The Secret of English Pronunciation
By Enrique Rojas R.
Why is English so difficult to understand for foreign speakers? Do English native speakers really talk as fast as students reckon? Why is it so difficult to pronounce in an intelligible manner?
We have all probably heard this complaint from our students who allege they can understand the English spoken in class and they can comprehend their teacher’s English. But that doesn’t happen when in front of a native speaker. They express they cannot attain the grasp of what it is said by them. And be able to make themselves understood becomes a mission impossible. The English speakers do not seem to recognize a great deal of the words they utter. But then, is it not taking English lessons about understanding the language as spoke by the natural users of it and be understood by them? And, worse yet, the experience leads them to wonder: “What is being taught to us?” A Latin or Peruvian version of the language of Shakespeare?
One of the great difficulties of this language is that it cannot be read the way we are used to reading. The letters in the alphabet have two dimensions, the graphic one and the aural one. According to this apportionment they are called graphemes and phonemes. Our speakers are used to a one to one correspondence between graphics and sound, which mean that each symbol represents a specific sound or phoneme. But although that is true in Spanish, it does not happen in English. The same pictogram, for example a vowel, can represent five different sounds.
The worst part is that this bizarre sound system is not formally taught to English learners. Not in vain is the teaching of pronunciation widely called “the Cinderella of English Teaching”. The result is that students tend to assign letters the same sound they have in Spanish or, in the best of cases, to identify them with the phonemes they believe are the corresponding to those symbols in English. Considering this, it is a small wonder that their pronunciation is far from the correct one and therefore their messages do not arrive in a very understandable manner to the native speakers’ ears. By the same token, the variety of sounds that comes out of their own mouths is hardly recognizable and decoded acceptably by learners.
Other problems are reductions and contracted speech, so much part of the English language. These phenomena are other obstacles for apprentices and the main reason why, in the words of Betty Azar, one of the most famous writers of English textbooks in the world, normal speech may seem for the tenderfoot that it “speeds like a bullet train” and that it may leave them feeling “a little dazed as they try to catch the meaning” (Azar, 2015).
All of these issues will be dealt with in the 10th Latin American Congress for the Teaching of Languages. See you there!
What do you think, is it true that native English speakers speak really fast? Or it just seems like that for the untrained ears?
When an American or English person mispronounces Spanish, we still can understand them. Why can’t they understand us when our pronunciation is not so good?
Graduated in Journalism at the PUCP, Peru, Enrique Rojas R. holds a MA in Journalism and MA in Inter American History from Southern Illinois University, USA; an MA in Literature from University of the Americas, Puebla, Mexico, all the coursework for a MA in TEFL at Universidad de Piura, Peru and BA in Education from Universidad Federico Villarreal. He has also obtained Certificates of Proficiency in English both from Cambridge University and the University of Michigan and the Diploma for EFL Teachers from Universidad del Pacifico. He is an Oral Examiner for the Cambridge University exams and has been awarded the title Expert in E-Learning from Asociacion Educativa del Mediterraneo and Universidad Marcelino Champagnat. He has worked as a professor in universities in Peru, Mexico and the United States; as a newscaster and a producer in radio and television stations in the United States and Mexico, and as a writer and editor in daily newspapers of the same countries. He has been in the staff of CIDUP for 17 years teaching English and Spanish specializing in International Exams, English for Business, ESP and Teacher Training. He is a member of the Research Area of Centro de Idiomas de la UP.