06 Jul Accent Reduction Ideas for the Classroom

This week, Mike Newby, Head of English at Eton Institute, provides some useful ideas for activities to use in the classroom to improve Accent Reduction:

Ask your students this one simple question: what is the biggest problem you have with communication here in Dubai?

I’m willing to bet that nine times out of ten the response you get back will have something to do with accents – whether the student’s own or those of other English speakers.

If you were to follow up your question and ask why, the usual response would be that the student doesn’t get enough practice speaking to native speakers.

The fact of the matter is that simply listening to Brits, Americans or Australians is not going to change much. Yes, it will help a little, but on its own progress will be limited. Just like in other areas of language learning, it is only when students are aware of the ‘how,’ ‘why’ and ‘when’ of the target language in context that they can confidently attempt to acquire it. Otherwise, language learning would simply be about reading grammar books and studying dictionaries.

Pronunciation is an often neglected part of this process of language learning, usually because students and teachers alike get stumped as to how they should actually go about it.

Modelling and drilling have questionable merits (should the students be learning to produce the lexis clearly or exactly the way their instructor says it?) and most other forms of presentation seem, well, dull. With emphasis put on grammar and vocabulary – with reading, listening and writing skills trailing behind like a reluctant spouse on a partner’s shopping spree, working on pronunciation seems like something which can be put on the back burner. After all, our students’ accents are not that strong and their pronunciation is not that bad, is it?

As language teachers, it can be easy to forget how much ‘bad’ English we hear every day and just because we can understand what our students are trying to say, it doesn’t mean anyone else will. Have you ever spoken with a student and thought you’d been having a nice chat only to turn around and see bewildered faces? It’s not an easy thing to do, but taking off your ‘teacher-ears’ every now and then will give you an
idea why your students come to you and complain that they don’t feel they’re improving, because the day before they had been unable to get their point across to a confused waiter.

So, now that you’re primed to start talking about phonemes or hitting them over the head with Ship or Sheep (a well-known pronunciation book), let’s take a minute to consider what your students actually need to do in order to succeed.

Accent reduction is not about replacing an L1 accent with a British or an American one, for starters. Our accent forms a big part of our identity
and to expect students to compromise that is a misguided venture. Our goal shouldn’t be to get them to speak with the ‘correct’ pronunciation (just what is that anyway?), but to speak clearly and without interfering with the overall message. That means instead of demonstrating how a
word or phrase is uttered by a native speaker, our roles should be more about raising awareness of how those lexical items can be spoken in a way that is recognisably ‘English’ and follows generally accepted patterns that cause minimal disturbance to the listener.

As language instructors (and this is equally true of other languages that you may teach, not only English), by far the most effective thing you could do with your class is to give them the tools to figure it out for themselves – much like when dealing with the other skills; once outside the classroom, your students won’t have you to hold their hands and help them out.

One of the first things to work on, then, is just how we move our mouths when we sputter out those seemingly random sounds. It would be time well spent to go over the vowel and consonant sounds at regular intervals with your class (not in one go, obviously!) and have them think about the difference in how their lips move when uttering things like ‘it’ and ‘eat.,’ or contrasting the jaw movement between ‘pen’ and ‘pan.’
Not every language requires the same muscles and effort expended and that troublesome ‘th’ is only difficult because learners are not aware of what is it exactly they have to do to make the sounds.

Lastly, try and make pronunciation work in the classroom as fun and as engaging as anything else you do. Modelling and drilling the wordcomfortable may make the class laugh on a Sunday morning, but it’s probably going to be left unappreciated by those that count. There are a variety of activities such as minimal pair games, limericks, tongue twisters, dialogues and chants you can utilise (either search for some online, create them yourself or even get your class to make up their own) in order to keep things interesting. Remember, it’s not just the
individual sounds that cause problems; word and sentence stress, intonation, connected speech and rhythm are equally important to keep in mind.

Even if you’re still not convinced to incorporate a bit of pronunciation work in your lessons or you feel your students won’t want to do it, give your class a couple of tongue twisters or a limerick as a warmer or at the end of a lengthy grammar review session and see how they respond. You never know, they might even enjoy it.

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