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Putting the wrong emPHAsis on the wrong syILAble

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by Jonah Hall

Many ESL teachers get frustrated when it comes to teaching pronunciation. It’s hard enough for most learners new to the language to remember strange words, the rules of singulars and plurals, and the esoteric rules of English grammar. Then of course, there are the exceptions to those grammar rules.

One of the reasons English is so complicated to new students is that it is an amalgamation of languages. It contains a mix of Latin, French, Germanic (Old/Middle English, Norse, and Dutch) and Greek. The spoken language is unique to each learner who comes with a unique language experience (spoken and written) before coming across English.

Teaching English is about understanding the spoken language (more than) the written language, but we can’t teach one without the other. The question becomes: how do we teach the spoken language? Slang: “What’s up?” Idiomatic phrases that make little rational sense: “Run some errands?” “Hit the jackpot?”

My class is comprised of roughly fifteen to twenty students, varying in age between 25 and 70. On a given day, the dominant language background of my students is: 40-60% Spanish speakers, 10-20% Mandarin and/or Cantonese speakers, 5-10% Arabic speakers, and individuals who speak Vietnamese, Cambodian and Samoan. I have worked with some of the students for longer than others, and many are new to the class (and still arriving), but there is a core group of regulars, and a rotating cast of students who are absent at least once a week, sometimes for several days in a row.


The challenges are numerous. Now in my third year teaching adults, I’m starting to juggle them more fluidly. And yet, it is hard to measure the students’ fluency. Many students are less exposed to English speakers in their daily lives than would be helpful – they don’t often get a chance to practice their English, and often have family and part-time work commitments which impact regular attendance and progress.

It would be easy to skip over pronunciation issues, but I focus on pronunciation more than most ESL teachers. I want students to be able to understand some of the rapid-fire speech they hear on television, in movies, and in the world around them. I want them to gain confidence and learn how to conquer their fear of embarrassment.

Two scenes come to mind.

In class recently, I described a shopping trip to Target, where I picked up supplies for the classroom. One of my students, Mery, asked for clarification on the name “Target.” The guttural “g” had thrown her off. She had been calling it “Tar-zhet.” She practiced repeating the new word, with the “g” sound. She explained that her children laugh at her whenever she said the name of the store, but she didn’t know why. The culture around us isn’t kind to people who mispronounce words most of us know. In fact, it’s usually brutal and insensitive to language learners. As if English could be learned in one three-hour workshop, upon entering the country.

Today, at the end of class, we were listing “Places Around Town,” from a Picture Dictionary. Making our way through words, from “bakery,” with its long “a” vowel sound, to “bookstore,” (which contains the “oo vs. uh” dilemma), we reached “dry cleaners.” Boom, we were off another tangent– focused on pronunciation. We compiled a list of long “e” vs. short “e” words. Students were getting engaged. They wanted to add to the list, even if they kept thinking the words should go in the incorrect column (“Who can think of a long “e” name? “Edgar.” More work to do…).

We came upon “learn,” which is neither long “e,” nor short “e,” but has the tricky “ur” sound. Tricky for most of the students – Spanish or Asian-language speakers. The last few minutes of class were devoted to making the “L” sound. I stood next to the three younger Chinese students, who were determined to make the “L” sound. We made a list. List. Like. Love. Let. Learn. First just the “L” then “-ist.” First the “L” then “-ike” Learn was proving very difficult. L. -urn. L. urn. L earn. Learn. Jia-Jia was trying her hardest, making the “L” sound with the other “L” words, but “learn” was coming out “nurn.” Her friend and fellow Chinese student, Monica, was slowly getting it. There was progress. They were, indeed, learning. I was learning, too.

Jonah Hall teaches ESL at Bayshore Community Center in Midway Village, tucked in the corner of Daly City, California.

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