Tutoring Reflection 5

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Assessment of Learner's Pronunciation

Overall, Eliana's pronunciation is almost always comprehensible. Although she has a noticeable (at times strong) foreign accent, pronunciation errors that impede communication are rare, although some native English speakers might find her foreign accent bothersome. While several of her pronunciation errors are persistent and systematic (such as deletion or hypercorrect insertion of unstressed word-final [iy] and merger of /z/ and /s/ in word-final position), others appear to be lexically determined and involve close cognates in English and Portuguese, for which she tends to pronounce the vowels like they are pronounced in Portuguese (example: ['na-zl] instead of ['ney-zl] for nasal). Eliana's English pronunciation is strong in several respects: unlike many of my other students, Eliana has mastered vowel reduction in English (the fact that Portuguese has a phoneme similar to schwa as well as its own version of vowel reduction is probably a great help here). In addition, she has no difficulty distinguishing most English vowels (including the pairs /e/ and /ɛ/ and /o/ and /ɔ~a/) due to the large number of vowel phonemes in Portuguese.


The following table summarizes the student's systematic elements of speech difficulty:

Consonants: /θ/, /z/, /s/, /ʃ/, /l/, /r/

Vowels: /ɪ/, /ʊ/, /i/ (word finally only)

Grammatical Endings: -s (but only when realized as voiced [z])

Word Stress: No systematic difficulties although the student has some problems caused by L1 interference for close cognates.

Rhythm: Non-native but difficult to describe in systematic terms


Eliana has difficulties with the phoneme /θ/ in all environments, as this sound does not exist in Portuguese (or any other language she speaks other than English). She can articulate the sound correctly when monitoring her speech, but when unmonitored she often produces the acoustically similar [f] instead of [θ]. In contrast, her problems with /s/, /ʃ/, /l/, /r/ only involve positions in the word where the sound does not occur in Portuguese, usually word-finally. For example, although Portuguese distinguishes /z/ and /s/, the two sounds only contrast word-initially and between vowels in that language. Consequently, Eliana tends to produce [s] for [z], but only when /z/ appears in word-final position (saying [wrds] instead of [wr:dz] for words; notably, she has little difficulty with the syllabic [r] that trips up many students). This error manifests itself often due to the frequency of the grammatical ending -s, although it rarely if ever hinders her communicative efforts. Similarly, she has trouble distinguishing /s/ and /ʃ/ word-finally but not in other positions. She can articulate /l/ as [l] at the end of words, but must use care to do so since in the dialect of Portuguese that Eliana speaks, the phoneme /l/ vocalizes to the glide [w] in word-final position, forming a diphthong with the vowel nucleus of the syllable (such that she tends to say [maw] instead of [ma:l] for mall). The only other difficult consonant for Eliana is /r/, which has an unusual and complex allophonic realization in Brazilian Portuguese involving the voiceless velar fricative [x] (a stronger, throatier version of [h]) and flap [ɾ]. As Eliana is already aware of these difficulties (as evidenced by the fact that she can correct each of these errors when carefully monitoring her speech), frequent correction would serve no purpose other than to frustrate or even humiliate the student. With the possible exception of those rare instances when one of these pronunciation difficulties clearly interferes with communication, I believe the wisest course is to ignore them (after all, the primary purpose of error correction is to alert the student to the error itself, and in each of these cases the student is already aware of her difficulties).

Like a great many students, Eliana finds it difficult to distinguish /i/ and /ɪ/ and /u/ and /ʊ/, for neither of the lax high vowels exists in Portuguese. Of all her pronunciation difficulties, this is one of the more serious from a communicative perspective: since English has so many minimal pairs involving /i/ and /ɪ/ (heat/hit, seat/sit, teen/tin) and to a lesser extent, /u/ and /ʊ/ (Luke/look, fool/full), the likelihood that the error will interfere with listener comprehension is substantially greater than for her problematic consonants whose mispronunciations are for the most part positionally conditioned. Nevertheless, because this type of long-fossilized pronunciation error is not very amenable to improvement (in fact, this situation, in which two very close vowels are phonemically distinct in the L2 yet one of them does not exist in the learner's L1 and the sound falls within the phonologically-determined perceptual space of the other vowel, is one of the worst-case scenarios when it comes to helping a learner improve her pronunciation) and the student is already aware of the problem, I will only correct this error when it jeopardizes successful communication.

One error that I do believe warrants some attention and correction is my student's sporadic (or seemingly sporadic) deletion or hypercorrect insertion of /i/ (/iy/) in word-final position. I intentionally selected a nursery rhyme (Humpty Dumpty) to test the student's ability to correctly pronounce this sound. As I suspected she might, Eliana deleted the final /i/ in Dumpty (pronouncing it as dumped) almost every time she pronounced the word during her recorded recitation. In the student's native Brazilian Portuguese dialect, unstressed word-final /i/ is either devoiced (producing a whispered vowel) or deleted during normal (i.e., non-careful) speech. Although Eliana knows that she tends to make this pronunciation error, she is frequently unaware of the error during production. Consequently, in order to increase her awareness of this fairly serious pronunciation difficulty, which sometimes does lead to miscommunication, I believe it is important for me to point it out, at least in contexts where the error could lead to listener confusion.


After this week's lesson, I replayed the nursery rhyme recording for Eliana and we talked about the pronunciation errors she made. One very important point that came up, which I will use to guide my remaining lessons with Eliana, is that she feels comfortable with her English pronunciation and is not troubled by the fact that she speaks with a noticeable foreign accent. Since her pronunciation errors rarely lead to miscommunication, she has good reason to focus on other more important language learning matters (such as improving her vocabulary and using more complex grammatical structures effectively, as described in previous posts). Since Eliana does not feel the need to emphasize pronunciation in our lessons, I feel obligated to respect her wishes. In fact, I agree with her approach. Given that Eliana has been speaking English for more than twenty years, she and I both realize that at this point there will likely be no more major breakthroughs in her acquisition of English phonology. The interlanguage phonology that she has already acquired is extremely stable (fossilized) and is unlikely to change significantly.

Since I have prior experience in the fields of phonetics and phonology, this analytical process was not difficult for me, although I continue to learn more about how I can successfully apply my theoretical knowledge to practical teaching contexts. I also marvel at how well my student has acquired the sounds of English, many of which (especially the vowels) are quite difficult. I see each new student as a fresh case to investigate and analyze and am excited about the prospects of helping Eliana and my future students improve their English pronunciation, even when the steps forward (as with Eliana) represent small yet cherished triumphs. Perhaps the most important lesson that I have learned is that, especially when it comes to teaching pronunciation (which for many students will always be a hurdle), the most important pedagogical principle is to do no harm. Where pronunciation is involved, I believe that overcorrection has the potential to do more damage than no correction at all, as it can frustrate the learner, thereby magnifying the affective filter than can impede acquisition. This is not to say that we as teachers should ignore our students' pronunciation errors, but rather that we should pick our battles to ensure that our corrective efforts are strategically guided to do the most good and the least harm.

Instructor Comments: Nice reflection and analysis.

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This page contains a single entry by Richard McDorman published on August 5, 2012 4:58 PM.

Tutoring Reflection 4 was the previous entry in this blog.

Tutoring Reflection 6 is the next entry in this blog.

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