Most of us can give students accurate and functional definitions of, say, verb, semicolon, and syllable, yet we may feel out of our depth when it comes to describing the workings of pronunciation. But pronunciation need not be so daunting and mysterious; it’s entirely mechanical, and if we understand and communicate those mechanics to our students, we’ll start to see some serious progress in their pronunciation.
First, a rundown of the articulators that we use in English:
- the voice box (or larynx),
- the tongue,
- the teeth,
- the lips,
- the nose (yes, we all talk through our noses!),
- the alveolar ridge (just behind the upper teeth),
- the hard palate at the roof of the mouth, and
- the soft palate (or velum) at the back of the mouth.
Linguists deal in more nuanced terms, but for classroom purposes, these will do just fine. Once students are familiar with the articulators, we can start asking questions:
—How do we make [m]?
—I know you can say [mmm], but what are you doing? How are you doing it?
We say [m] by putting our two lips together, using the voice box, and releasing air through the nose. The sound of [n] is similar because we are also using the voice box and releasing air through the nose, but in this case our mouth is blocked off with the tongue flat against the alveolar ridge. Sounds like [m] and [n] exist in nearly all languages, so they’re a nice, comfortable place to start students speaking about the articulators, but once they’ve got the hang of it, we can start leading them into more challenging territory.
Many speakers of Korean and Cantonese struggle with [z] but have no problem with [s]. How do we say [s]? Tongue flat against the upper teeth, a little space for air, and no voice box. Once they’ve got that, have them hold it, and get them activating their voicebox (fingers on the throat helps a lot for voiced sounds). Similar activities will help students with [f], [v], [θ], [ð], and other tricky sounds. Once they’ve got the mouth formation right, repeat, repeat, repeat to build that muscle memory. Beyond just single phonemes, the language to talk about articulators will help students with consonant clusters, voiced and unvoiced -S and -ED at the end of words, and a host of other common problems.
This kind of awareness raising can work at all levels. Beginners won’t be as articulate, but they’ll quickly start using phrases like “tongue and teeth together” and “no voice.”
Mini-lessons in pronunciation like this can be extremely satisfying to teach. You’ll see ripples of epiphany spreading through the class, students will ask you to explain other challenging sounds in the same way. Once you’ve started to incorporate this kind of language into your repertoire, you may find your own articulatory awareness increasing, and you’ll be able to give students feedback like, “almost, but your tongue is a little too far back; move it closer to your teeth.”