Friday, March 20, 2009

The Importance of Ear/Vocal Training While Learning English Pronunciation

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Author: Alan M. Perlman, PhD

Language is a system of systems operating simultaneously. English pronunciation involves meaning-differentiating sounds, meaningful sub-word pieces (e.g., prefixes and suffixes), words, phrases, and entire interrelated chains of ideas, as well as the speaker's emotions and attitudes -- all being signaled at the same time.

The goal of the second-language learner must be to produce this complex, simultaneous interaction of systems, moment by moment, and the best way to do that is to hear it all actually happening and then, provided that you have good ear/vocal feedback, you can train your muscles to articulate the right sounds, ever more closely approximating the entire language performance of a native speaker.

Sounds: Systematic repetition training is crucial in identifying the English sounds that differ from those in one's own native language (or identifying those that are simply not in the first-language inventory) and in focusing particular attention on the differences. If, instead of the English pronunciation of certain sounds, the learner substitutes a similar sound from his/her native language, he/she can completely obscure the meaning or confuse the native-speaker listener. Further refinement of an accent consists in learning to hear and reproduce the actual English pronunciation instead of substituting the most similar one from one's native language.

Contractions: Native speakers plunge ahead so rapidly that English pronunciation typically contracts certain sounds (not just the traditional written contractions), and the non-native listener must be alert to these. He/she must be able to immediately hear them and identify them with the uncontracted versions.

Again, the familiarity is a matter of hearing the likely contractions and understanding them in context.

Interference: There's so much noise that accompanies speech that you would be surprised at how little of what someone else is saying actually reaches your ears. That's why simply hearing common collocations of words, especially idioms, will enable you to understand and reproduce the “noise-free” versions.

Phrases and Pauses: Along with the English pronunciation of individual sounds and sound sequences (and their contracted versions), the learner should pay careful attention to the way native speakers group words into phrases, for, e.g., grammatical reasons, emphasis, or place in a conversation. Repeatedly listening to frequent word groupings and patterns of word groupings, as they're actually articulated, will teach the second-language learner where to expect pauses, how to use them, and the kinds of words-groups are typically included between pauses.

Accentuation and Intonation: The relative loudness/softness of each syllable in the English pronunciation of a word -- so easily, rapidly, and intuitively articulated by native speakers -- must be learned and, to the extent possible, duplicated by the astute second-language learner. It's not that the accentuation of a word changes its meaning -- rather, the accentuation pattern of the word is determined in part by its structure, and the absolute loudness or softness of one syllable or another is further influenced by emphasis and intonation patterns in the larger sentence. Rather than memorize complex rules, the easiest path to reproducing the native speaker's performance is listening and repetition.

The same applies to the longer intonation patterns that identify statements, questions, requests, and all manner of speaker implications and emotions. These are simultaneous with the word-level accentuation patterns mentioned above and, once again, must be heard in context in order to be successfully duplicated -- and finally learned to the point of replication.

Language is a lot of things going on at the same time. And the best way to learn them is to hear them and to develop the ear/vocal connections that enable the second-language learner (or even the dialect speaker) to replicate them all, the way native speakers do.

"The effectiveness of PronouncePro as an English pronunciation learning tool is clearly supported by these comments from linguist Alan Perlman, when asked about the role of ear-vocal training in improving second-language skills."

About The Author:
Alan M. Perlman received his bachelor's degree from Brown University (1964) and his master's (1969) and doctoral (1973) degrees from The University of Chicago. Alan also maintains the linguistic web-site,

© Alan M. Perlman 2009. For use only by PronouncePro.


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