In last month’s post (The Story of Sounds Episode 11), I referred to proprioception, the name given to our internal kinesthetic awareness of the position and movement of our muscles and parts of the body.

During the weeks since then I have run two teachers’ courses on pronunciation, one for Oxford University and one for Pilgrims training at Kent University. Each lasted a week, with a total of 45 teachers attending from 15 countries, amongst them a few native English speakers.

And as we worked the participants and I were struck again and again by the observation that it is difficult for a teacher to usefully help learners to escape the grip of their mother tongue pronunciation unless the teacher knows her way round the muscles and surfaces of her own mouth, and can sense what she is doing as she moves one or another articulatory muscle, and how that affects the quality of the sound, word and connected speech.

This should not be surprising. To be an effective city guide it is not enough to live there, you have to know your way round. 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. First you need to know what the student’s body is doing right now in front of you, for which you need a kind of body empathy, and second you need to know what your body is doing, for which you need proprioceptive intelligence. When the dance teacher knows what the student’s body is doing and what their own body is doing, they are well placed to help the student make the changes needed.

And so it is with pronunciation. Having ‘good pronunciation’, and whether you are a native or non-native speaker teacher, are not the main issues. If you don’t know what you are doing in your mouth you are going to be restricted in the ways you can help a student. In fact you are confined to

1.. Exercises involving some form of “repeat after me”, (or repeat after the recording)

2.. Other practice exercises and discriminations.

And these are fine as far as they go, but they do not specifically set out to develop the proprioceptive or kinaesthetic intelligence that can gradually liberate the learner from the oral and aural grip of their mother tongue pronunciation habits.

It was clear from the two courses that both native and non native speaker teachers are in the same boat here. They may in their training have learnt something about pronunciation and how it works, but if they can’t find both the students’ pronunciation and the target pronunciation in their own articulatory apparatus, then they are not in a position to describe the journey from A to B that the learner needs to take, nor to track and comment on the student’s progress.

In response to this insight participants on both courses insisted that we focussed on practical ways of (re-)discovering the muscle buttons, as described in the previous post and frequently elsewhere on this blog.

In a forthcoming post I will return to this and discuss some ways of developing the proprioceptive intelligence for pronunciation.

Meanwhile I’ll leave you with some nuggets from the Wikipedia entry for proprioception (on 25 Aug 2012):

The essential ideas have been discussed since the 1500’s, and in the 1800’s the terms ‘muscle sense’ and kinesthesia were used with closely overlapping but not identical meanings. The term Proprioception was first introduced in 1906. The Wikipedia entry offers these meanings across three related disciplines:

Proprioception: (Medicine) from Latin proprius, meaning “one’s own”, “individual” and perception, is the sense of the relative position of neighbouring parts of the body and strength of effort being employed in movement (1)

Proprioception: (Complementary medicine) the kinesthetic sense. The sense that deals with sensations of body position, posture, balance, and motion (2)

Proprioception: (Neurology) The subconscious sensation of body and limb movement and position, obtained from non-visual sensory input from muscle spindles and joint capsules (3)


1.. Mosby’s Medical, Nursing and Allied Health Dictionary, Fourth Edition, Mosby-Year Book 1994, p. 1285

2.. Jonas: Mosby’s Dictionary of Complementary and Alternative Medicine. (c) 2005, Elsevier

3.. McGraw-Hill Concise Dictionary of Modern Medicine. © 2002 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.