English and Spanish are two very different languages and we -Spanish speakers- instantly perceive that when beginning to learn our first English words; for instance, personal pronouns I, you, he, she, etc., which differ so much in form from yo, tú, él, ella, etc. Together with this realization comes the attempt to pronounce such words and the verb forms am, is, are and feel at ease with ourselves when we hear the outcome. To spice up the task, we are told that both pronoun and verb form are usually contracted in daily speech, so as well as trying to produce the correct sound we feel visually alienated by an apostrophe, which many times teachers fail to explain why it is there.
English pronunciation is not easy for a Spanish-speaker, certainly not, and the older we are the harder it becomes. Our speech organs have been trained to produce certain sounds (those featured in Spanish) so the production of new sounds is many times a matter of our natural ability to make new sounds. This is the first hurdle a Spanish-speaking learner of English must overcome and it can become an ordeal if we, teachers, treat all our adult students as standard students who will make it as soon as our instructions are set in; see my previous post When English becomes an ordeal. I would also like to direct you to a very encouraging post by Scott Thornbury, B is for a Bad language learner, in which he shuns those that mock other people's attempts to speak a second language even if they sound ¨funny¨ to the ¨experts¨.
So, a plea on behalf of the bad language learner: never, never, never mock a second language speaker – even if it’s someone (like George Bush or José María Aznar) whose politics you disagree with. It’s a cheap shot. And, if you are a language teacher, it ill becomes you. It’s your job to encourage second language use, however non-target-like. What’s more, ridicule is counterproductive. There is nothing more de-motivating than being laughed at. (Scott Thornbury's blog)
Both Indo-european languages belong to different families: English is a Germanic language whereas Spanish is a Latin language. The intonation is certainly different, Spanish is a syllabic language, so each syllable has roughly the same duration regardless of the stress. English, on the contrary, uses word stress and the duration of syllables is not the same. Many times I've heard students ¨complain¨ that English speakers don't seem to make an effort to understand them. They illustrate their statement by saying that they produce a grammatically correct question and, yet, they still get either a puzzled look or a ¨I'm sorry but I don't understand.¨ There's a simple answer to this: they're using the wrong stresses, so their utterance sounds flat and meaningless for the English speaker.
That's why I believe phonetics is such a useful tool for Spanish-speakers learning English. It provides them with a visual image of the sounds so that they feel they are getting there. I know many teachers find phonetics cumbersome and they try to keep their students away from it as much as they keep their own selves. I disagree. Teachers should use phonetics in their teaching in a light key so that their students can use images as a good way to improve sounds. The same way as deaf people can be taught to speak, we must facilitate our learners of English a way to improve their speaking skills. The goal is not for our students to memorize the phonetic alphabet, we would simply add up more learning and frustration in that sense. We should encourage them to see English phonetics as a tool to help them ¨visualize¨ the pronunciation of an English word, or a phrase. The aim is to get familiarized with the symbols so that they can identify the sound. Besides, all dictionaries provide the phonetic transcription of that new word we have just looked up. Knowing the symbols will help us tackle its pronunciation even if we haven't heard this new word before.
When starting to teach new groups (as it was last week) I find teaching phonetics a good way to introduce them into English. A good reason is that it's very likely that they haven't been ¨exposed¨ to phonetics before. It also allows me to ¨expose¨ them to my teaching. I try to be very careful when doing so as I do understand new symbols may simply put them off. I try to make English sounds visual to them and I use Spanish sounds as a model to check on either similarities or differences. A speaker of a second language tends to assimilate those new sounds that are similar to their own language by producing them in the same way as their native language, and this is where we should make them notice those slight differences that, otherwise, will be dragged along their learning. New sounds, on the contrary, are most likely to be imitated as they should be pronounced.
I also teach my students something basic as the physiological mechanics of speech production. We actually produce sounds by voicing the air we expel from our lungs. This air that goes through the windpipe or traquea, encounters a first feature which amplifies the number of sounds we can produce: the vocal cords found in the larynx or vocal tract. They vibrate or not depending on the sound we produce. Thus, we make voiced or unvoiced sounds. All vowel sounds and dipthongs are voiced; consonant sounds can be voiced or unvoiced. You will be able to check both voiced and unvoiced consonant sounds by clicking on consonants and more consonants.
The speech organs consist of lips, teeth, tongue, alveolar ridge, hard palate, velum (soft palate), uvula, glottis and nasal cavity, and they all play a role either actively or passively to articulate different sounds. This is a diagram of the different parts:
Links to practise English sounds and get familiarize with phonetics: