A few recent conversations have made me think more about the teaching of pronunciation. I read an Arteaga (2000) article back in grad school that claims pronunciation instruction has been relegated to "stepchild status" (p. 340; this is actually my all-time favorite scholarly quotation regarding pronunciation teaching). There are a lot of theories as to why pronunciation instruction sort of takes a back seat, but I think multilingual classrooms make pronunciation instruction difficult to tackle. For example, why teach the p/b distinction when only half your class has trouble discriminating between those sounds? In this regard, I prefer teaching a class of students that are all from the same language group--sure, I might have more difficulty keeping them from using their first language, but I know any pronunciation lessons won't be irrelevant to a large cross section of the class. Still, my classes are usually very linguistically diverse, so I have to focus on things like word stress and other suprasegmentals that usually pose problems to many language groups coming to English.
But pronunciation teaching of individual sounds is still important as I will illustrate in the following situations I have encountered, some recent and some not so recent. How can the errors in following dialogues be explained? (Hint: phonotactics or Best's (1995) Perceptual Assimilation Model).
"I like playing board games."
"Oh, me, too. I really like Mona Bowly."
"Mona Bowly? What game is that?"
"You don't know Mona Bowly? It's an American game. It's very bobular. Everybody knows it."
"My motto is, 'It's my life.' Do you know 'It's my life'? Actually, it is from a famous American musician called Joan Bone Jobi. Do you know Joan Bone Jobi?"
"People will understand you if you say, 'He don't know,' but it isn't correct."
"How they understand me if it not correct?"
"It has more to do with status. Do you know the word 'status'?"
"Yes. Uh huh." (nodding from the whole class).
"Okay, what is it?"
"You walk up and down them."
"Mecca, it's an important city for Muslims. Do you know the Hajj?"
"Of course. I know about the Hajj."
"As you know, Billy Graham goes to Mecca. If you are Muslim, you must go to Mecca one time in your life."
(click Read More at the bottom to see the answer)
"Mona Bowly" is Monopoly, the American, dog-eat-dog, real estate trading game. There are three problems here: The [p] is pronounced as [b], the vowel [a] are pronounced as [ow] (which could be American dialect differences colliding with learned British English and/or orthography in general), and there is no vowel reduction.
If you're a fan of hard rock, then you should have guessed it was John Bon Jovi. This student has replaced [v] with [b] and also replaced [a] vowels with [ow] in "Joan" ("John"). Word stress and lack of vowel reduction are also probably playing some role here.
The American r-sound is perceived (and produced) by this student as an alveolar flap, so stairs would be pronounced like status, especially considering this student comes from speaking a language that does not allow [rz] clusters word finally (also, the /t/ in the word status, occurring at the beginning of an unstressed syllable in American English is produced as an alveolar flap, which doesn't help much).
Since this student's language does not have a p/b distinction, pilgrim becomes bilgrim, and since there are no [lgr] consonants in a row, a vowel must be inserted to break it up, making pilgrim, a two-syllable word, sound more like a three-syllable word or phrase, like "Billy Graham", the famous American evangelist.
Anyway, each of these situations were so puzzling the first time through (although for some reason, each time a student tells me about the Hajj, I forget about Billy Graham and get surprised all over again). If I had my way, I would have supplemental instruction groups for specific languages, or I would have one-on-one tutoring available for every student. I remember when I was learning Japanese, getting help from a tutor was so useful and informative. For now, I'll have to settle for little mini-mini-lessons on language group specific errors, or conversations during break time or serendipitous breakdowns like the above dialogues.
What pronunciation mishaps have you encountered that really stick in your mind?