The Ability To Speak A Language Correctly English Language Essay

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Is the ability to speak a language the "right way" governed by environment or developmental factors? Working with Chilean learners of English whose native language is Spanish, I have had first - hand introduction to the difficulties Chilean Spanish speaking learners experience in acquiring the receptive skill of listening and the productive skill of speaking English as a foreign language. According to Tench (1981) both abilities necessarily depend on pronunciation to a significant extent.

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The difficulties the learners encounter indicate that articulation and listening skills are determinant upon how a non-native speaker of English receives and produces the nuances of the language . A focus on pronunciation during the process of teaching English, I consider , would significantly improve both listening and production skills of the non native speakers.

This essay mainly will focus on the existing literature about pronunciation, taking into account the segmental (i.e., vowels and consonants) an suprasegmental feature (i.e., stress, rhythm and intonation); the key issues of pronunciation for Spanish learners of English and finally, the areas to prioritize to teach English pronunciation to Spanish Speakers

A review of existing literature

A review of the existing literature on the area reveals that the subject of pronunciation has exercised the minds of several researchers and a number of hypotheses have been derived, evaluated and different conclusions have been drawn. The consensus is that the articulation mores of the native language have an impact on the way vowels and consonants are perceived and produced by non-native speakers of English. It is noted by several researchers that the knowledge of "how L2 sentences ought to sound" increases "more rapidly than the ability to produce those sentences" (Flege, 1987: 285). Further, the notion of "Phonetic norm" determines acoustic dimensions and non-native speakers of English try to understand frequencies of vowels and voice onset times on the basis of how much the sounds differ from the nearest sound in the native language. Cook (1999) assumes that language teaching can benefit from paying attention to L2 users rather than concentrating primarily on native speakers, because L2 speakers differ in the cognitive processes they use from L1 speakers. Teachers must bring in L2 user situations using L1 teaching activities and create a positive image of L2 users to success in the process of teaching. She recommends that " L2 users be viewed as multicompetent language users rather than as deficient native speakers and suggests how language teaching can recognise students as L2 users both in and out of the classroom."(Cook, 1999: 185). Thornbury (1993) regrets the fact that the teaching of pronunciation has been neglected in favour of teaching the language. He argues that current developments in teaching indicate that a segmental approach to pronunciation teaching is at "odds with the paradigm of holistic language use"(Thornbury, 1993: 126) and it is important to sensitise learners to the importance of voice setting phonology. Burns and Claire (2008) explored pronunciation "action" in the classroom. They concluded that English teaching methodologies still encourage learners to "approximate their speech as closely as possible to a native speaker (NS) model". Moreover syllabuses are "grounded in native speaker intuitions" even if the intuitions are "inaccurate" (Burns & Claire, 2008:6). All this creates negative effects on intelligibility for the L2 speakers; makes English language teaching difficult and unrealistic (Burns & Claire, 2008: 10). Jenkins (2002) agrees with the view and says that language teaching would be easier if teachers pay more attention to the L2 speaker's production and reception issues rather than the Native speakers'. The change in focus modifies the way pronunciation is taught. It promotes greater intelligibility; regional appropriateness; improve accommodation skills and create more teachable options. Jenner (1997) argues a case for an international norm for English. The hypothesis is based on the fact that non native speakers of English far outnumber native speakers of the language and the proportion is likely to rise over the years. The expectation is that phonology will shift under weight of the influence and will move towards the norm of the largest number of speakers. Chela-Flores (2001) lay stress on the importance of "suprasegmentals" in comprehension and production of language. It is noted that the "emphasis on suprasegmental features could apparently transfer learning to a spontaneous production" (Chela Flores, 2001: 85) and this was evident when a comparison was made with those who had been taught only segmental content.

The Key issues of Pronunciation for Spanish learners of English

While the Literature on the subject is enlightening, I have realized that I need to customize English language teaching to the specific needs of my students in Chile. My students are a unique set of learners and their context demands that I remain aware of the typical L1 (Spanish) articulation rules and patterns of language and how the dialect could impact their learning of L2(English). Their pronunciation difficulties ( both segmental and suprasegmental) could typically occur from this transference of rules and the production and reception of sounds could be impacted in more ways than one. I have to prioritize on how and what I am going to teach in my English class.

Spanish is a Romance language and belongs to the Indo-European language family. The language uses the Latin alphabet. The vowels can take an acute accent and there in an additional letter ñ. English has a larger vowel system than Spanish in the number of phonemes. Spanish presents just five simple vowel phonemes (/a,e,i,o,u/), whereas English has twelve monophthongs , five long (/i: , a: , É”:, u:, Éœ:/) and seven short (/I, e, æ, ÊŒ, É’, ÊŠ, É™/). In general, Chilean Spanish learners find the long monophthongs of the English language really challenging, for example, in the words cheese, card, work, short and cool, since their L1 does not have them, thus they are not naturally accustomed to differentiating between short and long monophthongs.

Another difficulty the Chilean Spanish learners of English face is the failure to distinguish between words with contrastive monophthongs, such as /I/ in 'ship' versus /i:/ in 'Sheep', /e/ in 'bet' versus /æ/ in 'bat', /ÊŒ/ in 'cut' versus /a:/ in 'cart', / É’ / in 'cot' versus / É”: / in 'caught', / ÊŠ / in 'full' versus /u:/ in 'fool' and /a:/ in 'heart' versus /Éœ:/ in 'hurt'. This causes problems in the pronunciation in addition to perception of sentences as the distinction between these pairs is not practised in the Spanish language.

Likewise, the Spanish speakers are not capable of articulating the short weak monophthong schwa/ É™ / purely, seeing as this sound is missing from their first language and also receives not enough training in English language teaching. As example of this sound, consider the first syllable of the next words 'alone', 'above' and 'confront'.

Learners L1 also interfere in the pronounciation and perception of the English dightons (double sound). Spanish has 9 regular diphthonds (/ai,au,ei,eu, ia,iu,oi,ou,ui/) while English has 8 (ɪə, ʊə, eə, eɪ, ɔɪ, aɪ, aʊ, əʊ).

While most consonants are not problematic to Spanish speaker of English, they have difficulties with some of them. The English /p/, /t/, /k/, and /ch/ are some of the more commonly aspirated sounds but not in Spanish , so when a Spanish speaker pronounces 'pig' without a puff of air on the /p/, the word may be misunderstood as may 'big'. It also may cause difficulty in pronouncing the end consonant strongly and accurately as in 'part' resulting in the word sounding like pard . Moreover, Many Spanish speakers of English also have the tendency to prefix words beginning with a consonant cluster on s- with a /e/ sound. So smart becomes esmart and staidum turns into estadium. Aditionally, Spanish Speakers also suppress the sounds in other types of consonant clusters. For example test may be pronounced as tes and instead may be spoken as istead.

The suprasegemental phonology of a language as stress and intonation are two main characteristics of the production of English words and utterances. Roach (2000) points out that stress indicates prominence in pronunciation that is usually generated by 'loudness' of voice, 'length' of syllables, 'pitch' related to the frequency of vibration of the vocal folds as well as to low/high tone and 'quality' of vowels functioning individually or in combination .

On the one hand, Spanish is timed by syllables, that is to say, it has a speech rhythm in which all the syllables recur at equal intervals of time. On the other hand , English is a stress-timed language that holds a speech rhythm in which the stressed syllables persist at identical periods of time (Richards et al. 1985).

Roach (1991) states that the pitch of the voice has the most important role in intonation, when people speak the pitch of the voice is constantly changing from high to low or viceversa. Entonation of English is characterized for its rising tone , a movement from a lower pitch to a higher one, e.g. questions ; and a falling tone, one which descends from a higher to a lower pitch, e.g. exclamations. Entonation, therefore indicates functions of the English language, which is not so relevant for Spanish language.

Many Spanish-English speakers transfer the intonation patterns of Spanish into English. This makes the English of Spanish speakers sound peculiarly flat with no pitch, rhythm or stress and barely intelligible to the native English speaker.

Other pronunciation issues that have been noted by MacDonald, M (in Bjarkman and Hammond , 1989) are:

Neutralization of fricatives by Spanish speakers (example: /s/ and /z/).

/ʃ/ is replaced with /tʃ/

/dʒ/ and /ʒ/ are replaced with /j/ or /tʃ/

Fluctuating degree of closure /j/ and /w/

Omission of all final consonants other than /s/, /n/, /r/, /l/ and /d/

Problems with the voiceless dental fricative /θ/ found in English and non existent in Spanish.

Merger of /ð/ and /d/ and /v/ and /b/ or pronunciation of both as voiced dental plosives.

Neutralization of nasal phonemes in coda-position such as the realization of [n] in the word final may result in the nasalization of the preceding vowel.

The Chilean Context.

While most of the Chilean students want to learn to speak English, they are handicapped in a number of ways. Most of them attend State Schools which are not very well equipped with teaching materials. The classes are also very large with 38-45 students per class. Teachers can, therefore, give very little attention to the learning needs of individual students. Teachers are also overworked as they have 44 hours per week and very little time to plan for their classes with the type of meticulousness that would ensure good results. Most of the students who attend school are categorized as "social risk" students and many of them avoid attending school at the least opportunity. Parents too, have no interest and do not support the students or the teachers in their efforts. Students who are keen to learn English and to speak it like a native speaker do not have the resources to travel far from the homeland and live in English speaking countries to get a first hand experience of the English language culture.

Interestingly, I have noted that most of the Chilean Spanish students of English are not on the defensive. They are conscious of their difficulties and trying very hard to understand and overcome the problems they face. While this is good, it also act negatively to make language reception and production more difficult for them.

Experiential understanding within the Chilean context has led me to believe that students should be taught segmental and suprasegmental features of pronunciation. While segmental pronunciation (pronunciation of vowels and consonants) would help them overcome all the difficulties they experience in articulating individual English sounds that are not found in Spanish, suprasegmental learning (articulation of stresses, pitch movements and tones correctly) would help them appreciate language features found in connected speech. In time they would be able to graduate to an understanding of the spectral cues that are automatically familiar to the native English speaker.

I concluded that I needed to review of the existing literature on the subject of teaching pronunciation; study of common difficulties of Spanish students learning English; focus on pronunciation of segmental and suprasegmental features of language and create a developmental model of English language teaching, if I must successfully help my students learn to understand and articulate English. This naturally led to the question: What should be the focus area of pronunciation?

Considering the peculiarities of the Chilean English learning situation, the "top down" (teaching pronunciation of segmentals and then of supra segmentals) approach seems to be the best option. I, therefore, concluded that EFL pronunciation of English should cover both segmental and suprasegmental aspects of language if Chilean learners of English must learn to speak the language intelligibly and comprehensibly. Teaching should include training of speech organs such as lips, teeth, alveolar ridge, palate, tongue, vocal folds and ears, so that reception and production of English by Spanish speakers of the language will force learners to focus on phonological patterns and discriminate more accurately the effects of suprasegmental aspects. Listening skills would be developed by making use of TV/Radio and other readily available audio-visual aids.

Prioritizing on areas for teaching English to Spanish Speakers

It follows that English learning must begin with an understanding of differences between Spanish and English segmental features with the rider that L2 learner's speech perception system is naturally influenced by their native language. The organic movements and positions must be taught to enable students comprehend the organic basis of articulation. This is a great help in acquiring the correct pronunciation of the language.

Morrison argues that "in order to perceive English in a more L1 -English-like manner, the L1-Spanish L2-English listener must learn at least one new category and position category boundaries in appropriate locations for distinguishing the …vowel categories" (Morrison, 2006:7). Fledge in his SLM ( Speech Learning Model) posits a probability that the Spanish speaker will create a "new L2-category" on the basis of phonetic dissimilarity and perceived differences in the sounds. The L2 sound may then be linked to the L1 as a diaphone located within a single phonological space.

Interestingly, spectral properties (such as duration, context) are primary perceptual cues for L1 English speakers, while this is not so for Spanish speakers. Spanish does not have vowel duration contrasts. Hence it was noted that L1-Spanish L2 English listeners used duration cues to distinguish between English vowels and remained unconscious of the spectral properties. While this could be exploited to teach Spanish L2-English learners perceptual differences between vowels, it may handicap them and make them linguistically desensitized to the spectral differences in the vowel space.

It followed that one priority area in teaching English to my Chilean students is to help them filter L2 speech sounds and cues through their L1 speech perception system and to acquaint them with how the L1 speech perception affects or interferes with their ability to infer the distribution of acoustic properties of L2 speech sounds. As a consequence the developmental structure will be as under:

Spanish learners of English would be first taught to perceptually distinguish between vowels.

Next they distinguish between them using duration cues.

Then they would use a mixture of duration and spectral cues.

Finally, they would use duration cues in L1-English like manner.

Similar situations would obtain for consonants and acquisition of skills in reception and production of consonants.

However, it should be noted here that segmentals have the advantage of being represented orthographically and despite the lack of consistency between sound and symbol, the basic relationship between sound and their letters can be made clear to students. Rhythm and intonation on the other hand depends on voice quality, tone of the speaker, stress and other related properties of speech that cannot be represented orthographically. Teaching of suprasegmental features of English to Spanish speaking (for that matter any L2 learner of English) students becomes a difficult proposition. Compounded with this is the students own poor awareness of language and the strategies they need to adopt in order to learn the language and articulate it in intelligible and acceptable ways.

L1-Spanish L2-English learners consider paraphrasing, self repetition and writing /spelling, volume adjustment, speaking slowly and clearly as strategies for overcoming communication barriers. It is evident that the student relies on pronunciation strategies that are less ideal and should be taught to identify suprasegmental features of language and prosodic (stress, tone etc) factors that influence comprehensibility. Language learning should therefore, include global strategies such as voice quality, stress, intonation, rhythm, body language, rate and volume in English learning classes.

In my experience, L1-Spanish L2-English learners have a number of difficulties with stress, rhythm and intonation. The speakers incorrectly stress compound words and adjective plus noun combinations. Since there are no weak forms in Spanish, the speakers over even rhythm and stressed syllables are articulated with the same length and stress. The pitch range is also very low in Spanish and rise and fall is almost absent. Consequently the falling pitches may not be articulated low and the rise and fall may prove difficult for them to grasp.

Teaching L1-Spanish speakers English suprasegmental features is made more difficult by extensive gaps between theoretical investigations and pedagogical materials based on those investigations. There are also difficulties in teaching intonation and rhythm. So, perhaps we need to establish a relation between what native speakers do and what L2 learners do while articulating in English.

Consequently, a prioritization in teaching suprasegmental features would involve:

Understanding the Chilean student's competence in receiving and producing English intonation and rhythm and determining a basic point for starting instruction.

Observing the narrow pitch range of Spanish L2-English learners and helping them overcome the monotonic quality of speech.

Raising the awareness of students by comparing a recording of native speakers to a recording of speech patterns of Spanish speakers in English.

Discussing pronunciation, rhythm, intonation and pitch differences.

Identifying high and low pitch movements

Noting that nuclear placement, pitch height, nuclear accent mobility and syllable length varied in accordance with the speaker's ability.

Drawing attention to interactions of features such as stress timing and weak forms that are crucial for intelligibility of the articulation.

Helping the student approximate the natural rhythm of connected speech productively as well as receptively.

Integrating the whole with reception related activities that sensitize, improve recognition and discriminate between different kinds of communication cues.


The ultimate challenge for EFL teachers, I think, lies in evaluating the effectiveness and scope of pronunciation instruction (segmental and suprasegmental) and providing assistance to students in developing strategies that will help them communicate successfully and autonomously with the English speaking community. The questions raised at the beginning of the discussion will be fully answered if student difficulties are examined within the Chilean situation; their difficulties identified and lacunae in instructions filled in appropriately. In this, teachers must begin with the learners own perception of pronunciation difficulties; their observations on their control over accents and their response to communication breakdown. All this should be treated as clear indications of a mismatch between the teaching and learning of English by non English speakers of the language and efforts must be made to identify lacunae and fill it with appropriate instructions. Teachers should raise the learner's awareness of general strategies that help overcome their communication difficulties.