Improving spoken English: intermediate/advanced

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A new year, some new speaking classes for my students of English at a French university. It’s one thing to give students feedback on their spoken English, but what should they be doing to improve. Here are some ideas for students working with individual feedback in terms of individual sounds (phonemes), connected speech (stress, rhythm, intonation), and more generally.

Phonemes

The main problems involve

  • consonants in English that do not exist in French: h, th
  • vowel contrasts involving vowels not present in French
  • the s sound in plurals (present in French but not pronounced) and the third person singular of the present simple (he walks)

To work on /h/ try

To work on th, try

  • Sounds of American English (online or app) for articulatory information (voiced and voiceless lingua-dental fricatives)
  • shadow reading, paying attention to segments with th.

To work on vowel contrasts, try

You can also look at this interactive IPA chart to contrast, for example, a French uvular /r/ with an English alveolar one.

Connected speech

French and English stress patterns differ in two related ways

  • vowel length
  • sentence stress

In French, we don’t distinguish between short and long vowels – French vowels are generally all the same length. But in English, some vowels are longer and some shorter. In French, each syllable generally has the same weight. In English, there is quite a difference between stressed and unstressed syllables.

This means that French speakers of English sometimes have difficulty with sentence stress: transferring French intonation patterns means all syllables tend to be the same length (too short) and receive the same stress. Teachers might give feedback such as the following:

  • too many stresses: every syllable is the same length and has the same stress
  • clipped delivery: the syllables are all too short, with no long vowels/diphthongs
  • no weak forms: syllables are equally stressed, with no shortened, unstressed syllables

The sound schwa is the weakest unstressed sound, and also the most common vowel in English. Learn about schwa on the BBC Learning English archive from 2008 and also work on connected speech.

Another way of working on this is shadow reading. You need to find good audio with a transcript, then practice shadowing the speaker by reading along with the volume set low, so that you copy the way the speaker produces stressed and unstressed syllables. Read about this activity here.

Going further

You can read more about intonation in the form of nuclear stress or articulatory setting. Some students are uptalking – read about this here if you like.

But listening more will also help. You can listen to short extracts intensively, perhaps working with a transcript to identify particular sounds you have difficulty with, stressed and unstressed syllables, and other aspects of intonation. You can also listen extensively, to audiobooks, lectures and podcast with the goal of picking up speech patterns in a more subconscious manner.

 

References

Articulatory setting: an approach to pronunciation teaching

Buried treasure from the BBC (on ELF pronunciation): non-native accents of English.

H-deletion in connected speech

H-sound.

Interactive IPA chart.

Phonetics: the sounds of American English. How to use the site. (see also app)

Poetry Archive http://www.poetryarchive.org

Pronunciation of /h/ in English. ALERT Acquiring language efficiently: Research and teaching. Concordia University.

RP pronunciation. BBC English.

Shadowing and summarizing. YouTube lecture. Murphey, 2001.

Shadow reading. Habilitacioninglesmadrid.

Sounds of speech. University of Iowa app (Apple/Android)

Understanding nuclear stress. English as a lingua franca pronunciation.

Uptalk in the OED. Language Log.

 

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