The problem of explaining sounds to learners

This is a really great question from Ruth about the problems of explaining sounds to learners. I hope my answer opens up a different but doable line of action.I have put this on the front page as I think it may be of interest to everyone. Please add your thoughts.

Ruth says:   I was in Oxford in Oct 2012 when I heard and watched you present these ideas – really fun and engaging. My main issue is how to explain what happens in the mouth if the students aren’t yet au fait with the English of explanations: relax the sides of the tongue to allow air to escape. I’ve practised demonstrating to the wall (!) how to move, say, from an /n/ to an /r/ , using my fingers to yank parts of my tongue around to demonstrate what I’m saying. As I’m about to teach some elderly Japanese ladies the actual difference between /r/ and /l/, they may be put off! Any ideas?
Do you supply an internal diagram of the mouth? Or, have any other practical ideas?
Many thanks, Ruth

Hi Ruth. Thanks for your comments. I’ll try to gave an answer to your question, though first I’ll answer another question which may throw a different light on yours, and that is “How do learners come to know what is going on in their mouths when they make they sounds of a (new) language?” And my reply is that while a variety of different activities and insights help, the most important is the one that is neglected in our methodology, namely learning to sense kinesthetically the movement of lips, tongue and jaw, and to sense or feel their position in relation to each other and to the palate and teeth. This is not the same as cognitive ‘knowing about’ that we get from books and university courses, which is what gets emphasised if the teacher over-intervenes with pictures and explanations. This has a place but if it is the primary intervention by the teacher it can distance the learner from the direct internal kinesthetic awareness of the position and movement of the muscles and parts of the mouth which make the sounds. The best word for this process, as I say elsewhere on this blog, is proprioception.

Of course we and our students already use most of these pronunciation muscles in speaking our L1, movements which became automotized in early childhood. But when we learn another language later we need to reconnect with those muscles in order to loosen the mother tongue phonetic grip and set up new movements and positions, which in turn will gradually automotise too. This is no big deal and we face this when learning to knit, or type, or play a musical instrument, or dance. I use the metaphor of dance because it has both individual positions and steps, and a connected up flow which is the purpose of it. This is like language.

But to teach dance it is not enough to dance well, you have to know what you are actually doing with your body and be able to transmit it in terms that help the student do it too. And it’s no good spouting the theory of dance, or just describing the movement in words that are heard by the student’s cognitive mind.

First you the teacher need to know what your body is doing, for which you need internal proprioceptive insight and intelligence, which, second, places you to know what the student’s body is doing. You know this through your own proprioceptive empathy, and what you can see and hear. Now you are well placed to help the student make the changes needed.

To come back to your question Ruth, I’m less concerned with explanations of how sounds are made (though that can be a useful back up) than with directions for experimenting with lip, tongue and jaw movement, which is already embedded in playing with the different vowels. So if they have not much English I will get them to experiment playfully, perhaps by watching my mouth / lip movements, and I will catch a student who makes a sound different from L1, or similar to L2, and help them to experience that new position by asking them to say it louder, softer, longer, shorter, with a consonant etc, all the time noticing it and feeling it to try to fix it in proprioceptive memory. If it is on the chart I point to it, to give it a ‘name’. Then maybe I get them to say another sound and then see if they can return to the one they have just discovered; and so on.

I don’t use internal diagrams much. I have nothing against it, but my priority is always to build up an experienced internal proprioceptive map, for which the chart itself is a sort of suggestive, two dimensional prototype.

With your ladies, I would always work from what they do. Get them to play with words with /r/ and /l/ initial, medial and final. See what they do. Ask what they think about it and what they notice. My most frequent, in fact my magic, class instruction is ‘change it’. Which is brilliant because it puts the ball in their court to feel what they are doing and to find some way to make a small change. And that is the beginning of proprioception. Also have a look here for a few activities on a similar line

So to conclude, I am not trying to transfer a lot of information, but to cause them to experiment. And like all teachers I find a way to do it that with the language they already have. I hope the above helps, even if it is not quite the reply you had in mind!

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3 Responses to The problem of explaining sounds to learners

  1. I am a non native speaker living in London and wondering where can I find a school or a teacher that teaches English pronunciation using this amazing chart!
    I would be really grateful if anyone can point to the right direction…
    Many thanks

  2. Elvira Carralero Lafont says:

    Dear all,

    I have found Ruth’s question really interesting because it points out at how different the process of learning sounds is depending on our students’ mother tongue. I have been using Adrian’s chart for a while in my classes and I love it, and I think my students love it too. Anyway, every year I need to introduce new adjustments trying to make connections between English and Spanish sounds, paying spacial attention to my Spanish students’ regional accent. I have noticed that there is a peculiarity in the English vowels that has to do with the projection of the sound. It seems to me that most of the English vowel sounds have an inner projection whereas the Spanish ones are projected to the outside. I don’t know if that makes any sense but I would appreciate some feedback on the matter.
    Many thanks.

    Elvira

    • Hello Elvira. I am teaching in Spain too. Where are you? What accent do your students have? Mine are Catalan. What do you mean by the vowels in Spanish being more projected to the outside? I find they have strong interference from their L1 vowel repertory which is more limited in Spanish than in Catalan which has a schwa type ‘vocal neutre’.

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