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Why we should think more about our listeners

Updated: Apr 19, 2021

Have you ever considered that the way you perceive your pronunciation of a word/sound may differ from an objective phonetic description of it? For example, when I’m speaking Spanish, I think I am saying all but the double -rr- (e.g,- erre con erre, guitarra...etc.) correctly. However, native speakers still notice my accent and ask me “where are you from?” In fact, this still happens to me, even in sentences without the -rr-. So, even though I believe my production is accurate, it is clearly still incomplete. How would native Spanish speaking listeners describe my production? How would native or advanced English speakers describe your production? Would our perceptions of our own speech line up with what our listeners hear?

So, you can see there is plenty of room for miscommunication and inaccuracy. Of course, the critical starting point is building awareness of the individual sounds or phonemes that we use in American English. Conceptualizing these sounds--visually, intellectually, and mechanically-- is one way to start moving towards a more objective understanding of the sounds, rather than automatically producing a similar sound from our native language without a thought to the places of articulation in the mouth. That said, a dictionary of target sounds isn’t enough to combat inaccuracy. Instead, the similarities between American English and your native language are worthy of further consideration. In fact, the sounds that you may rely on when speaking English, but which might not yet be accurately formed, serve as rungs on the ladder between the mother-language phonetics and native-like production of American English phonetics.

Ask yourself:

  • Where is my tongue when I say the word bear?

  • How does this compare to the target pronunciation?

  • What are the differences between my approximation and the native-like pronunciation?

This quick self-reflection will not only raise your own awareness, but it will shed some light on the phonetics of your own mother-language, which, in turn, can help to inform your pronunciation in American English generally.

This strategy not only emphasizes your awareness, but also moves the focus onto our listeners.

Think back to a time when you’ve heard a non-native speaker in your mother language. If you think of a heavily accented speaker, what is it that makes them so difficult to understand? It’s not only the lack of integration of target foreign language phonemes, but also the disparity in phonetic expectations between you and them. The heavily accented language learner expects you will understand their approximations--the sounds from their own mother language they now use in the target foreign language. In fact, this language learner may not even perceive such expectations, or the sounds they are or aren’t making, or the differences between their native language and the target foreign language.

What sounds do your listeners expect from you? Using a bit of self-awareness and self-reflection, along with practice and dedication, we should be able to identify the differences between our own approximations of American English and the target pronunciations. Which should we use when we are speaking in English? Which sound do listeners expect us to use?

Finally, will our listeners’ perceptions of us change based on how we speak? If we use the target American sounds, how will that inform their thinking about us as a speaker? Remember the heavily accented non-native speaker in your own language? How did you perceive this person upon first listen, compared to a native speaker? These perceptual differences are natural and a documented feature in the Applied Linguistics scholarship-- and they’re nothing to be ashamed of. Languages are hard! They take practice! The important point is that with greater awareness, you will have control over your accuracy and over which sounds you use.

Partially adapted from Helen Fraser's "ESL Pronunciation Teaching: Could it be more effective?" 1999

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