Speech impairment and pronunciation – A question asked by teacher Judy Rose (studying for the Trinity College Diploma) How far would the teacher’s role extend with pronunciation when teaching a student with a speech impairment? I have noticed that one of my new students has a pronounced lisp and I wondered how this would affect approaching pronunciation in class, is this something that you have come up against before? Is this a delicate situation or should I just go ahead and tackle it straight on?  Any insight would be greatly appreciated! Judy Rose

Reply:  Yes I think this is an important question Judy, and the language class can be a great opportunity for learners to make adjustments to how they articulate certain sounds in either L1 or L2 or both. In fact the language class may be the only opportunity for them to work on this. Let’s think about lisping for in the case of any speaker in their own first language. Such a person has the precise pronunciation and accent of their culture location or family.  Their pronunciation at every level is obviously that of a native speaker, and in addition to that they do some thing that those around them may not do, for example they use something like this  /θ/ in place of something like /s/, or this /ʃ/ in place of this /s/.

We all have mannerisms according to our physiology, neurology, psychology and life experience, and most go unnoticed. In the case of your student, I would work with all English sounds with this learner as with any other class member. When it comes to the sound /s/ where you expect /θ/ your ear tells you that there is a habit that may be more than the influence of L1, but is something personal to them. You don’t know if it is physiological or what. So work gently and be ready to leave it, accepting what they offer, and moving on to another sound. But also, don’t short change them and don’t waste the opportunity of work that may be exactly what they need tor wish for. Don’t be embarrassed. They would prefer to be heartily accepted, and working with speech impairment and pronunciation practice at the same time has advantages.. As with all pronunciation assistance your help will be more focussed if you find the sound they are making in your own mouth, because that gives you clarity about what they need to do differently.

Check out this blog post which takes you through the territory of the more common lisping sounds / θ/ /s/ and /ʃ/   And you can see me demonstrating the formation of these sounds and how to work with them if you select videos 28, 31, 33 from this menu.

Each person is different and each offers what they can. I might ask, “How do you say this sound in your first language…?” and they may say “Oh I have a lisp, in my own language” and then we can chat about their view of that. Or if that’s not possible than I get them to say a few things in L1 so I can see if they do it there too. If so that tells me something. If not that tells me something else. Either way the language class may be an ideal opportunity for this student to work on a slightly different articulation and to discover that they can affect it and change it and perhaps improve it. Remember that most Sts put too much energy into pronunciation which distorts their attempts. With most Sts I’m constantly saying, “Yes, now try that with less energy please…”

In my way of teaching I help the learner to become aware of the muscles that make the sounds, (proprioception) so that they can become free of the muscular habits of L1 and find new sounds outside the L1 box. That’s why I use a chart and work gradually on all sounds together rather than two this week, another two next week and so on. There is no sound syllabus, You need them all, now. Luckily there are only about 44 of them, of which half are probably already known to the learner. All the sounds affect each other. To work on one is to work on another. By working on the sounds that surround a problem sound on the chart you will be coming at the problem from different directions.

There is also a video here that I recorded at British Council last year Proprioception in learning new sounds, words and connected speech which goes into how to use physicality and physiology to progress with pronunciation. It contains some very practical teaching ideas which could impact on the situation you are talking about. Developing proprioception offers the opportunity of re-learning physical habits, including they way we say sounds.

Learning a new language offers the possibility of re-learning how we speak, and sometimes of resolving problems. Speech impairment and pronunciation can work together well since in the pronunciation class stress free time is given to malkng small changes to the ways we make sounds. In any case work with the student as s/he is, working with and around the lisp or other apparent impairment with playfulness, delight and acceptance. That in itself can make a difference.