ESL pronunciation is difficult to both teach and learn. The major impediment to this task is that each native language students bring unique challenges to the classroom with regards to English pronunciation. Unlike Spanish, for example, English is not even a phonetic language, meaning that in English words are often spelled differently than they are pronounced.
The International Phonetic Alphabet identifies approximately 25 consonant sounds and 18 vowel sounds that are used in the English language. The approximations are a result of the many different dialects of English including:
- American English
- British English
- Southern American English
- Cockney English
- African American English
The difficulties for second language learners with regards to ESL pronunciation are complicated and very real.
ESL Pronunciation Resources
The following resources will benefit teachers and students alike as they work to achieve the goal of improved ESL pronunciation:
- Sounds of English: This site has a useful section on English pronunciation. Pronunciation exercises, English word and sentence stresses, and specific tips on particular pronunciations are provided in audio, text, and graphic formats.
- The Sounds of English and the International Phonetic Alphabet: A complete list of the sounds of American and British English are provided on this site in mp3 format. The IPA symbols are also provided. Anyone who is interested in perfecting their English pronunciation will find this site to be an excellent resource.
- Phonetics: The Sounds of American English : The University of Iowa hosts this excellent website devoted to the sounds of American English. Consonants, vowels, diphthongs, manner, place, and voice are all covered in a visually appealing and professional site.
- American English Pronunciation Practice: This site has a long list of minimal pairs exercises in mp3 format. Minimal pairs are defined as two words that have sounds that are minimally different. They are some of the most difficult sounds for English language learners to identify. Examples are lugs/lungs, not/nut, eat/it, ferry/very, and many more. This is an excellent tool to practice these tricky phonetic aspects of the English language.
- Learn English: Learn English provides over 1,500 words in the English language. Users can simply scroll through the list of words and click on the ones they would like to know how to pronounce. The sounds are played in extremely high quality, and printable study sheets are also provided.
- Homophones and Homonyms: A further complication in the matter of ESL pronunciation is the issue of homophones. Homophones are words that sound the same but have different meanings and, usually, different spellings. Examples are all/awl, ail/ale, acts/ax, etc. This article explains homophones and gives common examples.
- Listen and Repeat: This exercise focuses on irregular verbs, another problem area for ESL pronunciation. The podcast is under two minutes long, but the site encourages users to listen to the podcast several times a day for one week for best results.
Final Thoughts on English Pronunciation
Not every language uses the same sounds. For example:
- Mandarin Chinese has 21 initial sounds and 35 final sounds.
- Spanish uses five vowel sounds.
Some students in ESL classrooms will be able to naturally borrow more sounds from their native language than others. Those students who speak a native language that doesn't use some of the sounds used in English will obviously face greater difficulties learning how to create those new phonetic sounds.
Age is another complicating factor, as the research behind second language acquisition theory has proven that younger language learners acquire phonetic sounds at a much more rapid rate than older learners.
Instructors must be aware of the myriad of variables that influence the ESL classroom and the challenges that different students face with English pronunciation. Students also need to recognize their areas of difficulty and put in the dedicated work that is necessary if they want to become successful English speakers.