Teaching Articulation

The purpose of this section is to show teachers how to help tonal language students to get their tongues around the English system of spoken sounds. In effect, the program is geared toward the learning needs of persons whose native tongue is classified as a tonal language in which the correct height or depth of the vowel sounds are important for getting the message across.

One such language is Vietnamese where a word, such as Ca, pronounced something like Cah, can mean a CUP or a FISH or a PUMPKIN depending upon how high or low or long you pronounce the ah sound.

The tonal language communities represented in Australia are mainly Chinese, Vietnamese, Cambodians, Laotian, and Kampuchean. For the sake of brevity, this program refers to this entire group as tonal language students.

TESTING AND TEACHING ENGLISH PRONUNCIATION SKILLS WITH TONAL LANGUAGE STUDENTS

Most of our tonal language students have been in Australia for some years.
Yet even the casual listener can easily pick up the more obvious of the tonal language student’s problems with English.

In response to a question such as “How many years have you been in Australia ?” the answer is mainly “one or two YEER (no pluralization) or two or three YEERCE” (an S sound for plural rather than a Z sound)

In further discussion on where they live, what they like to do, how many children in the family and so on, it becomes clear that these students simply miss out on either the hearing or the pronunciation of sounds such as the ending S sound in STEPS, the G sound in BAGS (pronounced ‘baks‘), the T sound for ‘-ED‘ in LIKED and so on.

In effect, because of the frequency and distribution of such sounds throughout the whole of spoken English, it is clear that these students simply miss out on a whole constellation of consonantal combinations that are quite indispensable to clear English speech.

To persons who have more than a fleeting acquaintance with formal studies on the English speech sound (or phonological) system, problems associated with pronouncing consonants are much more serious than problems associated with pronouncing vowels.

Defects in the pronunciation of the consonants have a much greater effect on the intelligibility of what the speaker says. It is possible for example, for a speaker to substitute all of the vowel sounds in his speech with the sound ‘ER’ and still be understood e.g. Ther derg sert ern ther werbler cher converts to what is quite clearly intended to be The dog sat on the wobbly chair.

If on the other hand, you try to change as many consonants as you did vowels in the above illustration then your intelligibility as speaker is routed.
You can experiment with the idea and see for yourself. English consonants then, do have to be quite clearly articulated if you want to get the message across.

The difficulty of saying consonantal sounds often hinges upon where the sounds occur within the word. For example, the native English speaker has no trouble saying the ‘-TS’ at the ends of words such as BATS and HEATS, but has a lot of trouble in saying the ‘TS‘ at the beginnings of words such as ‘TSAR‘ and ‘TSIFF’ … The explanation is simple: Words emerge from your mouth as a result of you combining the common basic movement patterns of your tongue, lips, voice box etc. And any movement which is not common is therefore rarer and more difficult for you speech producing musculature to produce.

Tonal languages just do not contain a large number of the common basic movement patterns (of tongue, lips, voice box) which combine to enable the pronunciation of English words. So teaching articulation to tonal language students is not unlike giving a series of very small scale gymnastics lessons to a heap of tiny muscles that control the lips, tongues, voice boxes and even chests of your students As is the case with properly designed lessons in gymnastics, you have to test first to find the level of basic (articulation) movement skills in your students, and this in a number of areas as follows:

  • Area 1. Beginning Single Consonants
  • Area 2. Ending Single Consonants
  • Area 3. Beginning Combinations of Consonants
  • Area 4. Ending Combinations of Consonants.

There is an extraordinarily simple way of finding out whether or not your tonal language student can actually say clearly all single beginning consonants in spoken English. There are 3 steps involved.

Step 1.
Get the student to say out loud a word like TABLE. Please note: This word is not to be read or written. It is only to be said out loud in clear imitation of what you the teacher say.

Step 2.
Change the T into another consonant… e.g. to an “F” sound, and get the student to say FABLE.

Step 3.
Now change the beginning consonant again (e.g. to a “V” ) and get the student to say VABLE… then continue with the other beginning consonants, as listed below, until you have a full inventory of the single (beginning) consonant sounds that your tonal language student can or cannot say clearly.

These sounds are taken directly from TABLE ONE

f V s Z p B k g t d
y w h n m I R
CH J SH ZH TH(1) TH (2)
The capitalized letters above denote sounds that often do not occur within the native language of your tonal language student. As teachers you should therefore expect that these sounds will often be as difficult for your student as, for example, the Germanic guttural sound or rolled “R” sound for many native English speakers.

This is just as easy as making the record: On a copy of TABLE ONE simply encircle any letter or letter combination that represents the consonantal sound that the student is having difficulty with.

It is just as simple to find out too, what your tonal language student can and cannot do with ending single consonant sounds.

Step 1.
Get the student to say a word like PAT

Step 2.
Now change the ending ‘T’ to another consonant e.g. Change it to ‘F’ and get the student to say PAF.

Step 3.
Change the ending consonant again (e.g. to a ‘V‘ and get the student to say PAV) then continue with substituting all single ending consonants, as listed below, until you have a full inventory of the single ending consonantal sounds that your tonal language student can and cannot say.

These sounds are taken directly from TABLE ONE
f V s Z p B k g t d
CH -GE SH ZH TH(1) TH(2)
n m ng l
On your copy of Table One encircle the letter or letter combinations that represent the consonantal sounds that the student finds difficult.

The capitalized letters above denote sounds that often do not occur at all (or at least at the ends of words) within the native tongue of your tonal language student. They will therefore present some difficulty for the untrained speech producing ‘muscles’ of your student.

Enormous Implications

The two lists of beginning and ending consonantal sounds just provided, contain 43 single consonantal items that are distributed at the beginning and ends of English words. It is important to note that of these 43 items, approximately 18 can be expected to cause some difficulty for the vocal musculature of the tonal language student.

Yet the single consonantal sounds are only the beginning of the problem for your student here… In actual fact, a further 105 combinations of consonantal sounds make up an additional group of main movement patterns that are necessary for the clear pronunciation of English words.

Most tonal language students can be expected to experience some difficulty in coping with the greater part of these  combinations.

For these reasons alone, the specialized tutoring activities of this section comprise a very important addition to their English language lessons.

Let’s try and look deeper into the reality of the tonal language student’s dilemma of sound detection and sound pronunciation with spoken English.

A person who grows up within any single language culture can be likened to a person who has grown up inside a language cocoon. He can easily cope with the perception and production of the sounds inside his own cocoon but often has problems when circumstances simply shove him into a cocoon of a different type.

At risk of being repetitive, I present a few summary and contrastive considerations for you to mull over before we start on teaching procedures which will actually help you to get your students over a number of the main hurdles.

Firstly, the basic acoustic (sound) differences between the block of tonal languages and the block of European languages are major. For example, the block of European languages does not use tones to distinguish between the vowels. In English for example, the word CAR (pronounced cah) does not change its meaning irrespective of how high or low or long you pronounce the ah vowel sound that follows the ‘C‘.
In Vietnamese however, the word ‘cah‘ does change its meaning three times with the three (up, down and short) sounds for the ‘ah‘ vowel in that language.

In fact, the meaning difference on ‘cah’ ranges from rat to fish to pumpkin.
By contrast, the European block of languages tends to rely a lot more on consonantal combinations to produce variations in meaning. For example:

  1. In English LE- plus -NS -ND -NT -FT -TS or -GS to produce various meanings from LENS through to LEGS
  2. The different letter combinations which can precede -IT to make ‘new’ words such as LIT SLIT GRIT FLIT etc.

English vowels do also produce changes in meaning, but the nature of these changes are said to be phonemic rather than tonal.
For example:
BAT BET BIT BOOT BOUT BITE BAIT and so on.

In consequence, the musculature which is responsible for the production of speech sounds in individual words, gets used to performing articulatory gymnastics only within a limited range of movements. And this range of movements can and often does vary greatly from language to language.

Likewise, the brain which interprets the speech sounds that are received by the ear, becomes accustomed to interpreting within the correspondingly limited range of sounds and sound combinations that exist within that language.

The brain however, seems more adaptable than the musculature for speech sounds that it controls. Most often we can hear (register) sound differences that our musculature has not been trained to produce. This is not always the case however. And on occasions, like so many of our ESL students, we seem quite unable to even hear the new sound differences that are important for the clarity of speech and meaning in the ‘new’ language.

It should be pointed out also that the musculature which is responsible for the production of different speech sounds, tends to become less and less flexible with age. And as a general rule, students much after the age of nine years do not usually learn a foreign language without traces of accent to at least the trained listener.

It is strongly recommend then, that for tonal language students at about age nine and above, teachers should entertain the advisability of small doses of articulation DRILL activities. Such activities are aimed quite specifically at getting the students’ articulation musculature to cope more effectively with the vocal gymnastics of the new language.

With tonal language students in the post primary school, carefully graded articulation drill activities such as those which follow later in this program are imperative. Additionally, this drill must involve both speech sound sequences in

  1. words in isolation as well as in
  2. phrases and sentences that occur in everyday speech.

There are therefore, two main segments in any articulation lesson for a tonal language student:
In the first segment we cater for the development of the new articulatory movement patterns, or vocal gymnastics that we have discussed up to this point.
In the second segment we are concerned with the development of normal fluency in common phrases and sentences that occur in daily dialogue. Read Speech Fluency Driils for more details.

Single ENDING Consonant Sounds

In sections AREA ONE: TESTING BEGINNING SINGLE CONSONANTS & AREA TWO: TESTING ENDING SINGLE CONSONANTS we saw how to make a thorough inventory of the tonal language student’s ability to pronounce single consonant sounds both at the beginnings and ends of words. Earlier still, in section CONSONANT POSITION: ITS IMPORTANCE, we pointed out that some sounds are easier to pronounce depending upon their position (i.e. beginning or end) in the word. The table below presents a summary of the most common strengths and weaknesses of tonal language students when it comes to the correct pronunciation of English consonants at the ends of words. The average reader will have some difficulty in fully understanding the terms VOICED and UNVOICED in this table, so I provide explanatory notes immediately following.

STRENGTHS WEAKNESSES WEAKNESSES
 unvoiced voiced
f → v
s → z
p → b
t → d
k → g
voiced
unvoiced
n voiced
m ch →  -ge
ng sh → zh
I th → th

To understand the difference between unvoiced and voiced sounds that I have labeled in the above diagram please do as follows:

Put the whole palm of your hand on your throat and make an elongated F F F sound.
Keeping the whole palm of your hand on your throat, now make an elongated V V V sound.
Keep alternating between the F F F and V V V sounds until you realize that your LIPS are in the same position for both sounds. But that with the V V V you vibrate your voice box.
Please note that the V V V sound is merely the voiced counterpart of the unvoiced F F F sound.
Repeat the foregoing steps (1 to 4) with the S S S and Z Z Z sounds respectively. Note that the Z sound is the voiced counterpart of the S sound.
Do not take the palm of your hand off your throat just yet.
Do the same thing with the sound of TH as in THIN and the sound of TH as in THAT. Note again that the second sound for TH is only the voiced counterpart of the first sound for TH.
Now pronounce an elongated SH as SHARK and compare it with an elongated ZH sound as in JAQUES. Note again that the ZH sound is the voiced counterpart of the SH sound.
Now try to do the same thing with these more difficult pairs.
p then b
t then d
k then g

With the three pairs immediately above try not to pronounce a semi vowel or ‘uh’ sound following each of the isolated consonantal sounds that you say.
This is easy enough to do with the isolated unvoiced p t k sounds but quite impossible to do with the isolated voiced b d g sounds.

It is of utmost importance that you fully realize that the basic movement pattern for the TONGUE, LIPS and TEETH is quite the same for the
unvoiced sound as it is for the voiced counterpart in each case. The only difference is that for the voiced sound in each case you simply vibrate your voice box.

This particular realization is the vital first one for all ESL teachers. Tonal language students often have trouble with simply putting voice into some of the basic unvoiced movement patterns that they are already quite competent with. Hence they can say an F F F ending quite easily but have trouble converting it to a V V V. Likewise, unvoiced endings p t and k are easy enough, but the corresponding voiced endings b d and g are harder.
The list of strengths and weaknesses on the previous page is now beginning to look just a little less prohibitive. With some English sounds, we simply have to teach our tonal language student just to put voice into the basic movement patterns that he is already quite good at.

Step 1.
Going down the end sounds of TABLE ONE Get your tonal language student to do exactly as you yourself did in section UNVOICED AND VOICED CONSONANTAL SOUNDS 1 through to 9. This will enable your student to appreciate how to put voice into a number of speech sounds.

Step 2.
Now, combining the sounds of the vowels a e i o u with the endings f then v on TABLE ONE, get them to say:
aff then avv
eff then evv
iff then ivv
off then ovv
uff then uvv

Step 3.
Now repeat Step 2 but with the end sounds SS and ZZ on Table One. Make sure that the students keep their hands on their throats in the early stages so that they too, will clearly understand the vocal mechanism that produces the differences in the sound pairs.

Step 4.
Now, similarly contrast the pronunciation of the following more difficult pairs in conjunction with the vowel sounds as shown above.

p then b
k then g
t then d
th as in thin then th as in that
sh then zh
ch then -ge as in ridge

In practice there is no real reason, with Table One, why you shouldn’t use any selection from 16 main English vowel sounds with the above activity. In all, the main medial vowel sounds with English monosyllables are as follows:

a e i o u
ay
ee ie oa ew
oo as in foot oi ou as in bout
ar er or

A number of consonantal sounds cannot be accurately pronounced in isolation.
For example, if you try to pronounce a b or g or d in isolation, it is virtually impossible to avoid putting a semi vowel next to it, as is the case with buh guh and duh. By contrast, is quite easy to pronounce consonant sounds such as f v s z in isolation, and that is why we start with these sounds.

Many tonal language students appear to have no difficulty in pronouncing some consonant sounds such as b, d and g when these sounds begin words but have difficulty in saying them when they end words. This positional inflexibility is a common phenomenon when speakers first come from one language system to another. As pointed out earlier, we native speakers of English have no trouble in saying the -TS group of sounds at the ends of words such as BETS or HITS.

But we often have trouble in pronouncing this same group of sounds at the beginning of words such as TSAR or TSIFF.

The position of the sound (or group of sounds) in the word then, affects the ease with which we can say it. Our sound producing ‘muscles’ really are tied to life long habituations. Speakers of German for example, pronounce the TS group with equal ease at both the beginnings and ends of words. Tonal language students however have difficulty with it in either position.

Some English sounds do not occur at all in any position at all in a number of tonal languages. e.g. TH, SH, CH, J. Sounds such as these cause as much difficulty for the tonal language student as do the rolled R or guttural J in Spanish for the native English speaker. Time and regular practice will do much to help the tonal language student here. New ‘speech producing muscles’ do usually take some effort to rouse up from a lifetime of inactivity.

In STEP 3 Student Testing you’ll use five major tables of speech sounds.

These tables are used as references for testing your students as well as for teaching them. The tables amount to a compact summary of the acoustic (sound) design of English monosyllables.

In this sense, they comprise a substantial part of the overall articulatory objective that tonal students need to master for clear English speech. It is important that you understand the structure of these tables and how they are used.

At “TWO TYPES OF ARTICULATION DRILLS” we state that exercises such as these cater for only one of the two main segments of the ESL articulation lesson.

Step 2: Teach Fluency Drills Step 3: View Student Testing Return to Teacher Resources