Teaching English Pronunciation to Japanese Learners. Barbara Bradford, SOAS

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1 Teaching English Pronunciation to Japanese Learners Barbara Bradford, SOAS It is generally accepted that the Japanese have some serious problems in getting to grips with the pronunciation of English. Many seem to have deeply ingrained pronunciation habits which are resistant to teaching and to exposure to spoken English. It is not always appreciated that these habits extend beyond the realms of phonology and that the acquisition of English articulation and rhythmic patterning is only part of the Japanese problem. Other significant parts of the problem relate to the cultural background of the Japanese and their expectation of a one-to-one relationship between sound and symbol. Accordingly, if we are to help Japanese learners overcome the considerable interference problems the habits and attitudes of a lifetime which face them, we need to consider two main aspects of interference: the phonological and the sociocultural. The phonological aspect will determine what is taught and the socio-cultural aspect will determine how the teaching is carried out. The phonological aspect of the interference is usually carefully dealt with a syllabus designed according to the differences in the phonologies (segmental and supra-segmental) of Japanese and English. The socio-cultural factors of interference are perhaps less frequently taken into consideration and these are very important in determining the physical and interpersonal situation in which the teaching can most effectively be done. I should like to outline a particular teaching situation I have found myself in and describe a system of teaching pronunciation to Japanese students which has been designed to take account of both socio-cultural and phonological considerations. The situation, then, is one in which the students are in a monolingual group, i.e. they are all Japanese, but they are mixed in terms of age and experience. They are involved in academic study and have English classes to support this study in which their pronunciation can be monitored and serious errors can be dealt with in an incidental way. In addition to this integrated pronunciation work, each student has a one hour pronunciation lesson per week. The system described below relates to the procedure in these pronunciation lessons, though the content relates also to less focused work covered in other classes. The pronunciation lessons are themselves of two kinds. On alternate weeks there is a taught lesson in the language lab where a particular feature of English pronunciation which is difficult for Japanese learners is presented, explained and practised. The presentation and explanation is done by a native speaker teacher using a whiteboard for demonstration and explanation. The students sit in an informal group for this part of the lesson and for a small amount of controlled practice. The more extensive practice - about half the lesson is maximised by using the language lab booths. In every second week the lesson takes the form of a clinic. The students attend this in pairs or individually (depending on the size of the group and the psychological needs of the students). Each student brings a cassette on which they have recorded the homework three or four minutes of connected speech based on a topic agreed at the end of the previous lesson. By listening together with the teacher to this recording of their own performance and concentration on particular features of spoken English, the

2 students learn to analyse and monitor their own pronunciation, and thus, to be able to self correct. I have found the system of alternate group lessons and clinics enables me to deal with the two areas of interference socio-cultural and phonological- already discussed The content and format of both the class lessons and the clinics, i.e., what is selected for teaching and how it is executed, are designed according to the perceived global needs of the students. What follows is a list of the main areas of interference which are easily identified and dealt with on the lessons and clinics. The list is not, however exclusive, and other aspects of English phonology need to be dealt with on other occasions and other socio-cultural problems have sometimes to be considered. Cultural considerations Lessons Japanese students respond well to teacher-centred work on areas which they appreciate are problematic for them. Thus the first part of the fortnightly lessons includes a straightforward presentation of the pronunciation feature which is being focused on and a clear explanation as to why it presents difficulties for Japanese speakers. Japanese students are used to learning rules and appreciate being given rules which can assist tem in working independently, The lessons include an explanation of how to produce the feature being taught, using visual aids which include the whiteboard, simple notation and transcription, and the teacher. The rules are drawn from the explanation. This is backed up with a handout containing the presentation, explanation and practice materials. Practice at this explanation and rule-forming stage is minimal and is introduced with sensitivity. These groups of learners are not homogeneous in terms of age, gender, or social status and in Japanese society these are powerful factors which determine respect and priority. Consequently, an older student may be inhibited in practising difficult features in the presence of younger ones; similarly a male in the presence of females and a person of higher status e.g. a professional person, in the presence of recent high-school graduates. The fear of an older professional male of losing face in front of younger female students may well limit his participation to a very great degree. Conversely, a more able, young, female student may be inhibited in front of an older professional male because she does not want to embarrass him by showing her superior ability. The use of language lab booths provides the Japanese students with the privacy they prefer for the intensive practice stage of the lesson. Whatever the age, gender or status of the students they have a mask behind which to hide. They are very receptive to help and correction from the teacher in this situation where they need not fear losing face in front of their compatriots. For some, working in a both seems preferable to close, face-to-face instruction and correction with the teacher and gives the opportunity for more intensive and extensive practice. The booth affords the students the luxury of the teacher s undivided attention for at least short periods of time. Although the Japanese culture is very much a group one and, in many respects anti-individualist, it is an acknowledged fact that Japanese

3 learners greatly value (and are prepared to pay dearly for) private consultation with a teacher. Moreover, the teacher is able to give very personal, as well as undivided, attention to the individual student, which is valuable in building up a relationship of confidence and trust. Although, in my experience, only a small percentage of the students have experience of using a language laboratory, Japanese students are, of course, very used to technology and the use of audio machines. They enjoy working at their own pace and are particularly grateful for the opportunity to be able to relisten repeatedly without feeling inhibited by other students who are more confident of their own abilities. Clinics The purpose of the clinic is to raise the students awareness of their own pronunciation. By listening with the teacher they become more sensitive to their own pronunciation. The teacher is able to point our any problem areas and also to guide and help the students identify these. This approach assists the students in acquiring a self-help strategy, which is of course, a very powerful tool to have. These benefits are not specific to Japanese learners but it is worth nothing here that I have found Japanese students particularly co-operative and appreciative of the technique. Ass far as these students are concerned, there is no substitute for the clinic in sharpening their ears to their own production. The clinic gives the students the opportunity to have the teacher s undivided attention in a similar way to using the language lab. However, it is much more personal since the content of the clinic recording is produced by the student. Many Japanese student are extremely self-conscious in the first few clinics and this needs careful handlingbut once they have gained confidence in themselves and the teacher, they are able to capitalise on the situation. The clinic provides the valuable opportunity for the teacher to be able to pick up on those unexpected, idiosyncratic problems, was well as give individual help on the more predictable ones. The students are able to ask questions and generally sort out any pronunciation queries. The clinic provides a sort of bridge between the protected performance behind the mask provided by the language lab booth and the vulnerable performance in front of compatriots. It releases the need for the mask by giving the students the opportunity to become reassured and confident about their performance and it also sensitises them to their own particular weaknesses. These, then are some of the socio-cultural considerations which need to be taken into account when teaching pronunciation to Japanese students. They determine how pronunciation is taught. In the situation outlined here this is done most effectively by designing a course which is made up of both class lessons and clinics. Phonological considerations When the time for pronunciation is shared between class lessons and clinics it reduces by half the time allowed for the classroom presentation and practice of phonological features. However, the important socio-cultural factors and the more effective teaching methodology are though to justify that. It means that features have

4 to be selected for inclusion in the pronunciation programme according to some criterion. In general, the basis of selection is the extent to which Japanese interference of the particular English phonological areas causes misunderstanding. Those which most frequently cause misunderstanding are placed higher on the list of priorities and are presented earlier in the scheme. There is, however, some overlap here with sociocultural considerations and certain features are placed higher on the list simply because Japanese students themselves deem the areas most troublesome; /l/ and /r/ are prime examples. Thus, the decision to deal early with certain problems is justified on the grounds of confidence building. The following is the high priority list of features selected for attention in the academic year. It can be used flexibly and is not presented as a finite set of features but constitutes a core syllabus. Suprasegmental Overall rhythmic sound: Japanese seems to have all syllables more or less equally stressed. When English is spoken with Japanese rhythmic patterning it sounds jerky, almost machine-gun like. Word accent (or word stress): work covered includes the appreciation of rules which are well documented though not necessarily familiar to native speakers associated with e.g. suffixes, compound words, etc. Japanese rhythm is not dependent as is English rhythm, on the existence of unstressed syllables and the weakening of vowels in many of these. In English the most common vowel in unstressed syllables is the very, very short neutral sound / /. In teaching this we have to convince Japanese students the quality of the vowel actually changes i.e. the written Roman a or o, etc, frequently is not produced in sound. The / / is perhaps best taught by being present as a neglected vowel, which must be rushed past or more or less omitted in order to reach a next stressed syllable. Whereas the highlighting of words in English to indicate the main information is realised by making syllables prominent, in Japanese other devices are used e.g. changing the order. Japanese students need help in learning how, physically, to make syllable prominent, i.e. by lengthening the vowel and slightly raising the pitch level. Japanese has an overall narrower pitch range than English. The students need practice in raising and lowering pitch levels for certain discourse functions: raising to begin new topic areas and to show contrast, and lowering to terminated in turn-taking and for low key information. A related cultural problem here is that Japanese men will resist using a raised pitch level since this is considered unmasculine in Japan. Women, on the other hand, will find it difficult not to use a raised pitch level when showing respect or deference. Linking is a problematic area for Japanese even in those phonological situations which seem to use completely logical and automatic i.e. linking the final consonant of a word to the initial vowel of a following word This and intrusive /j/ and /w/ to join words ending with a vowel or words beginning with a vowel needs to be taught in order to give the connected speech of the learners some fluidity. Japanese students

5 need to be sensitised to the occurrence of liaison, elision and assimilation since they rarely notice or adopt these features themselves. Segmental /l/ or /r/ are problematic for Japanese students because they are allophones of the same phoneme in Japanese. Many students need extensive training in recognition of the distinction in sound and then clear instruction as to the difference in articulation,. Since many students continue to be unable to hear the difference, they are not able to monitor their own performance and need to be guided literally to feel the difference i.e. to be aware of the action of the tongue tip. The articulation of /l/ and /r/ after consonants, e.g. I d like, play or pray, suddenly, continue to be problematic for learners who have managed to overcome the basic problems of recognition and production in word initial position. The dental fricatives / / and / / are difficult for Japanese, in common with many other nationalities. They do not occur in Japanese and so students most frequently substitute /s/ and /z/ or /t/ and /d/ for them. They need to be made aware that speakers of English find this very noticeable. Once they realise this, they are keen to overcome the articulation difficulties. As with /l/ and /r/ sensitisation to the height and action of the tongue tip is required. The production of the schwa is necessary for the appropriate reduction of vowels and the weakening of unstressed syllables. As noted before, this is most successfully achieved by students learning consciously to neglect the articulation of the vowels concerned. /3: / is perhaps the vowel whose mispronunciation causes most misunderstanding,. Frequently pronounced by Japanese speakers as /a:/ (barn instead of burn) or / :/ (walk instead of work), it is best taught in connection with /. since its articulation is very similar to a prolonged / /. Students are intrigued to realise the many possible spellings of this phoneme and work on this can help raise students awareness of the correlation of sound and symbol which can then be more generally applied. /w/ is problematic for Japanese except when followed by /a/ - its only occurrence in Japanese. Mispronunciation of which, would etc. require early attention /b/ is frequently substituted for /v/. The distinction of bi-labial and labio-dental articulation requires practice for Japanese students. These areas of segmental phonology predictably present great difficulty for Japanese learners and top the list of priorities for attention in teaching. However, there are others, poor articulation of which can cause misunderstanding, which will need also to be dealt with as is most appropriate in the situation. They are likely to include a range of vowels (because Japanese has fewer basically 5 than English) and /h/ which in Japanese is pronounced as /f/ before /u:/ e.g. who sounds like foo. In conclusion, by taking into account both cultural and phonological considerations I have been able to develop a systematic way of teaching pronunciation to groups of Japanese learners which is rewarding in its results and which is extremely plausible to

6 the students. Many of the cultural considerations hold fast for other nationalities, and, indeed, I use the same system of alternating language lab lessons and clinics with monolingual groups of Arabic speakers, Koreans and Chinese (Cantonese and Mandarin speakers together). The inventory of phonological features in each case selected for teaching is derived by contrastive analysis. Finally, a few comments from Japanese students with whom I am currently working: Student Comments Yumie: Students can recognise their own weak pronunciation points by having clinics. There are only Japanese students so it is easy to find typical Japanese mistakes such as /l/ and /r/. In the language lab we can study individually by using the machines. Makiko: I never had any pronunciation classes before, either in Japan or in England. That s why I know nothing about English pronunciation and why I found these pronunciation classes very useful. Now I know that rhythm is one of the big important differences between English and Japanese. Sometimes it is more important than proper pronunciation because if I speak with good rhythm English people can still understand me. Each student has different problems or habits so it is useful for us to learn individually. Our recording on a cassette tape is important for us to hear because students cannot listen while they are talking. So I can understand what my problems are because I listen objectively. Rie: We need clinics because each student has slightly different problems and sometimes we don t realise our error until it is pointed out. When we go to clinic in pairs we can learn from each other s pronunciation. Ryoko: I think language reflects culture. When I listen to my speaking English in the clinic I feel it. The characteristic of Japanese is clam and society is homogeneous so when I try to adapt to England and the culture of the English, I have to cope with new rhythm and ways of speaking and the problems of English pronunciation. First published in Speakout No 12 August 1993, the Newsletter of the IATEFL Pronunciation Special Interest Group, then in The Japanese Learner (Issue 4: September 1994)

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