Another question from teachers on the Diploma programme at Oxford TEFL (click for info)

The short answer? Don’t teach the symbols, but help learners discover the sounds.

And when they are able to say a sound close to the target sound, you can point at the sound on the chart and say, “Yes this is what you are saying” or if they are not quite there you can point just inside the box surrounding the sound, ie not in the centre of the box, and say “You are here…!”

What matters is the learner’s internal experience of the physicality of making that sound, of manipulating the muscles a little differently from the habit of their L1, of hearing that the resulting sound is a bit different from L1 and therefore ‘odd’ in relation to L1, and then receiving from you the vital feedback “yes that’s it, or “that’s getting closer” or “no it’s not that”, or “make it longer” or “make it shorter”, or “change it a little”, or “do the same, but with less energy” or “put the lips forward a little”, and so on

In other words don’t offer the symbol on the chart until the student has a “good enough” experience of making the sound, which you can then symbolise. The symbol is a kind of mnemonic for a muscular experience which produces a corresponding sound. If there is no experience then the symbol is worthless, in fact confusing. You can’t give something a name until you have an experience to give a name to. Just like you can’t learn your students’ names until you meet and get to know them, and when you have an experience of a person you can give them a name. It’s the same with sounds.

Once a learner begins to get close to a target sound, then the symbol is simply a label for that experience. And when we point to that symbol again it will, in time, trigger that experience and that sound. Gradually the symbols become ways to return to the sound, How else do you indicate a sound in order to evoke it again? You can use colours, or pictures, but you can’t use the sound itself if they can’t yet say or hear it. By labelling the experience of the English sounds learners get to know them, get to know where they are and where that have been, which sounds they can do and which not yet, There are only 44 or so sounds of them maybe half of them are already close to mother tongue sounds. Compared with grammar or vocabulary the amount to learn is rather modest. And in the end it is more useful to see all the sounds as one self supporting, integrated, integrated system, rather than as 44 separate sounds.

Teach sounds not symbols

We should not ‘teach’ the symbols. It is the sounds that we are working on with the learners, and that we want to help them improve (in order to be comfortably understood by others when speaking, and to comfortably understand others when listening)

Sounds come from muscles not from symbols

The symbols are only marks on a bit of paper. They are not the sounds. There is no point in teaching them because by themselves they won’t magically make the sounds come. The sounds come simply from a configuration of tongue, lips and jaw (the three muscle groups, or muscle buttons as I call them) which takes place in the mouth, plus a fourth muscle (or button) which essentially turns the voice on and off, and this occurs in the larynx (the voice box) which is above the wind pipe. Click here for two minute video on the 4 muscle buttons. Select videos no 7 and 13.

You cannot repeat your way out of a habit.

Our primary aim in teaching pron is to help learners discover new sounds they need, or new variants of sounds they already have, in order to optimise their comfortable intelligibility in the new language. When they try to do this they immediately find that the habits of their 1st and subsequent languages get in the way. That is to say that the four muscle groups mentioned above work by themselves according to the habits laid down by their own L1. Our mainstream methodology tells us to resolve this by giving them repetition exercises, but this mostly doen’’t help because you cannot repeat your way out of a habit. There is no point in repeating, until you have found something usefully different to practise. And then I’d rather call it practising,

Get behind the mother tongue muscular habit

This means that the learner has somehow to get behind the mother tongue muscular habit, in order to find something that is outside the inventory of mother tongue sounds. There is only one way to do this that leads to mastery: the learner has to make contact with the muscles that make the difference, and having connected with them she can then require them to do things a bit differently. This is tricky at first as we all know from learning any new physical skill such as skiing, knitting, a musical instrument, etc. This is why I call the muscles buttons, because once you have found the button you can ‘press’ it. Until you find it you cannot press it. If you think of learning a new dance – the experience in my case was trying to samba – you know that you have the body and muscles needed but every time you try to repeat after the teacher you simply repeat your own habits. But once you connect internally with your muscles you start to find that, awkwardly at first, you can get the muscles to do something slightly differently. And once you have a little insight into doing it differently from your habit, then you have something to worth practising. And this is exactly how it is with pronunciation too.

What’s happening in your own mouth?

This means the primary focus for the teacher is to help the learner to connect with the muscles. To do this we explore the territory of the mouth, which is indicated on the chart. What may stop you from working with the physicality of pron is that you treat it like teaching grammar and vocab, as primarily a cognitive activity. But describing and talking about samba won’t get you to samba! If this interests you click here

The other things that may stop you is not sensing your own muscles, so not knowing what you are doing in your own mouth. This is a global problem for both native and non native teachers of any language. If you feel that is your case, you might consider working through these three minutes videos….

Beginners and young learners

I believe that everything I have described above applies to young learners, who simply do it more quickly than older ones, and to beginners who need sensitisation to this right from the beginning, before they internalise the new language with the pronunciation system of another language.This is not a cognitive explanatory affair, we do not use complicated Greek and Latin terms. We do not learn about it, we learn it. And if this interests you, click here

And learners soon hear a small and then a larger change in themselves, and can see, hear and feel themselves moving into something new. And gradually they can hear the new language better, and learn it all the quicker, and a virtuous reinforcing learning cycle is set up. For more on this topic click here