Comfortable Intelligibility 1

Our goal is comfortable intelligibility in connected up speaking and listening.

Pronunciation is a core ingredient of comfortable intelligibility and must always be in the service of this greater goal. For me as learner and teacher pronunciation is more than sounds and ‘correctness’, and more than stress and intonation. Pronunciation is everything that requires muscles, the physical movements of mouth, throat, air, voice, that make the sounds as well as the subtle neurology that makes this possible. It is the embodiment of language, it brings life to language and language to life. As such it can tap into a stream of experiential motivation and bring language learning to life.

In this ‘embodiment definition’ I do not specifically include gesture and other aspects of body language in connected up speech, but nor do I exclude them. This is not the standard definition of pronunciation, but it’s good for me and for my learners since it gets everything we need into the frame from the beginning.

In this series of posts on Comfortable Intelligibility I intend to highlight some very simple thinking frames and practical awareness activities that enable learners/teachers to focus on the details and the language bits, while constantly putting them into the context of the language whole. Some will be my own selections from our shared received methodology,  and some may be less familiar. Here is the first.

Practical awareness no 1: Three levels of pronunciation

This is something I worked out when writing the first draft of Sound Foundations, in fact the book is structured around this principle. It’s obvious and simple and I’m sure others thought of it before me. It provides an elegant scaffolding for moving between sounds and connected speech during all parts of any lesson. It’s this:

Instead of the usual division of pronunciation into two ,ie segmentals and suprasegmentals, a straightforward distinction that serves the purposes of the linguists who created it, I divide pronunciation into three levels:

Level 1: Sounds The sounds/phomemes and their variants of the new language. These are shown on the Sound Foundations and other charts.

Level 2: Words Words spoken in isolation, made by putting level 1 sounds together (allowing for the way neighbouring sounds modify each other). The new factor introduced at level 2 is the energy profile across multi-syllable words, usually referred to as word stress though word unstress is just as important. Words and their stresses are shown in a dictionary. Level 2 therefore includes citation form (ie ‘dictionary’ pronunciation) as well as the reduced ways words are pronounced in connected speech.

Level 3: Connected Speech Words connected together to make a stream of speech, conveying the speaker’s meaning. As at level 2 there can be changes to the words where they join, as well as simplifications/reductions. The new factor introduced at level 3 is intonation which overlays the utterance with a second energy profile, this time across groups of words, helping the speaker convey their relationship to their words, their meaning and their listeners.

Keeping the parts and the whole in sight These three levels help me to keep in mind the whole when attending to the parts and the parts while working with the whole. Quite a bit of class work is necessarily at levels 1 and 2 (sounds and words) but then we must embed that output at level 3 before moving on. Then again if we are working at level 3 (connected speech) and we hit a problem we may slip down to level 2 to work on words or word order and during that we may again slip down to level 1 for roadside repairs on crucial pronunciations within the word itself. Or we might pass from level 3 (connected speech) direct to level 1 to enhance some individual sounds that make a difference, and then re-contextualise that new awareness at level 3.

Not new I’m not describing this as if it is something new, it’s just that the scaffolding concept Levels 1, 2, 3 enables learners and me to track the learning challenges and pronunciation pathways and to make visible the processes by which small pronunciation changes affect intelligibility in speaking and listening. I think this in turn enables learners to be more self directing and demanding in the matter of pronunciation.

How do you conceptualise pronunciation, do you share this with your learners, and how does this affect your way of teaching and learn it?

Next time I’ll propose a second practical awareness activity and combine it with the 3 levels to make an illustration.

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1 Response to Comfortable Intelligibility 1

  1. Hello Adrian. Thanks for your latest super interesting blogpost that I read last night after a very busy day in the middle of the Sitges BESIG 2015 conference. I checked out Simply Business in the last session of the day and there is meat for our intelligibility debate.

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