The Pronunciation Elephant in the Room

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By Tanya Ploquin

[This article was first printed in the Spring 2016 issue of TEAL News.]

I came from a theatre background where we were taught to have what was called a “mid-Atlantic” accent for all roles where the director wanted a so called “neutral” accent; not too British and not too North American. Essentially it meant not reducing to the schwa or omitting it, aspirating [t]s, avoiding contractions, and any other such “lazy” or “sloppy” pronunciation.  I loved it. Fast forward to the classroom in a private college.

He looked at me and spoke softly, “Teacher what does sonuva mean?”  I was pretty sure I knew what he meant (son of a b!@#*), but I went in for confirmation, “Where did you hear that and who said it?” He replied, “My homestay parents say it every time the puppy pees in the house. I looked in my dictionary and online, but I can’t find it.” No, a Google search couldn’t answer this one.  Ah linking, you little devil.  It made me aware—hyper aware—of linking everywhere.  Linking, it is ubiquitous in many languages, and the bane of most language learners.

I had been teaching my students what was considered proper pronunciation, but I had failed them.  I began to notice linking, reductions, and contractions everywhere.  I paid attention to the usage, and found myself shocked, both as a teacher and as a former thespian.  The difference between “I’ll do it later” and “I will do it later” could be very important. Consider the following:

Mom: Clean your room!

Child: I’ll do it later. (Continues to play a videogame)

Mom: When? Not tomorrow.

Child: I said I’ll do it later.  Don’t bug me!

(5 minutes later)

Mom: I told you to clean your room!

Child: I said I will!

It’s not only nuance in connotation where this arises.  Consider texts that have reductions.  In Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, for one, reductions and contractions abound.  In one academic preparation class I taught there was a quote from the novel.  My students were truly stumped by three different issues with pronunciation while reading the text:

“I just want the whole lot of you to know one thing right now. That boy’s worked for me eight years an‘ I ain’t had a speck o’trouble outa him. Not a speck.” Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird, 1960.

  1. of reduced to a
  2. and reduced to an, which could be further reduced to [n]
  3. out of reduced and linked to outa, which could be further reduced to ouda

Remember, this was a reading assignment.  There was no mention in any materials that the teacher should pre-teach pronunciation. The students were set up to fail, and I felt terrible.

How much and how well are we preparing our students for the “real world” of English?  We go to great lengths to bring in realia.  We do many things all in an attempt to create a sense of urgency for language.  So with menus in hand from the local pizza restaurant we plan to teach how to order food.

Friday afternoon a few of your students go to the pizza restaurant.  They are bombarded with pronunciation structures we haven’t prepared them for: choice intonation, reducing ‘and’ to ‘N’, listing intonation both finished and unfinished, and to top it all of the reduction of [t] becoming [d] when the server tells them the total $13.30.

Let’s better prepare them to understand naturalized pronunciation.  We can, and should, teach them how to distinguish between 13 and 30.

If the stress is before middle [t], it can sound like [d]

Examples: 30, 40, 50, city, water, pretty, etc.…

If the stress is after middle [t] it sounds like [t]

Examples: hotel, guitar, Victoria

Now let’s practice it with a partner. Check if you heard A or B.

A                                                         B

1) thirty                                            thirteen

2) forty                                             fourteen

3) fifty                                              fifteen

4) sixty                                             sixteen

5) seventy                                       seventeen

6) eighty                                          eighteen

If you really want to wow your students, go a step further and explain how the [nt] combination is often reduced to only [n].

Examples: seventy, ninety, internet, mountain, Toronto, etc…

I have had to accept that I am not preparing my students for the stage.  I am preparing them to be able to comprehend and decode fluent local speakers of English.  I know I can’t prepare them for every situation, but I can make them aware of how, when, and why fluent local speakers might pronounce something differently.  I won’t call it lazy pronunciation and thereby detract from the inherent value in understanding it. It’s my job to prepare them for reality, not the snobbery of what might be deemed “proper pronunciation”.  Let’s stop ignoring a huge obstacle between our students and real English. Our students can’t afford to pretend that struggles with pronunciation don’t hinder fluency or comprehension of naturalized English.

The outside world is full of hafta, gotta, wanna, shoppin*, cupa tea, spendaloda timonit, etc. We should be asking ourselves, “What more can I do to prepare my students for the real world?” Asking the question is the first step.  I suggest we address the pronunciation elephant in the room.  As Barack Obama said, “We’re gonna hafta make some changes.” (The transcript of President Obama’s prime time news conference July 22, 2009).

Biographical Information

From the Spring 2016 issue of the BC TEAL Newsletter:  Tanya Ploquin is a teacher, internship mentor, and teacher mentor in Vancouver.  She has a BFA from the University of Saskatchewan and her TESOL credential from Vancouver Community College.  Her interests lie in professional development and pronunciation.

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This article is licensed under a

Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Original reference information:

Ploquin, T. (2016, Spring). The pronunciation elephant in the room. TEAL News. Retrieved from https://www.bcteal.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/BC-Teal-Newsletter-Spring-2016-FINAL.pdf

 

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