For many, pronunciation is something crucial for learning and using any language. If we cannot make ourselves clear, other people will have a hard time understanding us and communication becomes difficult, much more so than is necessary. But in a world where we spend increasing amounts of time looking at screens and chatting on phones, we are taking less and less time to talk to real people face to face, and thus, especially English learners are starting to suffer in their pronunciation. Much like our handwriting gets worse the more we use email and phones, so too does our pronunciation decline when we stop talking.
If you are an English teacher, chances are that you have already seen this in your own classroom. Chances are that you, yourself, are struggling with your pronunciation in a second language because you do not use it enough. Maybe you are teaching English to students but English is also your second language and your pronunciation is not as good as it could be, this could influence your student’s pronunciation overall.
A few years ago, when I was teaching mostly Middle-School students in China I often had to correct my student’s pronunciation, and often they insisted that their Chinese English teacher had told them, that this is how the word is pronounced. This highlights the importance of especially English teachers having correct pronunciation when they are in the classroom. Our students will never be proficient in English if we cannot teach them correctly. Rule #1 of English Language teaching: Do not teach bad/wrong English.
Rule #1 of English Language teaching: Do not teach bad/wrong English.Mikkel Larsen
How others view your competence
I will come back to the importance of having correct pronunciation in the classroom in a minute, but as professional teachers, having correct pronunciation is also important for other factors. Career teachers rely on their teaching skills as well as their language skills to get the best jobs they can. Especially here in China where Training schools have become a de facto way of learning certain subjects because the students need an “edge” having good pronunciation is important.
You may be a very experienced teacher and have excellent results and classroom management skills, but if your pronunciation isn’t good, a school will not want to hire you. Granted, pronunciation is something that can be trained and can be improved on, but if the next applicant behind you has perfect pronunciation and only needs a bit of classroom management coaching, he might get the job instead of you. Teaching pronunciation is hard, typically even more so in adults who have been saying the words “their way” for any number of years. It is easier to teach a skill like how to teach a class, if the applicant already has a certain understanding of how to teach.
How other people understand you
Communication is important. It doesn’t matter if you are talking to your spouse, your colleagues, your boss or your friends. If they cannot understand you, you won’t be able to communicate and without that, how can you solve problems, share ideas, or just have a good time? Having the largest vocabulary on the planet becomes useless if the words coming out of your mouth are unintelligible to other people. Grammar and vocabulary will mean nothing then. On the other hand, clear pronunciation can often save you, even if you have grammatical mistakes or your vocabulary isn’t too advanced.
Good Pronunciation helps you learn faster
Good pronunciation is key for learning a new language faster. When you study a new language, you typically study to become fluent, proficient enough in the language that you can handle almost every situation in another language. Having good pronunciation can significantly decrease the time it takes to become fluent.
As teachers, we often suffer from the fact that we have too many students and too little time to focus on their individual pronunciation. We therefore have to make sure that we give a good model of the word during our classes and encourage our students to practice at home, outside of their classes. Not only will good pronunciation help us become better English speakers, but it will also make our students better speakers.
Why is this so important?
I am a language teacher myself, and my native language is not English. I am often told that when people first meet me, they perceive me to be either American or English, and I take that as a compliment and I take pride in my pronunciation being as good as it is. But that does not mean that I do not make mistakes myself. When I tell others that I am from Denmark and that English is my second language, I get big eyes and a lot of surprise. The truth is though, that Scandinavia (Denmark, Norway and Sweden) have a very high proficiency in English, because we are exposed to the language since we are very young. Movies, TV shows, music and browsing the internet, even computers games all contribute to our high level of English along with the fact that our languages are all very similar to the English language.
In China, students and their teachers rarely speak English outside of the classroom. And just like with everything else, if you do not practice it, you will never get better. If you stop doing, you start forgetting. But if language teachers have bad pronunciation, it means that they will pass on their bad pronunciation to their students who will then struggle with learning the language because they cannot make themselves understood easily.
Chinese Speakers and L1 Interference
I recently gave a short training to a group of the Chinese English teachers at the school where I work here in Chongqing, and the number one reason I often see for bad pronunciation is what is called L1 interference. L1 interference is how your native language is affecting your ability to produce sounds for English words. Typically, a good example of this, is differences in pronouncing certain letters in a word. This also happens between Danish and English, but the best example I have is actually between Danish and French.
In Danish, the word for “horse” is written “hest”. It is pronounced in Danish much like you would read it in English. But in French, a word written like this would be subject to significant changes. Firstly, the initial h would not be pronounced in French, it would be silent. Also, the final “st” is also not pronounced in French. That means a Danish person would read the word saying “hest”, an English person would also more or less say “hest” while a French person would simply read “e”.
In a similar way, many words are mispronounced by Chinese speakers because the letters in their pinyin alphabet are not pronounced the same as they are in English. This, of course also means that foreign speakers speaking Chinese make similar mistakes. The Chinese word for “I” is 我 which is pronounced as ”Wuo” in English but written “wo” in Chinese Pinyin. In English, the letter “o” has the sound of “ou” which means often foreign speakers say something similar to “wow” when trying to pronounce the character “我”.
Below I have listed the English alphabet and how each letter is most commonly pronounced by Chinese speakers
Going the other way, the English word Apple is pronounced something similar to “apel”, but in Chinese they are not used to the “le” ending on English words and they end up reading them as just a hard “ou” without the “e” sound. So they end up saying something akin to “apou”.
There is an excellent website here that outlines 15 mistakes commonly made my Chinese speakers of English, a website I highly recommend students and English teachers alike to take a look at.
Also, I recommend that English teachers become familiar with the International Phonetic Alphabet also known as IPA and learn it themselves to make sure that they have correct pronunciation and thereby teach correct pronunciation to their students. This transcriber will help you transcribe your English words into IPA.
Having correct pronunciation in the ESL classroom is of great importance. Only by being able to communicate clearly will your students be able to make effective use of the English language outside of your classroom. If we give them bad examples, they will follow, if we give them good examples, they will follow more.