Though my assistant teaching gig these past couple of semesters has been in an academic writing class, I’ve also had the privilege of working with some students one-on-one on their pronunciation.
Some thoughts on how I tackle both formal and informal pronunciation tutoring these days:
1. Being Understood
My students are living in the USA. The point of their pronunciation questions and practice is to be understood by typical people living in the USA.
It’s not about them getting it 100% “right” (whatever that means) or sounding like they were born in Cleveland.
This has a big impact on the type of feedback I give them. I don’t say “right” or “wrong,” because it’s not about any such thing. I couch most feedback in terms of if it’s easier to understand (or not).
It also influences my advice to them. If they’re just not ready to be differentiating /r/ from /l/ in conversation any time soon, and they have a job interview this week, I’m going to encourage them to say they “enjoy books” rather than they “like reading.” Not as a long-term solution, but as a way to address the needs of the day.
It’s about facilitating their communication.
Some English sounds, blends, clusters, etc. are uncomfortable for some students. Not as in painful, but as in awkward.
Sometimes students are way off the mark on a certain type of utterance. And I’ve had students persistently revert to a very difficult-to-understand version of a US-English sound I know they can make. I assume that this reflects not their ability, but their discomfort with that sound.
And so I ask them if that sound is uncomfortable for them. I urge them to practice it at home alone in front of a mirror so they can get used to it. And if they are just not ready to consistently produce the sound as I pronounce it, I help them find an approximation that’s reasonably comfortable and reasonably easy to understand.
With vanishingly few exceptions, our students come to us already able to pronounce a great many words in at least one language.
They may make the requisite sounds in different contexts but not recognize them in new contexts. When we can, we should help them make use of what they already know.
Sometimes that involves figuring out what they already know. We need to ask friendly, specific questions to get to know our pronunciation students. What languages are they familiar with, even if they’re not fluent? Are there any similar sounds in those languages to the problem sound they’re working on right now? (Ask them or Wikipedia or both!) Do they listen to a lot of pop music or sing a lot of gospel? What are their other interests and pastimes?
If we can help them relate what they already know to what they’re trying to accomplish, it’s huge. And the best way to do this is to get to know them.
Thursday I’ll be back with a couple examples!