The Causes of Learner Pronunciation Problems in English

The Causes of Learner Pronunciation Problems in English

John Rothgerber (Indiana University, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-8467-4.ch015
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This chapter will provide the language teacher with an introduction to the theory behind the challenges and problems that learners from a variety of language backgrounds face as they learn to pronounce the sounds of English. The primary focus will be on the influence of the first language in second language phonological acquisition. This will include an overview of the role of perception of non-native sounds, as well as a consideration of phonological representation in the mental lexicon and articulatory constraints, all of which can have an effect on difficulties that learners encounter as they learn to pronounce English sounds. Attention will be given to the various components that make up the phonological system, including segmentals, suprasegmentals, phonotactics, and phonological processes. This theoretical understanding will then be applied to pronunciation instruction within the classroom by addressing what teachers can do to maximize the effectiveness of instruction.
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Pronunciation Difficulties And Phonological Theory

Second language (L2) learners face countless challenges in their efforts to acquire a new language, not least of which is the necessity to perceive and produce an entirely new sound system. Through research in the field of L2 phonology, researchers have started to develop an understanding of the causes behind learner pronunciation problems. The way that non-native sounds are perceived, stored in the mental lexicon, and articulated can all introduce challenges that learners encounter as they learn to pronounce English sounds. By understanding these challenges and their causes, language instruction can be better guided to help learners succeed.

It is first useful to conceptualize the processes by which speech is both perceived and produced. What happens from the time a series of speech sounds is detected by the ear to the time it is recognized as a word with a specific meaning? And, conversely, what happens from the time a word is selected from the mental lexicon to the time it is produced by the vocal apparatus? The following is an adapted information-processing model proposed by Ramus et al. (2010), here reduced in scope to focus on the points relevant for the current chapter.

In perception, speech undergoes several steps of processing which convert it to more abstract levels of representation. First, speech enters the ear and travels to the primary auditory cortex as an acoustic representation. This step of acoustic processing occurs for all sounds, not only speech, and the acoustic representation can be thought of as a way of encoding sound for the brain to understand. Following that, speech then undergoes speech-specific processes that assign it to more abstract levels of representation. For example, a speech segment that has the relevant formant properties (resonance peaks that determine the type of vowel) might be assigned to the phonetic category for the English tense vowel [u], as in soup [suːp] or loop [luːp]. There may be several such levels of abstraction. As the speech stream continues, the phonological representation is continuously checked for matches against the mental lexicon. The mental lexicon can be thought of as the brain’s storehouse of words, and for a particular word it stores information on the sound, meaning, and written form of that word. Once a satisfactory match has been found, then the perception process has finished.

Production occurs in the opposite direction. First, a word is selected from the mental lexicon, usually based on meaning, and its phonological representation is activated. This representation then undergoes processing at several levels to convert it into an articulatory representation. The articulatory representation guides the articulation of the vocal apparatus as it produces the speech sounds. For example, the articulatory representation of the English tense vowel [u] determines, among other things, the position of the tongue in the mouth and the shape of the lips.

The relevance of such a model to the current chapter is that pronunciation problems can originate at any step in both the perception and production processes, as well as in representation in the mental lexicon. Each of these areas will be addressed in detail.

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