How can Spanish speakers improve their English pronunciation?

Diary submitted by Darija T., Valencia, 2020

Teaching in Spain

How can Spanish speakers improve their English pronunciation?

   Spanish language is undoubtedly one of the most influential world languages. It is not, however, global language as English is which is why Spanish speakers are obliged to learn English. Having spent some time teaching English to Spanish speakers, I have come to realize some of the most common mistakes they repeatedly make, such as failure to distinguish the difference between make and do, using singular form of verb to be with the noun people (e.g. people is), misuse of prepositions, etc. All those mistakes, however, remain in shadow when compared to the biggest stumbling stone Spanish speakers have to overcome while acquiring English – pronunciation. So for which reasons is English pronunciation so problematic for Spanish speakers? Firstly, I would say it is due to a completely different phonetic system English has when compared to Spanish. Spanish language can rather be described as a soft language with the predominance of vowels. It does not contain harsh consonants such as dʒ or tʃ. Furthermore, words in Spanish are almost always read in the same way they are written which is, as everyone knows, not the case in English where, when it comes to pronunciation, there are sometimes more exceptions to the rule than the rules themselves. Finally, due to the fact that Spanish is such an influential and widely spoken world language, dubbing is inevitable. Every English material (films, series, shows) is dubbed into Spanish and people are not exposed to the melody of English language which creates problems with pronunciation acquisition. 

   Within TEFL classroom, teacher must bear in mind all the problematic aspects previously listed and try to do their best in overcoming them. One of the methods I used with my students is the introduction of IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet). I believe that when studying English, students must be aware of IPA’s existence. It’s the most powerful tool for mastering English pronunciation. I firstly introduced the alphabet itself. Each student got a sheet with an alphabet. I firstly started with the vowels. For every symbol I was going through, I wrote down one specific word so as to make students aware of the different pronunciation. Then I asked them to repeat the pronunciation and try to think of other examples which contained the same phoneme. I continued with the same drill with diphthongs and consonants until we reached the end of IPA. After that, I wrote down random words on the board and gave them time to do the phonetic transcription. We went through the examples together. I first listened to their solutions, praised when they did a good job transcribing the words and corrected and explained when a mistake was made. I also advised students to do their own exercise at home with the help of the dictionaries. Every word in the dictionary contains its phonetic transcription, therefore, they have to come up with random words, transcribe them and check if they did it properly. Students reacted positively to this activity. In the beginning, they were overwhelmed with the abundance of the symbols because it was the first time they encountered them. Later on, when they grasped the idea behind IPA, they became more and more proficient in using it. 

   Another method I found very useful in boosting students’ pronunciation of English was the use of so called tongue twisters. They are considered to be tricky words which when put together, create an expression or a sentence difficult to pronounce. I introduced this activity by asking students whether they already knew some twisters from before and vast majority answered affirmatively. After I’ve heard their examples, I started to write down new ones on a board. I would first write it down, read it clearly out loud and then asked students, one by one, to repeat it. They would need it to repeat multiple times if the pronunciation was not clear enough. Some of the examples were particularly tricky, such as She sells seashells by the seashore, due to the fact the sound ʃ does not exist in Spanish phonetic system. While repeating the sentences, students and I laughed a lot because some of them required a real twist of tongue which in some cases sounded silly. I advised students to do the same exercise at home, in front of the mirror. I also advised them to pay particular attention to the way they articulate sounds, i.e. the way their lips, tongue and teeth create specific sounds. By doing that, I believe I raised their awareness about English pronunciation. Even though the class was extremely funny and cheerful, it was also quite useful in a sense that it showed students that the pronunciation isn’t fixed and can be improved in multiple different ways. Judging by the students’ reactions, they had a good time in the class which is for me, as the teacher, extremely important. Some of them even approached me later on boasting with new tongue twisters they came across and their improved pronunciation. 

   To conclude, I would say that teaching English pronunciation to Spanish speakers is definitely one of the most demanding areas in TEFL. In order to achieve progress, teacher must be persistent and somewhat creative with the activities. Teacher should guide the students and provide them with both metalanguage explaining the theory, i.e. the background of pronunciation (IPA) and practical examples, such as tongue twisters. By doing that, students will undoubtedly find English pronunciation less challenging, become conscious about phonetics and reduce their fear of pronouncing new, unfamiliar words. 

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