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The Listening/Pronunciation Connection

Summary of the Plenary Address Given by Linda Grant at VAILL-ESL 2001 

by Pat Bowyer 

Have you ever misheard the words from a popular song and happily sung along in blissful ignorance, singing, for example, “The girl with colitis goes by” instead of “The girl with kaleidoscope eyes” from “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” by the Beatles? If you have, you are not alone. Most native listeners of English have done so. In fact, these errors occur so frequently that an entire daily calendar of humorous mishearings of popular songs has been produced with examples such as, “There’s a bathroom on the right” instead of “There’s a bad moon on the rise” from Credence Clearwater Revival and Maria Muldauer’s lyric “Midnight at the Oasis” transformed to “Midnight after you’re wasted.” 

In her plenary address at VAILL-ESL this summer, Linda Grant, author of Well-Said, (Heinle and Heinle, 2001), suggested that awareness of such mishearings can raise an ESL teacher’s sensitivity to problems the non-native listener faces everyday. Ordinary English speech is peppered with intentionally blurred, obscured, and reduced sounds and phrases. Time devoted to pronunciation not only helps students speak more clearly but also listen more effectively. Ms. Grant outlined how listening and pronunciation are mutually supportive and which high priority pronunciation concepts are essential for effective speaking and listening. 

In order to be able to reproduce a sound, a person must first be able to differentiate that sound from others. Infants have the ability to perceive and produce a universal inventory of sounds from all languages. By about 10 –12 months of age, that ability diminishes as the infant begins to specialize in the sounds and patterns that carry meaning in the native language of that baby’s culture. Second language learners perceive the sounds and patterns of a new language through the filter of the first language system. As a result, a Spanish speaker may pronounce the English lazy as lacy because Spanish doesn’t regard the voiceless /s/ and the voiced /z/ as distinct sounds. Second language learners need to be trained to hear these differences; that is why so much of pronunciation instruction in the early stages focuses on raising awareness. Finely tuned listening skills enhance pronunciation skills. 

In a similar manner, attending to pronunciation skills enhances listening ability. According to Ms. Grant, most ESL listening materials emphasize “ improving the top-down skills like predicting, guessing, listening for the gist, and ignoring irrelevant details.” While acknowledging that these skills are important, she suggests that more attention needs to be given to the “bottom-up” skills of pronunciation that mark authentic speech, especially the melodic features. The three basic pronunciation concepts vital to this process are: 1) stress and rhythm, 2) linking, and 3) focus or prominence.

Unlike many other languages, the rhythm of the English language is created by the contrast in syllable lengths. Knowing which syllable to stress and which not to stress is equally important; for example, if the word “tumor” receives equal stress on each syllable, the listener may hear “two more.” When non-native listeners complain that English is spoken too fast, they may be having trouble processing the rhythm of the language. If they are assigning each syllable equal importance, they are missing a very important clue and working too hard to get to the meaning of the sentence.

Likewise, non-native listeners need to learn how and when linking occurs in English. When they begin to comprehend that a phrase that sounds like “Takideezy” means “Take it easy,” they realize that it is not necessary to hear each distinct separate word and can begin to comprehend whole chunks of language at a time. And, finally, ESL students who understand the use of prominence or focus to emphasize the important word or phrase in each sentence will become both better speakers and listeners of English. The same sentence uttered with emphasis on different words can change the focus or meaning of the sentence.

In short, to support our students in becoming effective communicators, we need to help them “decode the stream of speech” by becoming aware of the rhythm, linking, and prominence features used in authentic speech. In Ms. Grant’s words, “As speakers, our students will learn what the listener needs to understand the message. As listeners, they will be better prepared to face the music of English.” 

Pat Bowyer is a Resource Teacher and Family Literacy Coordinator for Adult ESOL in Fairfax County, Virginia. She has taught ESOL to students aged 3 to 83 for over 20 years. This past year she was assistant coordinator of VAILL-ESL. 

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