This post is inspired by Scott Thornbury’s recent P = pronunciation post. As always it’s great, thought-provoking stuff, and the comments make fascinating reading.
What I wanted to pick up on and think through a bit more was Scott’s “t” anecdote:
I remember being told by a well-intentioned Spanish teacher: “Your problem is that you use the English ‘t’ sound instead of the Spanish one”. To which I replied, “No, the ‘t’ sound is the very least of my problems! My problem is that I don’t know the endings of the verbs, that I don’t have an extensive vocabulary, that I can’t produce more than two words at a time. … and so on”. That is to say, in the greater scheme of things, the phonetic rendering of a single consonant sound was not going to help me become a proficient speaker of Spanish.
This struck a deep chord – as no doubt it will with most adult language learners, no matter what language they’re learning – but it also made me think of an example where the correction of one phoneme did make a huge difference. Although in that case it was a question of eliminating a native phoneme that did not exist in the target language, rather than trying to acquire a new one.
I was working in Italy at the time. A colleague was miffed at being told repeatedly how “cute” her English accent was. She took it to mean that her Italian was poor and wanted to do something about it. We identified one sound in particular as being the main culprit – the /ƏƲ/ of no and go and so. It isn’t a sound that exists in Italian (though it is used as an exclamation in Roman dialect or slang). The letter “o” is pronounced as /o/ as in not, got, shot or / Ɔ:/ as in four, door, more, but never as / ƏƲ /.
Eliminating the / ƏƲ / from her Italian worked wonders. The stock English accent disappeared. Listeners’ perceptions changed. Her language output was taken more seriously, she got more compliments on her efforts to learn Italian and less on her “cute” accent. Her L2 self-image improved dramatically, her confidence soared.
Turning the tables on the experiment, I reversed the process with my students. Italy, as you will no doubt know, has a great tradition in dubbing English language films. They do it very well, at times adding extra value and a new layer of meaning. One of my favourites is Stanlio I Ollio – Laurel and Hardy in Italian. They have stock English accents peppered with “ohs”. It definitely adds to the comedy. (See an example here on youtube – even if you don’t speak Italian I think you can still probably pick up the accent).
I confessed my love of Stanlio i Ollio to my students and got an enthusiastic response. They could all imitate the accent in Italian – and sound pretty convincing. We worked on some international Italian words – the usual suspects, pizza, spaghetti, Ferrari, fiasco, pronto – the students said them in Italian and again in “Stanlio i Ollio”. We looked at the offending “oh” sound and fact that consonant sounds aren’t doubled. We tried some stock phrases, and then a short role play. In the role play one was Italian and the other either Stanlio or Ollio.
I’m not going to claim that this had lasting – or even, in some cases, temporary – results, but it did raise awareness of “voice” – and it helped some students feel more confident in their ability to cope with what they perceived as a pronunciation “issue”.
And I’m certainly not claiming that this approach is in any way new or original. Studying the contrasting pronunciation of borrowed words is a standard exercise in language classes. It’s fun, it’s simple – and it’s often effective.