How Should You Speak When Teaching?


How Should You Speak When Teaching?

Accents are heavily affected by certain vowel sounds, and you can help your students’ communicative skills and reduce their errors by selecting a more neutral, non-regional version of certain vowel sounds when teaching. In that respect we should all tailor our speech to be more readily understood, whether that’s speaking more slowly, speaking more correctly, or editing how we actually pronounce certain words and sounds. For example, I have something of a north-east British/Scottish accent. Certain of my vowel sounds have very flat, monophthong renderings which I ‘correct’ when teaching, into the more standard diphthongs – my /o(ː)/ becoming the more universal /oʊ/ in words like ‘no’ or ‘hope’, and my /e(ː)/ becoming /eɪ̯/ in words like ‘lane’ or ‘ace’.

Let’s begin though, with a few common, non-vowel, dialectal differences…


The Americans Have Zing…

That’s zing, spelled with a ‘zee’. Many other letters of the alphabet rhyme with ‘tree’, none with ‘red’. Also, the alphabet song doesn’t work if you use zed. This is also one of those American differences that Brits are extremely used to. If you teach British English in Europe say, you should certainly inculcate your students with ‘zee’, even if it jars with your Britishness. And that’s a salient point – familiarity. Through endless media in Britain, we know about ‘zee’, just as we know about sidewalks (pavements) and sneakers (trainers). It will not cause communication problems when reading or listening to, say, the flight number ZZB 123. (zee zee bee 123). The Brits may not like it, but they will understand it. Consequently, if you are teaching British English in your environ, you should certainly make your learners aware of ‘zee’, and vice versa.


But the Brits Have Colour.

Conversely Americans are generally aware that Brits spell colour and mould and flavour etc. with a ‘u’. It doesn’t matter which you teach, and you should ‘go with the flow’ of your environment. If you are teaching in a country that teaches American English then you should too. You are not on a patriotic crusade to promote British English. It simply doesn’t matter. It may be prudent to point out the differences for awareness’ sake, but languages have their own in-built difficulties without telling your students that there are two spellings or even entirely different words for many things. Teach whatever is being taught where you are. Also, it may seem to us native speakers that there are many differences between Englishes, because there are, but as a percentage of the combined lexises, the differences are negligible. When it comes to vocabulary and spelling, take a ‘when in Rome’ approach. In South Korea for example, I teach American English and spelling even though I’m British. There is little point in being a servant to your own background. No spelling of ‘colo(u)r’ is more correct than the other.

A Little Bit of Butter

North Americans and some other Englishes such as Australian, flap the letter ‘t’ in words like butter (becoming ‘budder’). This is so ubiquitous, that ‘fixing’ it would be both impossible and pointless. The error has become the norm. However, I feel this rarely leads to any misunderstanding due to the familiarity of either style, even when compounded with other common learner errors. I personally don’t use the flapped ‘t’ when teaching. I feel either style is fine.

Brits rarely use a rhotic ‘r’ at the end of words like butter (becoming ‘butt-uh’). Again, this rarely leads to misunderstanding, and, indeed, in countries where pronouncing the rhotic ‘r’ can be a problem, it may be of some benefit to use the common schwa in word final ‘-er’ sounds rather than a rhotic ‘…er’, or at least allow your students to.


An Abject Object for Man and Men – The Case Against Merging

It is vowel sounds where I think we have a problem, and in my opinion, it’s actually getting worse. In North America it’s quite common to misspell or misuse ‘than’ as ‘then’ because they are pronounced so similarly, yet these vowels are disparate sounds in many other Englishes. I had never heard that these two words could be confused until I began teaching English. In most variations of English the word ‘tan’ is pronounced quite differently to ‘ten’. We shouldn’t be teaching these two sounds as being so similar that they become interchangeable and inseverable. In short we should use /æ/, perhaps even leaning towards /ä/, and certainly not /ɛ/, when pronouncing words like pan, flap, Amsterdam, especially when these pronunciations may be combined with learner errors to compound miscommunication – allow me to explain.

I teach in Korea, and the Korean alphabet mirrors, in many aspects, this one in that one grapheme equates, generally, to one sound. They have their own letters similar to the universal pronunciations of ‘a’ and ‘e’, that is /ä/ (or /æ/), and /ɛ/, (man/men). The problem is that I’ve had Korean learners pronounce ‘last’ as ‘rest’, compounding an error, the well documented r/l separation problem of some Asian speakers, with North American pronunciation. However, the first error is avoidable if you shift your accent when teaching, to the more neutral /ä/. This may seem trivial, but not doing so creates severe communication problems, especially when combined with other common errors such as the r/l mentioned above, and labio-dental fricatives (f/v), or the ‘th/s/z’ mix-up, errors common in, for example, Korean speakers. You may hear:
man – men
last – rest
lack – wreck
lap – rep
fan – pen
fat – pet
than – Zen
fanny – penny
And so on. As you can see, these errors result in entirely different words, not just mere geographical shifts in pronunciation

Of course the last one is humorous, (but entirely possible!) and any ESL teacher will tell you of times when their students have erred into the realm of comedy. It’s common in Korean learners for example, to confuse ‘s’ and ‘sh’ sounds, saying ‘shee’ for ‘see’, etc. You can imagine how ‘sit down’ is often rendered! I digress. I would like to see a more neutral and familiar letter ‘a’ = ah (/ä/)’ usage in ESL teaching. We can all tailor our accents and vocabulary a little to aid future communication and learning. Your students should not be asking for directions to the ‘benk’ or enquiring about the ‘pen’ (fan). Even worse, I occasionally hear in young North American speakers, bank being ‘bent’ so far as to almost sound like ‘bink’.


Mistaking ‘oh’ and ‘ah’ Sounds

Olive? Ah-live? Bobby? Babby? ‘o’ = /ɒ/ or ‘o’= /ä/? I have seen these spoken ‘errors’ reproduced in the Korean script. Again this is an American influenced error I see here, though less serious than the one above, yet it can still lead to communication problems.

rob – lab
lot – rat
lop – rap
rod – lad
shot – sat
fought – pat

Again, one should tailor one’s accent to avoid miscommunication.


The Roman Alphabet is Not Ours

Think of how any speaker of any language using the Roman alphabet would pronounce the nonsense word ‘kol’. Almost all would say /kɒl/ (kol), some might say /koʊl/ (coal), very few would say /kɑːl/ (kal). North America is out on a limb here, in terms of its rendering of the grapheme ‘o’ as /ɑː/, compared to most other Englishes, and any language using this alphabet, which can only create confusion.
There are other strong examples of vowels sounds when one is teaching that should be avoided, for example, the Scottish, New Zealand and Scottish short ‘I’ as in ‘fill’ is phonologically very similar to the schwa /ə/ (the ‘o’ in ‘button’), with ‘kit’ sounding like ‘cut’ to non-speakers of those dialects. This is something that you should eradicate in your teaching, to avoid confusion. ‘Fit’ could sound like ‘putt’ when heard by a non-native.

Finally, one should never teach the trap/bath split (class/clahss, dance/dahnce) common in southern British English, Australia, Boston and South Africa. It does nothing to aid understanding and is spoken by a worldwide minority.

There are now more people who speak English as a second language than native speakers of it; we no longer dictate via our ancestries how English is or should be pronounced, but if we merge too many vowel sounds together, and these ‘mistakes’ are then compounded with the common errors of those learning to speak English, the opportunity for miscommunication is greatly enhanced. You will aid your students’ communication immensely if you ‘neutralize’ and de-merge your vowel sounds to more central, universal sounds, more closely matching the letters by which they are represented across languages using this very alphabet. The larger the disparity between the grapheme, and its universally accepted pronunciation, the greater the chance for misunderstanding.

It may take practice and you may need to sit at home honing your pronunciation. You may even need to dispense with a little patriotism. However, if this leads to an easier learning experience for your students with fewer errors, it will be worth it.

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