Teaching Idea: Phoneme Prevalence Chart

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 I came across this fascinating chart on Twitter a few days ago of the prevalence of phonemes amongst the world’s languages. Though it could come off as intimidating for someone who doesn’t know IPA, I think that it could be interesting to draw upon in the classroom. It could spark conversation around the fact that some sounds that are common and fundamental in English might actually be rare cross-linguistically, and therefore difficult for some.  It could be a confidence booster for someone who is struggling with a certain sound to know that there is a reason why they find it difficult, and that they’re not the only one.

I think it could also be interesting to get students to think of the phonemic inventory of their L1 and think about overlap with English (though as this chart shows phonemic inventory and not phonetic, there could be sounds in English which also appear in students’ L1s which are not phonemes but exist in allophonic distribution). Here is an amazing resource on phonemic inventories of different languages (along with other cultural and linguistic info). Although these resources have been made for speech-language pathologists and audiologists, they could definitely prove handy for an English teacher focusing on pronunciation.

ELF Pronunciation in Brazil

Most of my pronunciation teaching has taken place in inner circle contexts; mainly, Canada. Standard Canadian English is quite present in terms of models of pronunciation and goals for comprehension on behalf of many students in this context, as much of their interaction is with local native speakers.

Soon I’m going to be doing some speaking and pronunciation teaching in Brazil, an expanding circle context that’s new to me, and so I thought I’d do a bit of research on the Lingua Franca Core, Jenkins’ (2000) proposal for the core set of phonological features that are most crucial for intelligibility.

I plan to cross reference list of ELF core features with the list of features of  Brazilian Portuguese that tend to be most salient in Brazilians’ learner English and focus on these in the course.

What I’ve come up with so far is the following. This list of summaries of the LF Core features is from this amazing blog, and I’ve added my comments in bold below each of their  summaries.

1. Consonant sounds

‘Dark /l/’ (also written as [ɫ]) is not necessary.  Speakers can substitute ‘clear /l/’ (possibly preceded by a schwa if the /l/ is syllabic, like at the end of ‘bottle’).  

In particular, I plan to focus on the substitution of /w/ for /l/ that often occurs word finally, and try to encourage a clear /l/ in this context.

• /r/ should be pronounced as in General American pronunciation (technically called a “rhotic retroflex approximant” and written as [ɻ].  It should also be pronounced everywhere it occurs in spelling, as in American English.

Brazilian Portuguese (BP) has two ‘r’:  /ʁ/ and /ɾ/, and while the latter does not impede comprehension, substitution of  /ʁ/ for /ɻ/ in most contexts in English, especially word-initially, can really affect comprehension.  I plan to work on raising awareness of the patterns of ‘r’ in BP and trying to get students to work on producing some kind of rhotic something word-initially and in the coda position.

 

2. Consonant clusters

• If learners have trouble producing consonant clusters, it’s usually OK to insert a very short schwa vowel between consonants, providing they don’t then stress this syllable (e.g. ‘product’ could be pronounced more like [pә’rɒdʌkәtә] by Japanese speakers without damaging intelligibility).

• Similarly, learners can add a short schwa at the end of a word ending with a consonant, provided this does not create another word which it might be confused with (e.g. ‘hard’ sounding like ‘harder’).

Speakers of BP often epenthesize schwas into consonant clusters or on the end of words ending in voiced fricatives or affricates such as /dʒ/, etc. I’ll tryt o focus here on making that schwa as short and unstressed as possible. 

3. Vowels

• Length contrasts must be preserved, e.g. ‘pill’ versus ‘peel.  However, the actual quality of vowels is less important, providing it’s consistent (e.g. don’t keep switching between different pronunciations of the vowel in ‘hat’ so sometimes it sounds like RP [hæt] and sometimes it sounds like New Zealand [het]).

• The length of diphthongs must be preserved but, again, the actual quality of the vowels is less important, providing it’s consistent.

• When a vowel occurs before an unvoiced consonant, it should sound slightly shorter than when it occurs before a voiced consonant.  For example, the vowel in ‘right’ is slightly shorter than the vowel in ‘ride’, and the vowel in ‘kit’ is slightly shorter than the vowel in ‘kid’.

• The /ɜː/ vowel, as in ‘girl’ or ‘first’, must be pronounced accurately.

YES to all these. Vowel length is so important and many learners of English are not aware of it. 

4. Word groups and nuclear stress

• The stream of speech should be divided into meaningful tone units (also known as ‘tone groups’, ‘word groups’ or ‘thought groups’).

• Nuclear stress (i.e. which word is stressed within a ‘tone group’) must placed appropriately, especially for contrast/emphasis.  This means the difference in meaning should be clear between, for example, ‘Let’s meet NEXT Saturday’ and ‘Let’s meet next SATURDAY’.

This aspect of pronunciation was the focus of Jane Setter’s great plenary at IATEFL 2017. It’s relatively straightforward to teach and raise awareness about and I plan to do so with this group. 

I have my work cut out for me!

Now, I know that word stress is not part of the LF Core! But I have observed that a tendency of speakers of BT to carry out schwa reduction on syllables that in stress-timed varieties of English are not reduced (in other words, syllables that are stressed or unstressed but not reduced to schwa), and I have seen it cause misunderstandings in interactions with native speakers and non-native speakers. This makes me inclined to bring it up in class.

Any of you ELF enthusiasts out there have more recommendations for me?