The Importance Of correct-pronunciation

Inspired by a recent post on DW.de – 10 German Words Non-Germans Can’t Pronounce, I have decided to revisit my short guide to German pronunciation which was previously published here on this website and in the bulletin of the German Teachers Association of Ireland: GDI Bulletin – Short Guide to German Pronunciation by Markus Böttner

Before listing a selection of German sounds (phonemes) and offer suggestions for their correct articulation from an English native speaker’s perspective in the next two posts on this website, I would like to draw your attention to pronunciation in general and, moreover, why correct pronunciation is underrated.

Incorrect articulation in the target language is the most frustrating factor in conversations between learners and native speakers. Our knowledge of the vocabulary and our ability to put all the parts of our sentences into the correct order and tense become irrelevant if we cannot articulate the words properly. If a native speaker has to ask us over and over again to repeat what we just said, their frustration might lead them to lose their patience to carry on with the conversation. This might cause us, the learners, to lose our courage to speak the language and even the motivation to continue with it altogether. (cf. Schatz 2001)

I would like to illustrate this with an example: In the course of my PhD I have given presentations at a number of conferences and have also listened to quite a few English talks by non-native speakers of English. I remember one talk in particular. The abstract, i.e. the short summary which provides an overview of the content of the talk, was written in perfect English, and the topic sounded interesting. During the actual talk, the presenter read their notes, which were written as a complete prose text out loud. Such talks are never a pleasure to listen to in the first place. This circumstance, however, was overshadowed by the presenter’s unintelligible pronunciation of English. I really felt sorry for that person, who was trying to deliver a presumably well-prepared talk, but I stopped listening after a few minutes.

As reasonably correct pronunciation (Nobody is perfect, and a bit of an accent can often be quite charming.) is obviously very important, why is it that the matter has to be emphasised at all? Should it not be self-evident that pronunciation is deeply rooted in language classrooms? In order for us to find answers to these questions, it is worth our while to have a brief look into the history of second language phonology.

Behaviourism and the Contrastive Analysis

With the behaviourist approach to language teaching (cf. Weinreich 1953; Lado 1957) habit formation became the core aspect of second language acquisition. The prediction and explanation of errors in the second language was solely based on similarities and differences between the mother tongue and the target language. Sounds in the second language which do not exist in the mother tongue would therefore pose difficulties, automatically result in faulty articulation and have to be learned by imitation.

The methodological manifestation of this contrastive analysis hypothesis (CAH) was the introduction of audio recordings and the establishment of listen-and-repeat drill exercises. Actual training in the basic understanding of articulatory processes and sound systems of particular languages pretty much disappeared from text books, teacher training and the classroom.

Moderate Contrastive Analysis

Without going into too much detail, the 1970s brought some change and moderation of the previously absolutistic ‘contrastive analysis’. Theorists (for example Boiler and Zahossiny)
had reached the conclusion that unfamiliar sounds in the target language do not necessarily pose difficulties to the learner; vice versa, faulty articulation cannot always be traced back to differences between the two languages.Additionally, there was an emerging view that sounds in the target language which are similar but not identical to sounds in the mother tongue may actually be confusing and more difficult to learn than entirely unfamiliar ones. I will come back to this with an example below.

Communicative Language Teaching

The 1970s saw the shift from pure imitation of ready-made language fragments to the development of communicative skills. One might think that articulation should surely be at the core of communication; nevertheless, this notion did not find its way into communicative language teaching of the 1970s and 1980s. What we find instead is task-based language learning and a strong ‘training on the job’ character.. Phonetics & phonology were still warranted litte attention in teacher training and in the classroom.

Things have begun to improve in the past two decades, and phonetic exercises have been introduced into teacher training and text books; however, it will take a while until traditional teaching approaches have been replaced. (cf. also Hirschfeld 2001)

I have mentioned the terms phonetics and phonology above, but what are they?

Phonetics and Phonology

The distinction is quite straight forward: phonetics is the study of human sound production, transmission and perception, i.e. the way we articulate and hear human sounds. In other words: What happens in our mouth when we speak, and what do we have to do to articulate a particular sound? Phonology, by contrast, studies the function of the sounds we articulate with regard to a particular language, i.e. how individual sounds (= phonemes) carry the meaning of a word. For example, [t] and [p] are phonemes which carry the meaning in the word pair “hit” and “hip”. Another pair of phonemes, the long i-sound [i:] and the short i-sound [ɪ] demonstrate why the understanding of phonology and practical correct articulation are important. A language learner who announces that he will be going “to the beach” might want to make sure not to pronounce “beach” with a short [ɪ] instead. 😉

The example of the long [i:] and the short [ɪ] sounds lead me to the last aspect which I would like to address here: similar but not 100% identical sounds are actually more difficult to learn than completely new sounds and take longer to learn, too. (cf. Best 1995; Flege 1995) This makes perfect sense if we think about it: it is easier to learn something entirely new than slightly modify something that our brain is already familiar with. For example, I have heard Americans who have lived in Germany for decades speak German. The vocabulary was broad, the grammar was correct and even the pronunciation was good…except the typical ‘dark /L/‘ in American English. In German, the /l/ sound is articulated just by raising the tip of the tongue to the hard gum behind the upper teeth (the alveolar ridge). The nuance between these two /l/ sounds does not change the meaning but it is so subtle that this feature might actually be difficult to be modified.

Closing Thought

I would like to close with a key thought. If we cannot think of a certain word in a foreign language, we can nearly always paraphrase or use a different word. If we are uncertain about the grammatical structure of a sentence, we can even leave out prepositions etc. and still get our message across. Articulation is the only area of language which can NOT be dumbed down. If we are not able to pronounce things correctly, other people might have great difficulties to understand what we are trying to say.

Some sources that have fed into this blog entry:

Best, C. T.: A direct realist view of cross-language speech perception: New Directions in Research and Theory. In Winifred Strange: Speech perception and linguistic experience: Theoretical and methodological issues. Baltimore: York Press. 1995, p. 171–204

Dieling, H. & Hirshfeld, U.: Phonetic Lehren und Lernen. In: Neuner, G. (Ed.): Fernstudienangebot Deutsch als Fremdsprache und Germanistik. Berlin: Langenscheidt, 2001

Flege, J. E.: “Second language speech learning: Theory, findings and problems”, in: W. Strange (ed.), Speech perception and linguistic experience: Theoretical and methodological issues, Baltimore: York Press, 233–277

Lado, R.: Linguistics across cultures: Applied linguistics for language teachers. Ann Arbor. University of Michigan Press, 1957

Moulton, W. G.: The Sounds of English and German. London: 1962

Schatz, H.: Fertigkeit Sprechen. In: Neuner, G. (Ed.): Fernstudienangebot Deutsch als Fremdsprache und Germanistik. Berlin: Langenscheidt, 2001

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