Ciara Cordero, ESL teacher at Acadsoc, Ltd.
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Oftentimes, one of the questions English teachers usually face is when their students ask this seemingly innocent question, “How do I improve my accent?” This is usually the case among eager students who want to sound ‘American’ or ‘neutral’ at the least.
It’s a valid concern, especially to English learners whose thick accent in their own native language impedes the understandability of their speech. Others tend to shy away when it comes to talking because they think they couldn’t even differentiate between the sounds ‘l’ and ‘r’, phonemes they use interchangeably.
As a teacher, it is very important, first and foremost, to remind your students that while achieving a neutral accent is desirable, it usually takes months and years before someone can arrive at this level of ‘mastery’. Secondly, it’s important to stress that ‘being understood’ is more important than ‘how you sound’.
Which pretty much brings us back to the issue of pronunciation. English teachers confronted with the question raised above should be able to steer the conversation back to where it all starts, and start to find ways on how to help their students be able to enunciate words clearly. Encourage them to master this micro skill in speaking until they can do it on their own.
Here we list down some tips in helping your students improve their pronunciation.
Encourage your students to always listen.
Speaking and listening always go together. Before you can speak, it’s important that you learn how to listen. Encourage your students to pay attention to how you enunciate each word.
Get their attention to how you speak.
Ask them directly to look at your mouth and lips as you try to pronounce words that might sound difficult for them. Encourage them to follow after you.
Know your phonemes.
As a reminder, phonemes are those distinct units of sound that make each word different. For instance, phonemes such as t, d, l, and r in words like “bit”, “bid”, “pail”, and the pair may sound alike to your students. Direct their attention to how each mispronounced phoneme can change the whole meaning of what they’re saying.
Get your students acquainted with their tongue.
This small part of the mouth plays a very important role in pronunciation. In phonetics, you’ll come across technical terms such as labial, bilabial, palatal, velar — called places of articulation — and you’ll be surprised to know that the tongue plays a major role in pronouncing consonant sounds.
Introduce stress in words.
Part of being clearly understood is when you put the right emphasis in each syllable of the word. Stress can also change the meaning being conveyed. As a simple activity, use the common phrase “I love English” and try to place the stress in each word. Put it first in the word “I”. They do it with the word “English” and so on. Point out how meaning becomes different depending on which word you emphasize, and why.
Ask them to record themselves.
It helps that they hear how they speak, so your students can also make their own observations about their pronunciation.
Encourage them to practice it with someone.
Whether it’s a friend, a language partner or an English teacher, it pays that your students have someone to practice the language with.