Pronouncing English

If a person is not introduced to a language’s structure as a baby, the language will not be instinctual. The structure of the brain changes as children age, and in babies there is a particular constellation of emotions which attach to certain sounds, and that changes rapidly. After a certain age, language enters through a different portal.

One piece of research suggests that Japanese students don’t hear the American “l,” and thus don’t reproduce it in their speech, if they have not been introduced to it before 18 months. They can master the “l,” but takes a lot of lab work and repetition.  My Chinese students do not hear and thus frequently don’t reproduce the morphemes (s), (ed), (ing) at the end of words because they do not use morphemes for the same purpose in Chinese.

Both my Chinese and my Malay students struggle with “th.” Sticking their tongue between their teeth and blowing feels almost obscene to them. They simply don’t do it in their languages. The obstacle to producing the sound is obviously not physical, since nothing could simpler, but it makes them giggle, their ears do not catch the difference between “s” [I am sinking, instead of I am thinking] in others or themselves, and they are usually well understood because in context, meaning is clear.

I have observed that phoneme deafness occurs more often with a subtle sound like “th,” (as opposed to “s”)  than with a big, bold African click, or a growling Arabic guttural.

We also underestimate the muscle memory involved in speaking. The French have strong purse-your-mouth muscles, but it’s tiring for me to produce pursed French “u” for long.  Malay and Chinese tongues do not often thrust themselves forward between the teeth. My throat is clearly capable of producing an Arabic guttural, but rebels.

How much of this is emotional, habitual, physical, or mental has not been studied as far as I know.  It’s just something to listen and look for.

Exercise: Go to, and choose English and another language.  The sounds of each language are represented in an illustration, and they can be compared with the sounds of English, thus alerting students to the sounds they should pay particular attention to, or vice versa.

One Response to “Pronouncing English”

  • Bekah Palmer says:

    Good website. Adult language learning has so many issues! I have trouble differentiating between the German endings written “er”, “en”, and just “e” because they are basically the realizations of three different e-like vowels that I perceive as all the same.

    A helpful exercise for working on this with students (once you’ve identified which sounds to work on) is a minimal pair identification activity.

    Also, I think looking at a spectograph of the word as produced by a native speaker vs. learner production would be a super helpful, but unfortunately, it is rarely an option.

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