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Making a Case for Beginning with Suprasegmental Features in Pronunciation Teaching by Scott Shelton
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Introduction and background

Over the years, phonology has played many different roles in the English language teaching classroom, from a virtually non-existent role in the traditional grammar translation method to being the main focus of the audio-lingual method through its emphasis on minimal pairs, phonemes, drills and dialogue work. Until recently, phonology and other aspects of language were thought to have been best learned through a building-block, "bottom-up approach." This approach can be defined whereby:

A person begins his task of learning a second language from point zero and, through the steady accumulation of the mastered entities of the target language, (e.g. sounds, morphemes, vocabulary, grammatical constructions, discourse units and so on) eventually masses them in quantities sufficient constitute a particular level of proficiency
(Rutherford, 1987:4 in Thornbury 1993)

Changing emphasis

Over the years there has been, however, a shift away from this atomistic view of language learning towards a more holistic, "top down" approach which has been reflected in both syllabus and material design, as well as in testing and in classroom practice. (Thornbury 1993) The current emphasis on pronunciation teaching is on the broader phonological aspects of connected speech, and their link to meaning on discourse level, and has resulted in renewed interest in the place of pronunciation in communicative language teaching. (Evans & Jones 1995). It is this holistic, integrated approach to pronunciation teaching, through focus on the suprasegmental aspects of phonology, that I find particularly interesting as a language teacher.

The suprasegmental features are those which operate over longer stretches of speech, such as, stress, rhythm, intonation, pitch, and voice quality as opposed to the segmental features which are referred to as the individual sounds. In his book, pronunciation, Laroy asserts that :

It is impossible to speak without rhythm and intonation, and these deeply affect the quality of speech sounds. (Laroy 1995:39)

It is commonly agreed upon that it is intonation that has the greatest likelihood of impeding intelligibility in a learner's speech. By giving prominence to a word that conveys an altogether different message than what was intended or by using an inappropriate pitch key when speaking which confuses whether or not the speaker is making a statement or asking a statement are just two examples of potential problems that could occur. Although the suprasegmental features are sometimes called the 'unteachables', Laroy (1995) suggests that they are not 'unlearnable'.

Beginning at the top

By beginning with the overall voice setting or voice quality of English and engaging the learner in activities which raise his or her awareness to the way the language sounds, (perhaps by comparing it with other languages), is in line with a holistic, "top-down" approach. This integrates listening and speaking skills, involves the students' personality and opinions, and raises their awareness of how English and other languages they are familiar with differ, or are somehow similar. In this light
O'Connor states the following:

The basis of articulation has already been shown to be important in foreign-language teaching: better results are achieved when the learner gets the basis of articulation right rather than trying for the foreign sound sequences from the basis of his own language (O' Connor, 1973:289 in Thornbury 1993).

Thornbury also takes a clear position on this issue when he writes:

Until the learner is able to approximate the voice-setting features of the target language, work on individual phonemes is largely whistling in the dark. (Thornbury 1993)

Because it is the suprasegmental features that control the structure of information, the misuse or under-use of these features (such as; stress, unstress, rhythm, intonation, linking and pausing) can cause an utterance to be understood in a way other than was intended, and can cause frustration, and possibly de-motivation, the learner who is not aware of how these features operate in the target language.

When we speak, some words carry more importance or information than others. This prominence is shown through a combination of loudness, length and pitch movement affecting syllables, whole words and over whole 'chunks' of speech. (Dalton & Siedlhofer 1994). It is necessary to point this out to learners, consciencely raising their awareness, in order for them to grasp the importance of how and why this is done:

Intonation is not only central to conveying meaning but attitude as well. Students must understand the function of intonation in conveying attitude and be able to recognize the difference between different intonation contours. (Avery & Ehrlich 1992)

Teaching Spanish students

In my experience in the classroom, this is definitely an area that students need to work on, and appreciate working on. Because it often times seems like such a mystery, it can be quite satisfying to 'crack the code' to how meaning is conveyed in their new, second language. This is especially true for students from language backgrounds that are syllable-timed languages or tonal languages. In my present experience with European Spanish speakers, who have a somewhat narrower pitch range than English speakers, work on how pitch range can express interest, boredom, and so on, is highly necessary and important to their success as English speakers. Because Spanish is a syllable-timed language, work on prosodic features can prove enlightening as it helps to demonstrates the phenomenon of vowel reduction, which is not a feature of Spanish.

In an Intermediate class of Spanish speakers, which I am currently teaching, I recently asked them to write for ten minutes, without pausing, about their feelings and experiences concerning pronunciation. The results were interesting to read. Although unfortunately not a big surprise, everyone made reference to how difficult learning pronunciation was from his or her point of view. There seemed to be a common consensus that it was confusing, complicated and something that Spanish speakers could not do well.

Many mentioned problems with the 'tone' and 'stress' and others expressed considerable concern with how complicated it was to 'know how to put your mouth, the position of the tongue, touching the teeth or not, and so on.' Overall there was an overbearing air that English pronunciation was something they could never get right or at least something that they all had problems with and would like to improve upon.

Intermediate Spanish students typically have problems with approximating the natural rhythm of connected speech productively as well as receptively. This, as well as intonation, I feel are the areas that they would most benefit from working on and makes a case for concentrating first on the suprasegmental areas of pronunciation and later dealing with individual sounds.

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