Correcting pronunciation errors from Thai speakers of English

There are plenty of posts online explaining typical pronunciation errors from Thai speakers of English. Most seem accurate, and are a good starting point if you don’t have a copy of Swan’s Learner English to hand.

Knowing what the problems are and why learners might make them is very useful. However, I’ve found less info on how teachers actually address these errors in class. With this in mind, here are a few of my reflections on a handful of those errors – what I do that works ok, plus what I don’t do and why. I’m hoping that Mark over at TESOL Toolbox will write a follow-up post on this, and between us we’ll start getting a bit of an ideas bank together.

The missing S

Sammy the snake for correcting the missing /s/

Learners often omit the /s/ in plural forms or verbs in 3rd person, even when they know the grammar rules. I find myself eliciting things like ‘I work, you work, he/she….?’ on loop, although I reckon this is a fossilized error for a fair few of my learners…

Still, one thing has helped addressed this. I’ve found Herbert Puchta’s snake visual very useful in both adult and young learner classes. Board or display a visual somewhere of a colourful looking snake. Inform the learners that if you hear the ‘missing s’ error you’ll point to the snake. Do so as an on-the-spot correction as you monitor speaking activities. Make the snake a commonplace visual in lessons and learners will hopefully start to self-correct more.

Good for… YLs. Better once they start to point to the snake to peer-correct

Downside… Using the visual as a reference without reiterating the correct form can lead to exaggerated responses… ‘workssssssssssssssss’. Expect that!

-ed endings for verbs/adjectives

Needed, wanted, interested, etc. It’s common for learners to miss the /ɪd/ syllable in these words. First off, some form of visual to help explain the general rule does help here – like this one from Woodward English

copyright Woodward English

Note: be careful what you use here as there are a few inaccurate versions of this (think this one is ok enough…). I find the /t/ and /d/ distinction happens quite naturally anyway – the difficulty for my learners is more that it sometimes results in a consonant cluster which might be hard to pronounce.

Regarding /ɪd/, which is the main problem, categorisation tasks (I mean arranging -ed verbs into the correct category based on pronunciation) are worthwhile. However, I’ve found that I always give the same examples during these tasks as the words are common (like needed and wanted). It’s not until I taught higher level learners that I realized they have a lot of difficulty applying this rule.

Integrating this pronunciation point as part of a main lesson aim is a good way for learners to get lots of exposure to the /ɪd/rule. In a recent IELTS class focusing on job-related vocabulary I shoehorned lots of /ɪd/verbs/adjectives into an anecdotal text introducing the topic…

My first full-time job

I graduated from university in 2008. I’d expected to find a job straight away after graduating, but things didn’t work out like that. I applied for around 50 jobs related to teaching during my first 3 months of job-hunting, but I was only shortlisted for interview three times. The first two interviews I attended weren’t successful at all – I wasn’t suited to either role and I didn’t really like the schools. I completely wasted my time attending those interviews, and after all my failed applications I nearly decided to give up on teaching altogether… etc

Guiding the learners to recognize the rule, and mark the word stress, seems to raise awareness. Using the word stress as a prompt to remember each word then helps:

I Oooo from university in 2008. I’d oOo to find a job straight away after graduating, but things didn’t work out like that. I applied for around 50 jobs oOo to teaching during my first 3 months of job-hunting…

If you are reviewing vocab or checking prior knowledge you could use the above to help introduce each word in context and provide the base form… e.g.

Verbs:   expect  graduate

I Oooo from university in 2008. I’d oOo to find a job… etc

I’m in the habit of boarding examples of -ed endings being pronounced /ɪd/, even in known words. This serves as a reminder to learners in speaking tasks to pronounce these words correctly, so it’s like an ongoing feature of task assessment.

Good for… higher levels

Downside… this method requires the written form, but we’re talking about pronunciation…

/l/ and /r/ as /n/

Basically, when a Thai syllable ends with the Thai consonant for ‘l’ or ‘r’, the final sound is actually /n/. So the Thai word for ‘food’, which based on the Thai writing system you would think reads as ‘aahaar’ (I said that like Alan Partidge), is actually pronounced more like ‘aahaan’.

Hmmm, I only really notice errors with this at lower levels. I tend to get learners to spot their own error here, and then think about why they might make it. This usually raises awareness of the L1 transfer. I use a ‘repetition’ style correction: ‘a botten of beer?’ (bottle), ‘the midden of the road?’ (middle), but that’s hardly rocket science!

It’s often useful to deal with errors like this with connected speech rather than by isolating the words. The problem arises in the first place because /l/ and /r/ aren’t acceptable sounds at the end of Thai syllables. However, in a stream of speech, like ‘uh-botter-ler beer/uh-bo?ler-beer’ (i.e. /ə bɒtələv bɪə/, /ə bɒʔləv bɪə/ or something along those lines) the /l/ appears at the start of a syllable anyway, and that is acceptable in Thai….

Good for… realizing that correcting a word in isolation isn’t always the best thing

Downside… I think I could do more to address this, any suggestions?

Consonant clusters

Thai learners often have difficulties producing certain consonant clusters, like /dr/, /str/, etc. I admit that I don’t deal with this often – only when it hinders intelligibility. Am I lazy? Well, I could be. However, I think there’s method in my madness and, being primarily a teacher of adults I think my approach (or lack of approach) to dealing with consonant clusters is valid.

First, with YLs: I do focus on ‘consonant blends’ as and when relevant. Usually, I do this in correction stages only, because the age of YLs I teach are usually familiar with the blends but make slips. With careful corrections, usually breaking down the individual sounds and then blending them together at a gradually faster pace (yes, that’s all), they are back to producing the correct sound.

jenkins

Adults, well that’s a different kettle of fish. Unlike my young learners who tend to delete sounds, my adult learners usually tend to add vowel sounds between consonants (epenthesis). Do I address this? Yes and no. Yes, if the vowel is full and makes the word incomprehensible. Sure, I might understand a Thai speaker when they are saying caa-riminal (criminal) but that’s because I’ve got used to their speech patterns. Other English speakers might not get that, so I have to try and address it.

However, when the epenthesis involves inserting a more neutral sound like a schwa, and it sounds intelligible enough, meh, I do let it slide at times. Check out Jenkins (2000) pages 116-117, a book which I’ve been reading a lot recently. She references some interesting studies suggesting that epenthesis aids ‘recoverability’. That is, deletion of sounds within a cluster are likely to cause ambiguity, but addition/insertion of sounds helps to compensate for difficulties in pronouncing a cluster. Epenthesis is a ‘constraint against ambiguity’, and it is suggested that epenthesis could actually be a desirable skill to acquire among adult learners. Hmmm. Sounds like a great excuse for me to ignore some pronunciation errors…!

Good for… actually marrying some theory to practice

Downside… again, it’s not exactly addressing the issue, is it?!

/tʃ/ and /ʃ/

From my perspective as a Thai learner I’ve found this error kinda strange. Thai speakers sometimes replace /tʃ/ at the start of a word with /ʃ/. However, they don’t have the /ʃ/ sound in Thai and /tʃ/ is also a standard sound to hear at the start of a Thai word. Hmmm.

The old visual correction techniques that I mentioned in my post on Vietnamese learners come into play here. I like using these as they add a bit of humour which means they’re less intrusive, but of course a lot depends on rapport. Last weekend I actually drew something like this on the board…

The students agreed that fish and ships would be a strange meal. Not as strange as my drawings of ships though…

The same applies for this error at the end of words, when you get ‘wash’ instead of ‘watch’. Actually, these errors do make more sense as /tʃ/ wouldn’t appear at the end of a Thai word, so using /ʃ/ probably seems like the lesser of two evils! When ‘wash TV’ comes up I do sometimes point out that some students must have the cleanest TVs of anyone in Bangkok. Learners will usually self-correct, but I do feel like I’m being a bit condescending sometimes!

With /tʃ/ appearing at the end of words, I do actually drill this. This post on the ‘inner voice’ that I reblogged a while back got me thinking about Underhill’s stuff on proprioception, and in this case it makes sense. Thai learners are unfamiliar with the mechanics of producing this sound after a vowel at the end of a syllable, so they need to become more aware of how it feels to produce these sounds together.

Re: the visuals and jokes

Good for… making light of an error and putting learners at ease

Downsides… can backfire, and has before!

/θ/

This one isn’t really a Thai thing, it’s an issue with a lot of learners. How do I address learners attempts to produce the /θ/, and all the spitting and dribbling that comes with it? I just tell them to ignore it and speak like me. A commoner, with my finks and foughts. ‘Just use a /f/, it’s much easier’ is what I say. Note, that wasn’t ‘it’s much lazier’, but in the case of a native speaker like me, well…

Good for… making life easier – it’s a pron hack

Downside… you always get one student who just wants to get it right. They don’t want to cheat, and they’re paying for the class, so…

‘TeachER’… Word stress in general

There is (I’ve been told in Thai class) a general rule that in Thai, the final syllable of a word is always stressed. Other syllables in a word can be stressed too, but the final syllable stress is apparently standard. This rule applied to English is seemingly what is happening when you get these sort of extended final syllables like in /ti:ˈʧɜ:/.

Generally speaking, I’ve done a lot of work on correcting or highlighting word stress in the past – such as the things mentioned here and here. The schwa is a key concept when it comes to word stress (well, lack of stress), and in correcting mistakes such as /ti:ˈʧɜ:/ I’ve had some success in encouraging Thai learners to use an (almost even shorter) version of one of their own vowel sounds (see right) in helping to produce this sound in the right place in words. However, I’ve moved away from this technique, purely because I’m not confident enough in my own Thai ability to be contrasting sounds in this way. Unless you’re very versed in the student’s L1, these ‘oh the teacher knows some Thai’ brownie points probably aren’t going to go far! Having said that, the penny did kinda drop for a few students when I used this technique.

The issue with word stress / weak form errors at times isn’t so much correcting the learners, it’s actually whether they want to be corrected. I sometimes feel that, with all my learners having Thai as an L1, errors that are commonplace among learners can serve as a form of mutual convergence. I notice this prominently when the learners are at different levels. It’s interesting in our social club events to see intermediate students interacting with elementary level students and almost code-switching, grading their pronunciation to sound more Thai. To be fair, why not? It’s an identity thing I guess. I don’t want learners to unlearn that, it would be unlearning a social skill really…

Hmm, that one got complicated!

So anyway, there’s a few thoughts but not a definitive guide or anything. We’ll leave that for TESOL Toolbox and see what they come up with! Over to you Mark!

For general tips on teaching pronunciation click here

6 comments

  1. Hey Pete, great post and challenge accepted! When I was writing a post on what to do in first lessons recently, I remembered feeling like this was a closely guarded secret when I started teaching! I knew about a few icebreakers, but what did other teachers actually do in class? I think pronunciation in class is the same. It’s great to see what you actually focus on in practice (and how)!

    Like

    1. I totally agree. Pronunciation seems like one of those topics where teachers often talk about what they should do, not what actually happens. We are all guilty of it. Sometimes more honest reflection is needed. I know some of what I do isn’t best practice, so the best way to change that is to discuss it and get some tips/feedback! Very much looking forward to your response 🙂 cheers

      Liked by 1 person

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