Pronunciation from the Perspective of a Linguist/Speech-Language Pathologist

Jenna Luque

Jenna Luque

Julia Moore

As linguists (and in Jenna’s case, as a speech language pathologist as well), we have been taught to see how speech sounds are formed in the vocal tract and how to get learners to produce sounds more accurately. Jenna’s experience in working with clients has shown her that learners can use the senses of hearing, vision, and touch to hear and produce sounds more accurately, but that each learner varies in how they use these senses in pronunciation work. Therefore, it is important to introduce learners to how all three senses may be used, and to assess their strengths and weaknesses.

Most people intuitively understand how the sense of hearing is used in pronunciation. After all, speech is an auditory signal. But it is important to make learners aware that some sounds will be more difficult to differentiate than others, depending on the sound inventory of their native languages (Best, Flege, etc.).

The sense of sight can also be used as a cue in pronunciation work, such as in watching for lip rounding for vowels or tongue protrusion for interdentals. A mirror should be used during practice of these sounds to help learners recognize these cues. But aspects of some sounds are impossible to see with a mirror (e.g., the difference between voiced /d/ vs. voiceless /t/). Technology now allows us to see what we could previously only hear. Computer programs such as Praat allow speakers to record themselves and then see a waveform and spectrogram of their speech. With the right instruction, learners can use this visual information to perceive differences they can’t hear. The sense of sight can also be engaged by using a model of a mouth to demonstrate different tongue and mouth positions. For example, a mouth puppet like the Mighty Mouth™ can be used to show movement of the vocal tract in three dimensions.

Jenna has found that the sense of touch is the least likely to be used in pronunciation work. Many learners are not aware that speech sounds change depending on where the different parts of the vocal tract touch each other, and trying to feel what one’s tongue is doing while speaking is can be challenging. Here are a few ways to help learners develop this sense:

  • Lollipops, ice, or even a tongue depressor can be rubbed along the tongue and palate to sensitize the areas needed for a particular sound.
  • To help build awareness of the lip rounding/protrusion that accompanies the initial sound in shin , or the vowel sound in the word book, instruct learners to try hold a jawbreaker with their lips while their teeth are closed; the resulting lip shape is just the right amount of protrusion.
  • Have learners place their hands on their throats to feel the presence or absence of voicing.

The inclusion and integration of these three senses are a great way to teach pronunciation, as all three senses reinforce one another in the process of learning. To learn more, check out the following websites:

Jenna Luque’s interest in ELL came from growing up in Miami, FL where the dominant language was Spanish. She attended University of Florida, where she earned her MA in Speech-Language Pathology. It was during her MA program that Jenna first started working with ELLs to reduce their accent in English. Currently, Jenna is pursuing her Ph.D.4:29 PM 2/11/2012 in Linguistics at Northwestern University. Here she serves as the Assistant Director of the ELL Program and works with individuals on their English skills and American cultural knowledge. Her research focuses on the ability of nonnative speakers to use speech modifications to increase their intelligibility. Jenna is working on a training paradigm to improve ELL intelligibility. She also has a special interest in using different modalities and tools (e.g., acoustic analysis software) to improve English accents, and teaching others to use these tools as well. She can be reached at SLPJenna@gmail.com.

Julia Moore began working with English language learners in 1997, while a graduate student at Northwestern University, where she earned her Ph.D. in Linguistics. Her dissertation work examined the acquisition of the English article system by native speakers of Mandarin Chinese. She now serves as the Director of English Language programs at Northwestern, which serves the needs of international students and scholars at NU by providing classes, tutoring, workshops, cultural programs, and speech training software.



Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on pinterest
Share on linkedin


Recent Posts


Explore our eCatalog

Explore our eCatalog
On Key

Related Posts

Build Self-Directed Learners

Build Self-Directed Learners “One hour.” The answer is heartbreaking. More fortunate teachers and students say “Three hours,” but it’s still disappointing. Both are answers to

What It Really Means to Know a Word

By Christina Cavage What It Really Means to Know a Word As ELT educators we often build our lessons around reading, writing, listening, speaking and