Learning pronunciation with mind and body

In my last posting I suggested that by having a mental map of pronunciation and by making pronunciation physical we can demystify it, and have it as an ally in bringing language alive. In this posting I will take you on a short guided tour of the chart, to show how the chart can be a map that contains information about HOW and WHERE sounds are made embedded into its design. Then I’ll introduce the some thoughts about teaching the physicality of pronunciation. At the end I recommend you take a look at my webinar in order to see and hear how this works.

The chart as map: The twelve vowels

Open the chart (see link above) and look at the TOP LEFT QUARTER of the chart. You will see the 12 vowels.

Imagine that you are looking at a cross section of the mouth, from the side:
The FRONT of the mouth (and the lips) are at the LEFT of this quadrant on the chart.
The BACK of the mouth is at the RIGHT.
The TOP of the mouth is along the top of that quadrant, and the BOTTOM of the mouth is the bottom.
Straight away you can see the HIGH vowels (along the top line) and the LOW vowels (along the bottom line). And you can see the BACK vowels (to the right) and FRONT ones (to the left), and finally the two central vowels /∂/ and /3:/ in the centre

This is helpful because the terms front and back refer to whether the tongue itself is front or back in the mouth, and high and low refer to whether the tongue is higher or lower in the mouth. This also corresponds with the jaw being more closed or more open. Now experiment a bit and see if you can relate the position of the vowels on the chart to their position in your mouth when you say them. Remember too that neighbours on the chart are neighbours in the mouth.

Now look at the first two rows of consonants below the vowels. There are 8 consonants in each row. Once again, the consonants made nearer the FRONT of the mouth are at the LEFT, and those made further BACK in the mouth are to the RIGHT. Note also that in these two rows the sounds are in unvoiced / voiced pairs.
That’s probably enough for the moment. Tell me how you get on and we’ll take this further n the next posting.

The physicality of pronunciation

When you learn sport or dance you become more attentive to subtle muscular movements that you may not be aware of in ordinary activities.
Pronunciation is no different. Here too we must help students connect with the muscles that make the difference. So, one of my first tasks during the first lessons with a new class (beginners, intermediate or advanced, teacher or student, native or non-native English speaker, it’s all the same) is to help them (re-)discover the main muscles that make the pronunciation difference, to locate the internal buttons that trigger the muscle movements. I do this starting with the vowels, and you can see and hear this at the link below. At the beginning it is enough to help students identify 4 such buttons (physically as well as cognitively) which enable them to get around the mouth and consciously find new positions of articulation. These muscle buttons are:
1. Tongue (moving forward and back)
2. Lips (spreading and bringing back, or rounding and pushing forward)
3. Jaw + tongue (moving them up and down)
4. Voice (turning it on or off, to make voiced or unvoiced sounds)
This is the basic muscle kit you need to navigate round vowels and diphthongs, and it also transfers neatly to consonants and gets you round most of them.

Now, to see and hear a demonstration of how I introduce the chart and this physicality click on Pronunciation Webinar under Blogroll on the right of this blog and you’ll find my webinar half way down the page.

Your comments
If you would like to comment on these ideas, or on how you get on with the experiments above, or how you introduce the chart, or how you make pronunciation physical, please do so, and we’ll get a conversation going. Have fun! And I look forward to reading your comments.

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7 Responses to Learning pronunciation with mind and body

  1. CHRIS GIMPEL says:

    I fully agree with the concept of the physicality of pronuniciation, like doing a sport.

  2. Michael Grinberg says:

    Hi Adrian,
    Thank you for a brilliant webinar!
    This might sound off-topic, but speaking about the physicality of pronunciation, I think that both you and everyone who follows this blog could find a new source of inspiration in Karlheiz Stockhausen’s ‘Stimmung’. If you think you could bear a capella singing in general, give it a try and re-discover the origins of sound and speech!
    Or have you probably heard it already?

    • Hi Michael
      Thanks for your fascinating comment. It is great to hear from someone making this connection with pron as it is something that has also fascinated me for a long time. I am familiar with overtone chanting, and with the concept of natural harmonics, and I too am a fan of Stimmung. As an improvising musician I have long been curious about the ‘contrived and unnatural’ equal temperament musical scale we use in the west, which basically means that all notes except octaves are slightly out of tune! And I have explored and used various more natural harmonic scales, which led to me practising overtone chanting, and also to studying the middle eastern ney, though I do not play it now.

      Unlike consonants, vowels are all voiced and all produced with no obstruction to the airflow. So how do we distinguish one vowel from another? The answer is that each vowel requires its own distinct shape and volume of the mouth (set up by tongue, lips and jaw) and this creates a distinct harmonic pattern of overtones for each vowel (this harmonic fingerprint is not affected by the individual speaker’s voice tone or gender). And we tell vowels apart by this pattern of harmonics in just the same way as we distinguish between a violin and a trumpet and a trombone and an accordian. So one might say, with a little licence, that speaking and distinguishing vowels is in itself a form of overtone chanting…. Which is perhaps what your comment was hinting at in the first place? This is a subject for a whole other blog….

      • Michael Grinberg says:

        Hi Adrian! Thank you for a very insightful comment.
        Truth be told, I’ve never been taught solfège or musical theory. I intuitively discovered some kind of similarity between your teacher training videos and the Stimmung. Thanks to your comment, I now understand the true reasons for this similarity. By the way, there’s another parallel that comes to mind. Arkady Shilkloper (http://www.jazz.ru/eng/pages/shilkloper/) sometimes takes part in voice and diction trainings here in Moscow, where people sit in circle and simply produce and enjoy different sounds, and these trainings also resemble your sessions.
        Is there a way to hear the music you play? Are there any recordings available?

  3. Adrian Underhill says:

    Thanks Chris for your affirmation! There are of course several reasons why pronunciation learning and teaching may be neglected, and I have identified what seem to me to be the two main ones above. Barney Griffiths, in his excellent 2004 article Integrating pronunciation into classroom activities (google it or go to British Council Teaching English website) identifies two reasons why pronunciation may be neglected: lack of clear guidelines and rules available in course books, and the low impact of isolated once a month exercises. I agree with him on both of those, and I think that my suggestion of the map may provide the beginning of a wide-ranging and simple solution to his first point. But the notion of a real focus on practical physicality offers I think a high level solution to a series of other problems afflicting learners and teachers of pronunciation, and is an approach less often identified in our discussions on EL teaching. It would be interesting to know what is behind your statement Chris, and whether you too have experience of this.

  4. Gonzalo Ernesto Bedregal says:

    I would like to get more webinars in pronunciation

    • Adrian Underhill says:

      Thanks Gonzalo. What is it that you need from further webinars? What would you like to develop or do differently in your pronunciation teaching?

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