POOR PRONUNCIATION – the ESL sucker for punishment!


So often in the classroom we are finding new and inventive ways to correct students, to find that balance and to let them still speak or write with enthusiasm and passion without thwarting their confidence, but pronunciation is often the hardest thing a teacher has to confront.

If you are teaching a student from Vietnam for example, their written work and grammar work may be incredibly accurate, including their vocabulary understanding and confidence to try to phrases, the only problem they have is – you can’t understand a single word that is coming out of their mouth!

Particularly for the Asian student this is a real dilemma. On the one hand they are very studious and hard-working, and on the other hand they are also often very shy and don’t want to make any mistakes publicly for fear of humiliation. So what happens is that they ‘internally intellectualise’ all their information and regurgitate the words and sentences without thinking about whether the pronunciation makes any sense or not.

The compounding problem there too is that if they are learning English in Vietnam, they are going to find it less likely to meet other people who do actually speak with correct (or at least audible) pronunciation as everyone around them may too be speaking with the same poor enunciation.

As an ESL teacher for many years I know myself that often when there are students in the class who have poor pronunciation after a while I notice that we start to tune our ears to the subtle inflexions and nuances of their phrasings….(that’s a nice way of saying it), so to me they make perfect sense, but that shouldn’t be the case in the long run. The teacher’s role is to try to at least get them to speak in a way that anyone from anywhere in the world should be able to understand their English.

So what should we do?

Drilling can work at the lower levels but the higher the levels are (though some drilling will work), the results can be disappointing, mainly because the student may have become so set in their habits of bad pronunciation it will be difficult to change.

Some teachers however do try to do these things:

immersing the student in intense listening of native English speaking and following the listening exercises talk freely to them, this does help them pick up the more decipherable side of English

ask students to take the focus away from intellectualising and move more for spontaneous speaking. Often though it will work from a technical side, intellectualising can destroy fluency.

take students into environments where only short correct phrasing is necessary, e.g. playing a game of football – phrases such as ‘over here’, ‘it’s a goal’ and ‘pass it to me’  etc., can be SHOUTED out and recalled naturally in that way.

In the long run, poor pronunciation can be the very thing that kills the person’s English achievement, as a language is all about communication, and if no one can understand you then, what’s the point.

I’m very open to others ideas on this topic as some of you will have had a much more experience in Asian countries than myself, so please share.


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