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Teaching Non-Native Speakers Better English

by Sidney Beck

In this article, the use of the word  ‘student’   simply means a person whose mother tongue is not English,  --   in other words a non-native English speaker.  The use of the word  ‘speaker’  simply means a  person whose mother tongue is English  -- in other words a native English speaker.

If you listen to a speaker,   the English is a  smooth continuous flow and any speech  gaps are filled with a steady  English  ‘hum’ or   ‘buzz’,   even containing speech errors,   which may be common.   Now listen to a student.  The student speech is discontinuous and jerky,  even discounting his errors, and if there are gaps in his flow they are filled with silence. In learning speech in English or in any language, there are specific topics to learn such as grammar, spelling, word order, and so.    There are also a number of general topics to be studied, dealing with the general background of the English emanating from the tv or popular music and songs. Learning some of the specific and general topics is the key to learning to produce a smooth steady flow of English.

General background may often include a lot of movies and music. These can be very useful. However, as a  general guide,   not all English language movies are valuable for a student.   As a language tool,  a modern movie is much less valuable than an older movie. Modern movies often contain a great deal of action, with monsters, aliens, criminals, etc.,  as well as loud catchy music. They often contain very little dialogue or simple conversation. Modern music may also have relatively little value to the student. The English lyrics may be delivered too fast, or may be indistinct, or may be sung by a non-native speaker with unusual accent or pronunciation. Rap music is particularly open to these shortcomings. In the case of both movies and music, the older recordings are often much more useful to students, being heavy on slow spoken dialogue and light on monsters and so on.

When watching a movie on tv or laptop be sure to take advantage of subtitles for as long as it takes for you to get the hang of some speech device or some tricky grammar. A  lot of poor advice,  bad advice,       is repeated about the use of subtitles. Such advice warns that subtitles will slow your understanding of the  English dialogue, that you will become dependent on the subtitles for all the meaning in the dialogue. This is nonsense.  Be sure to use subtitles if you need help to understand. This will speed your progress with English. It’s like riding a bike with stabilizers.  You simply take them off when you are ready, without any rush or pressure. Nobody rides with stabilizers forever! As the student increases his flow and his pronunciation becomes more decent he will remove his stabilizers.

The whole point of having  ‘decent’  pronunciation is that a speaker can understand a student with ease, without having to put an extra effort into understanding the student. As long as this is achieved, sounding like a foreigner is not a huge problem for the student.

Always remember that the immediate goal is not for a student to sound like a speaker, which may take several years or even decades. The goal is to improve so much that speakers can understand students without having to make so much effort that they would rather avoid talking to them.

Students must learn not only the pronunciation of individual words but also the overall sound of the language.  A student tends to speak in separated groups of English words  (perhaps only three or four words in each group),  whereas a speaker speaks in a steady hum of English sounds,  with very little hesitation between groups of words. This steady,  almost nonstop, hum of English gives the well-known impression that speakers are talking too quickly. The steady hum arises from four specific learnable techniques, which are worth practicing because they will lessen the student’s fear of making mistakes and being laughed at. This is often the main hurdle in teaching a student to speak, especially if the student is an adolescent. There are the four techniques  ---  A B C D

(A)  Practise connecting words having identical or similar consonants.     Don’t say ‘black coffee’ with a speech space between words.   It should like a single word  ‘blackoffee’.  Don’t say ‘stiff flag’  with a speech space; but ‘stifflag’ with no space at all.   Likewise, don’t say  a ‘hundred dollars’ but  a  ‘hundredollars’.  Don’t say  ‘not at all’ with two spaces,  but  ‘notatall’ --  sounding like a single word with no spaces. ‘Fish shop’  ought to sound like  ‘fishop” ; and  “dress sense”  should sound like  ‘dressense’.

(B)  Practise ‘squeezing’ words. The word ‘comfortable’ has four syllables, but is pronounced as if it were  ‘comftable’  (three syllables). Likewise,  ‘interesting’  has four syllables,  but is pronounced as  ‘intresting’ (three syllables). The phrase ‘little bit’ with three syllables is often pronounced as ‘lilbit’ with two syllables. Where consonants are difficult to enunciate when close together,  as in ‘five hundred’,  drop the first one to make  ‘fihundred’. Sometimes the difficult combination of consonants can be avoided by a mental re-spelling, so that ‘clothes shop’ can be just as easily understood as  ‘close shop’, with absolutely no loss of meaning to the listener.

(C)   Practise squeezing letters,  so that  ‘did you?’  sounds more naturally like ‘diju?.   Similarly, ‘Don’t you know?’ sounds more naturally like ‘donchano?’.  ‘I don’t want to’  sounds commonly like ‘idonwanna’.    And of course, ‘I don’t know ’  has long ago become  ‘dunno’.

 (D) This is by far the most important of the specific techniques A, B, C, D.  The student should learn collocations – the habitual placing of a particular word with another word or words so that the combination of words in sentences is not by chance.  They become combinations well-known to, or even favorite combinations of, the speaker.  They become so practiced that they require little preparation or thought.   They seem to come quickly to mind and this gives the steady hum to a speaker’s speech. Simple examples might include     ‘well in my opinion’/’just in case you forget’/’let’s not worry too much about that’/’maybe you disagree but’/’ I think so’/ etc. 

Collocations repay their study in several ways.   While the speaker is uttering the collocation without the need for concentrated thought,  his mind is already deciding on the next topic in his discourse.  This will be a topic needing some concentration,  and so he is already prepared when the collocation is finished and he is ready to continue his discourse. To the student, it seems to be an effortless continuous production of  English words and phrases. Yet it is simply the result of careful time management by the speaker, who uses his collocations to disguise his inner thoughts which are focused on the preparation of further discourse.  With such time management, the apparent speed of the student’s discourse will pick up. The improvement in the quality of the pronunciation of the student will also become obvious.   With these simple techniques A, B, C, and  D, it is possible to improve a student’s English pronunciation very quickly, given of course that the key to rapid improvement is  regular frequent practice.