Masaryk University Faculty of Arts

Acquisition of correct English pronunciation

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Acquisition of correct English pronunciation

Nowadays, the status of English as a global language demands that the speakers have flexible communicative skills and are capable of using them in a wide range of situations, be it formal communication of professional or school environment or informal form of speech which is used in everyday life. The education through which students are prepared and taught the English language puts unbalanced importance on the aspects of English which must be mastered in order to acquire adequate English skills. Vocabulary and grammar are given much greater space in school books teaching English than pronunciation is. Yet, without good pronunciation skills even an extensive vocabulary and competence in grammar are of no use.

The aspects of aspiration, final consonant devoicing and linking, which are the focuses of this thesis, are sometimes problematic even for school teachers. Otherwise qualified teachers often struggle or are oblivious of these aspects of pronunciation, mainly because they are foreign in the pronunciation of the Czech and Slovak languages. Students are then dependent on the teacher’s instruction which might be, to a certain extent, incorrect.

A foreign accent in English of non-native speakers is common and might be disruptive to a listener’s understanding of a speaker’s speech (Flege, 1995, p. 1). There are various causes of foreign accents in spoken English, according to the Flege’s study of second-language speech learning (1995): insufficient motivation, inadequate teaching, or incorrect habits in early stages of learning (p. 2). Speaking habits in English imported to the speech from speaker’s mother tongue hinder the acquisition of correct pronunciation and might possibly make the speaker lose the ability to ever learn differences between his or her mother-tongue pronunciation and English pronunciation.

The acquisition of correct pronunciation resides in a learner’s ability to recognize nuances in distinct sound systems of English and his or her mother tongue. As Melen suggests in his work Výslovnost angličtiny na pozadí češtiny [English Pronunciation in the Czech background] (2010), it is always better to learn pronunciation in relation to what is known, in this case the Czech or Slovak languages, and through the differences of the sound systems explain correct pronunciation (p. 7). The universality of contemporary school books teaching the English language prevents the students from fully understanding various issues of English pronunciation. The parts of textbooks dealing with pronunciation do not connect learner’s L1 and English, which makes it impossible for students to comprehend incorrect and correct methods of learning (Melen, 2010, p. 7). Moreover, the correct pronunciation can only be achieved through listening, imitating and speaking practice, which is often omitted in English school books, leaving students dependent on teacher’s ability in pronunciation.

  1. Description of vowels

English phonological inventory of vowels is significantly different from the Czech and Slovak inventories. Czech and Slovak vowels are divided into two groups: short and long vowels. The quantitative relation of short and long vowels is 1:2. However, this is not the case of English vowels. Their relation is not viewed in the same way by all authors.

According to Skaličková (1974), English vowels cannot be characterized by the opposition of quantity as in Czech or Slovak, where the corresponding vowels can be termed “short” and “long”, because it does not correspond with the fact that English vowels are distinguished rather by qualitative opposition. She opposes other terms of opposition, such as “closed” and “open” because they do not agree with all vowel pairs equally, for example in the case of [e - æ], the shorter sound in this pair is more closed, in contrast to all other pairs, and the terms “front” and “back” are not utilizable for certain pairs (p. 17). She considers the terminology “brevior” – “longior” the most acceptable because it does not suggest that certain vowels are always long and other always short but rather that some sounds might be longer or shorter.

Skaličková (1982) also analyzes the terminology of “checked” and “free” vowels, a theory coined by Eduard Sievers. The duration of vowel in this case of opposition depends on the way in which a vowel is followed by a consonant (p. 69). If the following consonant is added to a vowel before the vowel articulation fully takes place and ends, the vowel is free (short). If a consonant is added after the preceding vowel has gone through all the stages of articulation, the vowel is checked (long). Against this theory stands the fact that a short vowel preceding a voiced consonant might have the same duration as a long vowel before a voiceless consonant.

Vachek (1973) discusses the theory of muscular tenseness which distinguishes “lax” and “tense” vowels according to the tenseness needed for creating sounds (p. 12). He argues that this theory cannot be considered as a primal factor in differentiating opposition of vowels because the differences in tenseness are hardly noticeable and the position of tongue during the pronunciation of short and long vowels does not change significantly.

Gimson’s Pronunciation of English (2008) views the opposition of the members of pairs as a complex of quality and quantity, where the quality of vowels is more important of the two. Gimson characterizes vowels as “long” and “short” but admits that the length is relative and dependent on factors such as whether a vowel is followed by a voiced or voiceless consonant, or by another vowel, or whether a vowel stands free at the end of the word (p. 95).

  1. Sonority and articulatory energy in English, Czech and Slovak

This section deals with the aspects of sonority and articulatory energy in English, Czech and Slovak languages. The following subchapter examines aspiration of consonants in the initial position and stressed syllables in English and the consequences which arise from frequent negligence of this phenomenon by Czech and Slovak speakers. Next subchapter discusses word-final voicing of consonants and their devoicing by Czech and Slovak speakers. The role of vowels will be examined and typical errors which originate from speakers’ mother tongue will be illustrated. The model English accent on which the analyses and comparisons are based is the Received Pronunciation, RP because it is a standard type used in schools for teaching English (Melen, 2010, p. 9). For the transcriptions of words, the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) will be used.

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