Making pronunciation physical: Finding the ‘muscle buttons’

Teachers are always interested in how to deal with the specific pronunciation problems created by the ‘grip’ of the mother tongue phonetic set of their students. So for example in Palestine teachers wanted to explore, amongst other things, the confusion between /p/ and /b/, as discussed in the post before last. Or in Poland last Saturday teachers wanted to look at /θ/ and /ð/. I enjoy doing this and it is useful, but in the holistic approach to sounds which I try to encourage, where one sees all the sounds of a language as a single system in which they all interact with and influence each other, there is another approach that also needs to be brought to bear, and that is how the physicality of a given sounds relates to any of the other sounds that are made in a similar way or in a nearby part of the mouth. This systemic view becomes apparent only once one starts to discover in one’s own tongue, lips, mouth and voice (ie in one’s muscles not in theory or in thoughts) how the sounds originate. That insight is what my series “The Story of Sounds” aims to bring about.

As I keep saying in all these posts, my starting point is that unless you also focus on the physical, all strategies will be undermined or at least limited. So the question arises, “Well how do you get students to focus on the physical?” And since this also came up in Poland and Palestine I’d like to offer an adapted excerpt from my 3rd posting on this blog about 18 months ago, talking about finding the ‘muscle buttons’…

When you learn sport or dance you become more attentive to subtle muscular movements that you may not be aware of in ordinary activities. This is an aspect of proprioception, the internal kinesthetic awareness of the position and movement of our muscles and parts of the body. Pronunciation is no different from dance. 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 (you can see and hear this at this Macmillan webinar). 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.

If this interests you, then take a few minutes to check out the Story of Sounds episodes in this blog. Then if you are still interested, follow them very closely, do the activities, and see how you begin to develop a much more precise sense of how you make and move between sounds, and only then do you really start to see what you have to do to help your students, and how you could do it.

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4 Responses to Making pronunciation physical: Finding the ‘muscle buttons’

  1. Adrian: This is brilliant! I like your term, “muscle buttons”.
    I am very glad that you include the tongue motion of forward and back (missing in all the textbooks I’ve seen) and that you use the term “tongue + jaw”. Thank you! I will share this with my students, and I’ve posted you article on my Scoop It page:

  2. Louise Guyett says:

    Hi Adrian, I love the terms “muscle buttons” and “muscle kit”. It’s such a great way to encourage learners to discover more about pronunciation. They already have the set of tools included in the kit and they just have to learn how to use them differently for English.
    In my free time I do a lot of dancing, mainly ballet, but I love trying different styles too. We always talk about “muscle memory” and how in order for our body to remember a certain step or move, we have to repeat it a few times. Soon, we don’t even have to think about doing the move, our body just knows how automatically. It’s the same with speaking a language. I often say something similar to my students when they’re finding it difficult to make a certain sound and get frustrated. I tell them it’s like doing sit-ups! You can’t expect to get perfect abs after one session at the gym, you have to repeat them a few times before your muscles remember.

    • Great, so you can think dance when you teach pron. In RP pron there are 44 ‘static’postures (many are actually little moves themselves eg the diphthongs or the plosives)and these positions are connected and brought to life by the movements between the postures, is the connected flow of the phonemes. This is the choreography of pron, the dance of a word or a phrase, the choreography of connected speech

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