Some of my most vocal students harbored a deep belief that they spoke English rather flawlessly, at least when it came to pronunciation. They would often complain about their classmates’ accents. They’d even protest at having to work with a partner who they couldn’t understand easily because of the classmate’s accent. I know this because they would tell me. Sometimes it was in private, but sometimes loudly, in class, in front of their classmates.
These students were super social and eager to practice English as well as get to know their classmates. Conversations being stymied by accents that were incomprehensible to them frustrated them. The thing was…their pronunciation was FAR from flawless. In fact, I often had to “interpret” what they said to others, and when pressed, they would even admit that people outside of the school didn’t always understand them. They weren’t sure why their teachers could easily understand them, but outsiders couldn’t. Some assumed it had more to do with others being anti-foreigner than their teachers’ vast experience in listening to accents.
I tried explaining to them that anyone not accustomed to their accent, which sounds they mixed up with which sounds, and which sounds were simply left out would greatly struggle and likely get frustrated at some point. Several reiterated that their accent was mild, almost non-existent, especially compared to (they named some other language groups here). I knew that I was going to have to give them a brutal wake-up call.
The Spelling Quiz That Wasn’t About Spelling
I knew that chances were that if they were not pronouncing a sound correctly, they were also likely not hearing it correctly. To show these students who often mixed up /b/ and /p/ as well as all of their short vowels, I gave the entire class a “spelling quiz.” The words were all very short, like:
What they heard astounded them. They openly checked out their classmates’ papers, convinced I was just saying the same word over and over. In fact, they saw that many of their classmates (in fact, all of the ones outside their first language group) were writing different words. The lightbulb went on. They knew they had a problem.
That Loveable False Confidence
However, they quickly reassured themselves and each other that those little words were not a big deal. They reasoned that they would rarely need to use them and that it would never cause any significant misunderstandings. They still wanted to blame any difficulties in communication on their classmates and on anti-foreignism.
That night, I went home and started working on lists of minimal pairs. I thought that the next day, I’d be able to easily demonstrate how mixing up one little sound could change the meaning of the entire word. Well, that didn’t really work as they didn’t even know what the words on my minimal pair lists were.
Thankfully that was a Friday because it took the weekend to find pictures to represent the words and create a digital presentation, but that worked! They were then on board. They were ready to work on reducing their accent to be more easily understood and to improve their listening. After all, no matter what type of English proficiency exam they planned to take to be admitted to a university, they would have to pass a listening test.
Those NSFW Moments in Adult Pronunciation Classes
As I was teaching adults, I could and always did introduce minimal pairs that included NSFW language. Finding out that they could accidentally say something they REALLY didn’t want to say incentivized improving their pronunciation. Sometimes I had to handle an inadvertent mispronunciation with special care and discretion and not during “teachable moments.” For example, when discussing food likes and dislikes, a young woman who struggled with vowel sounds happily announced that she loved “cock”. (She meant COKE!) I told her privately what she had said, and she passed that on to her female classmates on her own. Beach and sheet are two commonly interestingly mispronounced words, but you’d be surprised at how horribly mangled vacuum can become.
Pronunciation Freebie Alert!
Do you have students who struggle with B/P? Click the image below to sign up and get access to a free set of B/P minimal pair flashcards. You’ll also be added to the email list to get the current password to the Freebie Library of resources for teaching adult ESL.