imitating the vocalizations it hears for years before ever forming coherent words and sentences. New patterns of muscle memory have to be engrained through ongoing repetition and practice. Think of speaking English like learning to play the piano. Someone could explain scales, chords, notes, and harmony to you all day long, but you are still going to be fumbling around the keyboard until you've given your fingers enough practice moving smoothly.
While it could be argued that it's generally more important to be able to understand and say a lot of words rather than say them perfectly, sometimes it's better to be able to say only a few things extremely well. People often judge another person's entire personality and intelligence by how well they can speak. Learners may get very different reactions from English speakers when they ask for directions or give a business presentation in English if their accent is as good (or even better) than the native speakers they are talking to. English is a complex language, and sometime how you say something is much more important than specifically what you are saying. The subtleties of communication cannot be learned until students have adapted their ears and mouths to native English pronunciation.
Solution: Teaching Granular Detail
ESL teachers should pay greater attention to the subtle differences in the way the throat, lips, teeth, and tongue are used in proper English pronunciation. If, for example, an Asian student is having difficulty pronouncing the “l” and “r” sounds properly, don't just repeat the word until they get it right. Physically show them how closing the tiny space left between the tip of the tongue and the edge of the roof of the mouth instantly transforms “r” into “l”. They'll still have to practice this many times until it becomes natural, but physical demonstrations like this are often necessary for students who don't learn well by sound and instruction alone.