Pronunciation halves language learning time!

This is the kind of headline I can imagine, to go along with all the other obvious headlines that comprise our ‘news’ such as “Homicide victims rarely talk to police” or “Exercise makes you fitter” or “Reading at home helps reading at school” or “Scientists prove that clothes keep you warm” or “Frequent sex enhances pregnancy chances” and so on.

And yet we don’t read that pronunciation halves or even reduces the time taken to learn language, or that it increases the effectiveness of learning. Perhaps it isn’t true. Or perhaps it is. I think it is but I can’t prove it. Nor can it be disproved. Do you think it is true?

The physical, muscular part of language, the speaking and the listening that involves muscles and vibrations and movements and sound and pitch and breath and time and physical coordination and visible motions in faces and lips …… forms a complex and coherent choreography, a subtle dance, that results from physical coordination in certain parts of the brain.

If when we meet a new bit of foreign language we have some approach to organising it and experiencing it physically, then we develop a fresh “grip” with which to hold on to that newness. We give ourselves a set of memory hooks on a different level from the cognitive memory we may use for rules and words. In fact we give ourselves a whole new physical dimension in which to experience the language. If however we do not pay attention to pronunciation, then by default the new language succumbs to the old grip of the mother tongue, which brings no new memory hooks, and no remarkable physicality, and thus the new language is less supported. It slips rather than grips.

I am often aware of how slippery new language is when I try to learn phrases in another language using my English pronunciation. Then I bring no fresh physicality to the new bit language, and I can feel it slipping not gripping in my various ways of remembering. But for this kind of grip we would need a way of attending to pronunciation in each moment, and not just in a pron slot at the end of every third lesson, when it is already too late as the new language has already defaulted to the mother tongue grip….

What is your experience as teacher or as learner?

Language needs to grip, not slip

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7 Responses to Pronunciation halves language learning time!

  1. Excellent post. I couldn’t agree more. Perhaps only subconsciously noticed it in my ESL teaching but well aware of the slipping in my study of Mandarin Chinese. Getting the muscles right for the tones is something I ought to practice much more – hence why I haven’t progressed much, the lack of memory hooks created. Thanks.

    • I wonder whether tones in Mandarin Chinese relate more to phonemes (in that they are fixed for a particular word or sense) or more to intonation (in that it is made up of a pitch movement). My experience of Mandarin was that it was closer to phoneme in that it was a predictable attribute of a word but I had the greatest difficulty with it because I could not produce such tones at will.

  2. Fixoodle says:

    I have two friends, one in San Francisco, the other in San Diego. One friend immigrated from Russia, the other from Cuba. They are totally fluent in English. They speak English faster than I do. But… neither of them have good pronunciation. In fact, their pronunciation is so bad that people have to strain to understand them until they become accustomed to their pronunciation. Practicing pronunciation is essential to learning a language, and if you can pronounce it correctly, you can definitely understand it when you hear it. Just pointing out that you don’t need pronunciation to become proficient in a language; just if you want to be understood when you open your mouth 😉

    • Thanks…. And what do you think is your friends’ view on this? Are they aware that people have difficulty comprehending them til they tune in? And it they are, do you suppose they put it down to pron? Or perhaps they assume this is normal for everyone communicating in English? Also it’s interesting that for you, as probably for most people, the definition of fluent excludes a high level of pronunciation. ie fluent probably means the right words in the right order, and fast….I guess I probably use it like that too, but I feel fluent ought to include high level use of pronunciation.

  3. Charles says:

    I taught my parents 1 to 10 using a YouTube presentation by a Castilian speaker. I wanted them to feel the c as in cero or cinco as a lisp rather than the slightly whistled Latin American versions which tend to predominate on the web. It was fun to see them tumble to the idea that all the syllables are pronounced then run together quickly: qu-a-tr- o quarto. It was a gripping experience but I don’t know if it’s slipped yet.

  4. imanodeh says:

    How could one know more about the correct way of teaching pronunciation here in Palestine ?

  5. Elvira says:

    I couldn’t agree more with Adrian’s article. Apart from speeding learning, pronunciation in the classroom is great fun. My students love it. Partly because it is physical and partly because it is really practical. I start all my courses, independently of the students’ level, with Adians’ chart. It’s a joy. I have also intoduced a couple of activities to help students to be aware of the difference between a syllabic language (Spanish) and a stressed-time language (English). I divide the class in two groups. One group repeats: Tú, yo, él, ella. The second group: tú y yo y él y ella. And then: tú y entonces yo y entonces él y entonces ella. We do it at the same time, so they realize how long the second group takes to say the sentence. Then we do it in English and the challenge for them is to finish at the same time.
    I also believe that the chart helps students to become autonomous learners. Once they are able to interpret the symbols, they can rely on their dictionaries without waiting for teachers or native speakers.

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