Teachers on the online Trinity Diploma at Oxford TEFL were discussing the problems of explaining pronunciation. This follows the previous post “Inside versus outside knowledge of pronunciation”

Teacher Miriam posed this question: How do I describe the differences between sounds, and explain how I am making each sound?  AU: In my view your own question How am I making each sound is a great starting point, because you have to find it first in your own muscles before you can do anything useful. Once you have found the sound in your own muscles you can more easily see what the student is doing and what they need to do differently and then facilitate them in doing that. Starting with the cognitive description, which is how our teacher training courses often do it, may not be as useful in the classroom as we think.

Explanation itself can be the problem ….

The abstracted description does not replace the directly experienced physicality. Helping students to reconnect with the muscles that make the difference is the primary way of getting behind the habituated movements and postures of the L1 pron. You can’t simply think your way out of a muscular habit with the theory, nor can you repeat your way out of a habit. Instead you have to see what the muscles are doing and then get them to do something different. And for that you have to contact them. But how? As you already said: start with yourself. Teachers need to know what they are doing in their own mouths. The rest follows quite easily. The good news is – it’s not very difficult if you approach it through physicality. Click here for a three 3-minute videos that might be of direct interest here, and then select videos 6, 7 and 13.

Cognitive algebra v physical choreography

An English speaker (especially, but not only, a native speaker) may use grammar without knowing what they are doing, and then when they become a teacher of English they start to find out how grammar works, otherwise they can’t help their learners except by saying “repeat after me”. And they discover a sort of cognitive algebra of what goes with what which we call the ‘rules of grammar’. Fine.Now take pronunciation. An English speaker (especially, but not only, a native speaker) may use pronunciation without knowing what they are doing, and then when they become a teacher they want to find out how pronunciation works, BUT….. with pron the ‘rules’ are physical, and involve physical positions and coordinations. The cognitive algebra of grammar cannot be patched in here, but is replaced by a physical choreography of sounds and connected speech. If you learn pron cognitively, ie learn ‘about’ it from the outside, reading articles, looking at mouth diagrams, describing it with Latin and Greek words and so on, then when you go to teach you suddenly find it doesn’t help. It works well for language scientists – linguists – but not for language teachers and learners. It’s like a dance teacher going into the class to teach samba after only having read books about it, rather than finding the samba in their own body, muscles, balance etc. And you can only get this by sensing your body. Then you can help learners do the same. When you learn a physical skill with your muscles it’s direct and easy. When you learn a physical skill with your head, …. well…it’s different, maybe it’s impossible.

This does not cover your whole question, but finding how you make the sounds yourself should immediately shed a new light on how you describe them. how you sense the differences between them, and how you help learners to get there. If you would like to watch some ways of locating each sound through your ‘pron muscles’ you might like to explore these extra short “How to” videos here, starting from video no 10. Have fun!