On how not to get hung up about pronunciation

One of my local newspapers regularly publishes a ‘teach yourself English’ course. It’s been doing this since I came here to live in 1981, which could be seen as a sign of its commitment to teaching its readers English. Alternatively, it could be that the course doesn’t work. Here’s a bit about the difference in pronunciation between ‘hang up’ and ‘hung up’ when talking about the telephone:

IMG_4308 - Version 2

For those of you who don’t understand Spanish, basically this intermediate level pronunciation tip tells the learner that the infinitive of “To hang up” is pronounced /hhhangáap/, but that the simple past is pronounced /hhháangáap/, where we lower the jaw to say /hhháang/.

It’s a prime example of why we are usually wasting our (learners’) time when we try to explain pronunciation. Here’s an explanation from a well-known UK authority on the pronunciation of RP. It’s for one of the two sounds from the Spanish newspaper cutting. Can you guess which?

[The RP sound] is articulated with a considerable separation of the jaws and with the lips neutrally open; the centre of the tongue (or a part slightly in advance of the centre) is raised just above the fully open position, no contact being made between the tongue and the upper molars.

The newspaper description of the difference between /æ/ and /ʌ/ is not only hard to make sense of (especially with the home-grown phonetic transcription), it’s actually wrong. According to Roach (English Phonology and Phonetics, 4th edn, p13), /ʌ/ is less open and more central than /æ/, so lowering the jaw would not help (assuming you knew where the jaw was for /æ/ in the first place). But Gimson’s description, however precise, is not a lot better in terms of what might be of practical use to the average learner.

Clearly we have to go somewhere else with pronunciation teaching, and part of that somewhere was summarized in Sounds Trickyan article I published in English Teaching professional 93, and which I’ll be giving as a talk at ACEIA in Seville in a few days time.

For those who can’t be in Seville, or who don’t have time to read the article, my suggestion is that we use IDEAS to teach pronunciation:

I – Imitate. If learners can, leave it at that and use the time you’ve freed up for something else.
D – Demonstrate. If you can physically show learners how to produce a target feature, do so, without explaining anything.
E – Explain. Try not to. Explanation is a last resort when it comes to pronunciation and the average learner. Seriouly – try not to do it, and DON’T use explanations of the type quoted above, and which appear in learned works like Gimson’s An Introduction to the Pronunciation of English, but which are intended for students on university phonetics courses. That said, you could occasionally  use simple diagrams or images to help you to explain certain, more tangible features of pronunciation.
A – Associate. This is about as far from explanation as you can get, but associating a target feature to colors, images, anecdotes, etc. often has a far greater and more lasting impact than anything else.
S – Stimulate. Make working on pronunciation a rewarding experience. Give predominantly positive reinforcement for your learners’ efforts, and where appropriate, give marks for their work. Above all, show your students that ‘Pronunciation Matters‘, and that you really do care about their progress.


5 thoughts on “On how not to get hung up about pronunciation

    • Hi Adi
      I’m glad you found it funny. But it’s also a bit sad that we’re still trying to teach pronunciation like this. Fingers crossed that this will eventually change.

      • It is a bit tragic but not at all infrequent. Here in India, I spotted in a textbook on ‘elocution’ a pronunciation exercise for ‘ary’ words like necessary, commissary and revolutionary, modelling approximations of what I think were old Victorian pronunciations – nuh sae SUH ray.

  1. A nice idea, perhaps, but utlimately not effective (as well as anachronic). The crazy thing about the ‘hhháangáap’ transcription is that all the letters in the Spanish alphabet have a fixed pronunciation excpet for ‘h’, which is always silent. What the course expected its readers to pronounce for ‘hhh’ I really don’t know.

  2. I’m not sure any of us would be speaking our own language if we’d had to have it ‘explained’ to us first. It reminds me of those dreadful, interminable lists of phrasal verbs which make all of them sound meaningless and random.

    I like your IDEAS acronym. As you say, imitation is the gold standard, with a general hint about the area of the mouth that is used to make language sounds in English. My son, who’s been bilingual since childhood in Spanish and English, was telling me the other day that now that we’re back in the UK and the languages aren’t so balanced in daily use, that he can feel himself ‘rearranging’ his mouth to be able to switch to Spanish.

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