Pronunciation, Accent, and Language Melody

Synopsis prepared by Lee Risley
You may find several minor surprises in this short compilation -- beginning with Richard Boswell’s observation of the effect of teacher regional accents upon student learning.


A. Effects of Bad Pronunciation in Instruction
B. Modeling Pronunciation (Bad as well as Good) and Follow-Up
C. Techniques for Teaching  Pronunciation
D. Teaching Tips for Specific Pronunciations (“R”, “L”, etc.)
E. The Stuttering Enigma
F. Melody (Rhythm?) of a Language

A. Effects of Bad Pronunciation in Instruction

96/04 From-> Richard Boswell <>
Subject: Bad pronunciations

I wouldn't worry all that much. The students might have a hard time with
your French if it is closer to a native pronunciation. than the regular
teacher, but the human ear is flexible. We can all learn to understand a
regional accent other than our own or an immigrant accent. It just takes
some adjusting. We once had a graduate student at our university who had
a thick Canadian accent in her French and so my colleagues didn't want
to assign her a class. Instead she was given office work to do. When
eventually we needed her to teach, I could find no problem. She was one
of our most effective TAs, the students didn't copy her Quebecois
accent, and all was well.

On Sun, 7 Apr 1996, Jo Benn (

>Jean-Jacques commented regarding the Spanish teacher whose pronunciation was
>>When the ego/vanity of one individual is measured against the possibly permanent
>>malformation of dozens of individuals and their future mortification, it seems to me that
>>remedial action MUST be taken. Those who refuse to do so become as guilty, and
>>perhaps more so, than the original perpetrator. So much for the "why?"; now, the
>>"how?" is where sensitivity comes into play ...
>The "how" here is a big issue. It may not always be possible. If one is in a superior
>position it may be possible to tactfully suggest appropriate action. If one is in an inferior
>position, it becomes impossible. I am now in the position of student teacher and am
>very uncomfortable with the pronunciation of the cooperating teacher (who is the only
>French teacher in the school.) Sometimes the students do not understand what I am
>saying because my pronunciation is so different. The teacher is very dedicated and I
>don't feel I can criticize since she is making it possible for me to fulfill this requirement.
>I do worry about all of the students, though. . .
>Jo Benn

Richard Boswell


96/10 From-> Richard Lee <>
Subject: Re: accents

In my opinion the lower limit for acceptable pronunciation should be
drawn at the phonemic level, not the phonetic level. I believe that the
right word in the right sequence with proper agreement is more important
for achieving smooth communication than are phonetic details. I teach
phonetics in the upper level classes, but I don't put a high priority on
this in the beginning when the students are confronted with things that
I consider to be much more crucial and basic.

I am not sure that the ability to pronounce like a native should be
required as a universal standard. Awkward syntax, morphological
inaccuracies, and poor lexical choices seem to me to interrupt the free
flow of the language much more than pronunciation which is clearly
understood but noticeably not native. Our community has a fairly large
foreign population due to the presence of the university and I find that
in my experience, conversing in English with someone whose pronunciation
might reveal his/her national origin flows very naturally, whereas
lexical and grammatical errors require the listener to perform mental
gymnastics and create an impediment which leaves me with the feeling
that a greater effort is required.

My sons' godfather, a Peruvian who studied in the U.S., speaks English
eloquently, but nobody would conclude that he was a Hoosier after
hearing him speak. As a matter of fact, most of the monolingual people
here who have met him find his manner of expressing himself in English
to be interesting. I believe that I recall one lady used the word
"charming". In fact, Maurice Chevalier, Ricardo Montalban, and others
have made careers of speaking English with a "foreign" accent. A more
accurate English pronunciation might have actually been detrimental to
their success.

I don't think that this is really an argument against teaching precise
pronunciation, but it seems to me that once the phonemic level has been
achieved, it's more of an individual matter, and perhaps in the end it's
the student's choice whether he wants to try to pass for native. In the
meantime, there is a lot to learn which I believe has a higher priority
and to take too much time away from that to pursue the frequently
elusive goal of "native" pronunciation, especially if the student
doesn't appear to be motivated in that direction, seems to me to make it
into a sort of fetish. I think that we must accept the fact that the
student may not always have the same long range objective as the teacher
does, and we have to delineate between the necessary and the desirable
because of a variety of factors which place limits on what we can
accomplish in a given time.

Richard Lee


96/10 From->  Peggy Koss  <>
Subject: Re: pseudo-native speakers in the classroom

The way that your students speak is not necessarily wrong. What is
important is that they are following one dialect of Spanish. For
example, it is very common for people who live near the coast to drop
the "s" at the end of words. They can be known for "cutting/eating
words". In places like Puerto Rico, the "r" is pronounced "l". Something
important to remember is that oral language is not the same as written
language. Another important thing that should be remembered is that the
students need to be accepted. I remember going to Spain and having a
college couple laugh at me because I said ahorita instead of ahora
mismo. There's a time and place.

You could create a mini lesson, perhaps on linguistic differences from
country to country (even inside a specific country) and allow these
students to demonstrate how the language is spoken differently. This
would allow them to participate but at the same time you would be
getting your point across. You would be showing differences, but making
them understand the importance of learning the "accepted" form of
spanish for formal education...

Peggy Koss


96/10 From-> Ana Banos <>
Subject: Re: pseudo-native speakers in the classroom

I teach spanish for Spanish speakers as well as Spanish as a foreign
language in California.
As Spanish teachers in the United States we should be aware that it is
more likely that our students will experience Spanish from every Latin
American country way more often than Spanish from Spain. Puerto Rico is
part of the U.S.!!! I have never encountered anyone, as a student,
college student and now teacher of spanish who has had a problem with my
Mexican  accent and expressions.

I think it is important to teach the kids that the Spanish language is
alive in the U.S. you can find it in the streets flourishing and
thriving... much more than some stuffy royal academy spanish that rarely
applies to the real world.

In short, I feel that students who have spanish in their cultural
background should be made to feel proud of the knowldege they have and
the knowledge their families have. Correcting the spanish the accent
their parents taught them is not the solution.

Abril B


96/10 From-> "Dr. Lucinda Hart-Gonzalez" <>
Subject: Re: pseudo-native speakers in the classroom

At 02:40 PM 10/21/96 EST, you wrote:
>Speak correctly and don't insist that that there is a "better accent" - just one that
>is considered to be the least accented and most universally understood, as in the
>case of Midwestern American English.

Except that here you are speaking of just one country. Midwestern
American does NOT sound "accentless" in New Zealand. In Hispanic America
(and Iberia) we are talking a large number of countries, not all of
which adhere to or even give lip service to the Spanish Academy. No,
there is no Standard. What there is is a greater tolerance for variety,
which is not the same as a lack of labeling. What is your concern? That
your student will unfortunately sound like a Puerto Rican? It's what
he/she is. That's the people s/he is most likely to continue using the
language with, beginning with the parents. Want to talk about sounding
funny, try showing up in a Puerto Rican community, BEING Puerto Rican
and sounding like American Spanish Teacher. There ARE educated Puerto
Ricans, and they also sound Puerto Rican, though perhaps the strongest
features are somewhat muted. Puerto Rican is Borinquen, a proud and
distinct culture. Not a problem.

When I was first learning Spanish, there was also a Puerto Rican in the
class. One of the reasons I still speak Spanish is that I was NOT turned
off, in fact I was impressed with the way my Utah-born-and-sounding
Spanish teacher handled the presence of an authentic but distinctive
accent in his class. He respected and never corrected the pronunciation.
He was very insistent however on grammar and vocabulary, including
standard vocabulary (basurero for 'wastebasket' and not 'zafacon',
etc.). He pointed out to the rest of the class different features of the
student's accent, using him as a class *resource* (Boston has a very
large Puerto Rican community and sure enough my first professional use
of Spanish was as a bilingual teacher in that community; he was indeed
an important model for me). The teacher pointed out what features were
specifically Puerto Rican and how they might be pronounced elsewhere. He
never, however, insisted that the student should deny his roots; he gave
him the opportunity to expand, but he began with appreciation for what
he brought. I have always remembered that teacher and respected him,
horrible American accent and all (except I can't remember his name...).

Cindy H-G

B. Modeling Pronunciation (Bad as well as Good) and Follow-Up

96/04 From-> "Dr. Lucinda Hart-Gonzalez" <>
Subject: Re: coaching as a model: Pronunciation

>>>[...]The moral of this story is not that I was a lousy phonetics teacher but that
>>>it probably doesn’t help. We just assume that it will.
>>I can't agree. I used to "leave my students alone," more or less, on pronunciation,
>>assuming that they either had an ear or did not. Those who started poorly tended to
>>end poorly, since their bilingual instructor understood their Spanglishized pronunciation
>>just fine. Now, though, I notice *marked* improvement in my students' pronunciation
>>if I call them aside at the beginning of the semester and point out the areas in which
>>they need to improve.[...]

I have to agree with Tony and gently suggest to whoever wrote the first
part that perhaps s/he IS a lousy phonetics teacher. I have spent the
last year doing a new type of work which I frankly never knew existed:
dialect coaching for the theatre. Actors are often called on to have a
dialect or a foreign accent which is not their own. They must learn to
speak their own language with the new accent. My job was to teach them
to do so, and always in very short order -- the pace of bringing a show
to production is always tight. In the past year I have taught actors to
sound like: Brooklynese, Santo Domingo Spanish, Bengali, Russian Jewish,
Iranian, German, Ladino, the theatre is full of challenges.

My point is to take a totally different context from the language class
and point out that it is indeed possible to be taught pronunciation, and
teaching will result in improvement.

One thing that I have always used in teaching pronunciation is the
modeling of *errors*. When I was teaching EFL in the 70s, it was
considered the height... depth of bad form to model errors, but I found
it was the most effective way to train students' ears to differences. I
would model the sound I wanted, listen for the student approximation,
REPEAT the student approximation, and then model the correct
pronunciation again. This requires a very good ear and the ability to
analyze on the spot what another person is doing soundwise. It also
proves to be the only way I know to get a student to hear concretely how
and why what they are doing is different from the goal.

As the theatre example shows, pronunciation can (and to some extent I
think should) be taught separately, given its own time, and then
reinforced in other work. There are several important reasons for
pronunciation in my book: 1. More than in any other aspect of language,
it is by taking on a new sound (and necessarily a new face -- the
muscles you use are different) that you step into the new persona of a
speaker of that language. This is an intensely personal intercultural
experience. 2. I believe that speaking with good pronunciation improves
lots of other things like stamina and comprehension. My hunch is that in
addition to a mental translation process that early learners go through
lexically, there is a mental translation process that poor speakers go
through converting native speech into their own phonology and then
understanding it. Think how many poor speakers find it easier to
understand accented speech than to understand native speech! Not only
does this translation process impede comprehension, it adds to the
cognitive load and is just plain tiring, so learners wear out quicker
and absorb less input.

>Refusal to correct is an abdication of our responsibility as educators. Of course
>students have better pronunciation when you directly instruct them! You have taught
>When we model instead of directly correcting, how is the student to know what it is
>that should be attended to? Grammar? Syntax? Vocabulary? Pronunciation? Intonation?
>When a teacher responds "Buenos dias" to a student's "Buenas mananas" how is the
>student to know that that's a correction and not just the teacher's preferred, friendly

Mike brings up an excellent point here, and it is the reason why I have
found modeling errors to be so effective as a means of focusing students
on the problem area so as to correct it. (The old "Take 'em from where
they are to where you want them to go")

Well, just thought you might enjoy an example from another field.

Cindy H-G


96/10 From-> Bob Peckham <bobp@utm.EdU>
Subject: Re: Accents

You can't teach many of them to have a decent accent, but you can
encourage them to speak.

I have seen so many people ruin kids' chances to speak be constantly
interrupting to correct the accent. Please don't do this to your

My accent is native level, so I provide a model for my students. In
addition, I would suggest that anyone teaching French study very hard
the kind physiologically-based help for production that you find in
Pierre Delattre's book (Middlebury Bookstore). Getting students not to
pronounce most final consonants, make open syllables, move the emphaSIS
in their phraSES, show them where not making a liaison would result in a
miscommunication and some areas where making a liaison would also ("Un
homme et une femme" ...the cross dresser version).

All these should come before the so-called accent, because they are
mechanical acts that simply require an act of human will. In addition,
they will go a long way to making students sound French. Working on the
"r" might be a good next step. If students know what the vocal chords
are and you can coax them into pushing an "h" far back into the throat
until they can feel it on the sift palate, then have them run it throug
the vocal chords. You will now be able to get them to produce the rest of
their sounds closer to the front of the mouth. Watch out!! Students may
be amused by rounding their lips, but they will feel very awkward doing
it in front of other kind unless they are willing to LOSE THEIR IDENTITY
(that'll get some blood stirring) so they won't be embarrassed by the
stranger rounding and puckering his lips.

Don't just model the accent and then interrupt your kids while they are
trying to speak French. You will just make them less willing to speak
French than they already are.

One more note. For the importance of accent, always refer to the ACTFL
descriptions of proficiency levels, the National FL Standards document
and your own state articulation frameworks. I think you will find them
to be quite reasonable and somewhat moderate in the question of accent.



96/10 From-> Paul Conley <>
Subject: Re: French accents


Tennessee Bob put it nicely. One technique that I picked up from someone
else and that works effectively is to model the phrase, listen to the
student repeat it, and then model the phrase again. It's surprising how
many kids who voluntarily repeat the phrase after it's been modeled the
second time.

>Don't just model the accent and then interrupt your kids while they are trying to
>speak French. You will just make them less willing to speak French than they
>already are.

Paul Conley

C. Techniques for Teaching  Pronunciation

96/09 From-> Eileen Johnson <>
Subject: Re: French Pronunciation

We have no language lab and only one tape recorder. Here is how we
handle it. I assign one tape to be made per chapter. I type it out on a
sheet and hand it out a week before it is due. We practice the Tape
paper, usually a conversation situation and maybe a sound drill : eg.
words with a particular sound to practice. Our text usually hits on one
each chapter. I start on a Monday and run the week with it. It is then
due the following Wednesday. If it is handed in on Monday or Tues. they
get bonus points. (Serves as a reminder to other students to get it in
on time. I take 10 points off if it is late....and ten 10pts for
everyday after that. After a week they get 0%. This could fail them in
the course. They provide their own tape and I keep it till we start the
next tape. This is my grading scale for tapes:

1.Handed in on time/tape ready to play
   tape paper returned with tape audio level adjusted 10%
     (I take 2%-5% if the tape is not ready to play.
       2% if paper is not returned)
2. Pronunciation 80%
3. Fluency 10%

After the first tape they become very careful about handing these in on
time. They fold the paper and I give them a rubber band to attach paper
to tape. The tape is also labeled with their name. This activity weighs
20% of their grade and I have been doing this for 3 years now and
believe me, the overall pron. has improved immensely. ( The fun part is
of course listening to the tapes at home.)

Takes time but this is so authentic and the results are so good...I
continue to do it. When we go over the tape......5 days in a row ( takes
5-10 minutes a day) I allow them to mark on the paper to help pron. In
French with all the silent endings and really helps. After
it is corrected I return the paper so they know as soon as possible how
they did and I also keep a record in their portfolio where they have
copied the following.

Words to work on________
Teacher comments.....(which they copy off the paper I have returned to

All of this makes the tapes very important!!!

Eileen Johnson


96/09 From-> Christy Hargesheimer <>
Subject: Re: Pronunciation

Something I am trying for the first time this year in my Spanish 4
classes is oral journals. Some students will probably never speak up in
class, so I am asking each student to bring a 60-minute tape on which
they will have recorded their name and some basic personal data in

Then I will initiate a dialogue with them by commenting on something
that they have mentioned on their information cards or on their
autobiopoemas with which we begin the year. I will occasionally record a
few sentences to model certain pronunciation corrections, and ask them
to listen and repeat.

In order to facilitate this exchange, I will request that each time
after they finish recording, they rewind to the beginning of that
session. At the end, I hope to have a record of each student's speaking
improvement. I will rotate through the classes and hope to cycle through
all of the classes every 2-3 weeks. There will probably be a few
marathon weekends! If anyone else has tried this, I would appreciate
hearing how it went.

Christy Hargesheimer


96/09 From-> Frances Sweeney <>
Subject: Re: Spanish pronunciation - level one

regarding Spanish pronunciation--both "tricks" seem to work, because the
issue is to get students to recognize that the location of
articulation--where the sound comes from--is different in each language.
The particular examples are less important. Another thing to try is

a. have students say rat in english. Ask them where the r sound is. Then
ask them to say other words in English with r: butter, car, trip, run...

b. now have them say some words with d: door, dad, dumb...

c. now explain (unfortunately i can't draw the mouth/throat on email but
you can in the class, side view) that english r is not spanish r,
english d is in the location where we do spanish r. (Spanish d is done
lower too, behind the teeth instead of up on the alveolar ridge). adapt
this language to fit their level, I suppose though i think they could
handle it.

try other comparative examples like better they (verde), pot o tea (para
ti), etc...

to the extent they are explained the difference in site, they then can
practice themselves. but most of them had no idea that the same letter:r
could have two different spots of pronunciation. no wonder they can't

Frances Sweeney

D. Teaching Tips for Specific Pronunciations (“R”, “L”, etc.)

96/09 From-> "Cindy A. Kendall" <>
Subject: another great Spanish pronunciation tip

Besides "tres", another good one is for the word "gracias". Here is the

I ask the kids if they have heard of "Godiva" chocolate, then if they
know that in Australia the greeting is "g'day" (good day)

Of course they do!

So we repeat - Godiva, g'day, (repeat, repeat, repeat), add the
beginning of the word gracias, then the entire word. Again, they are

I never have a problem with "tres" or "gracias" again, and the skill
starts to transfer to other words. Another English word for the flipped
Spanish r is "letter".

Any additional pronunciation tips are welcome!

Cindy A. Kendall

96/09 From-> Patricia Seaver <>
Subject: pronunciation of rr

I entered college unable to trill an "r". An instructor there taught us
by telling us to use the sound we used as children when we were
pretending to be the "motor" for our playing with cars. Worked for me. A
classmate wasn't so lucky--she said she always said "Budden, budden,

Pat Seaver
SUNY College at Geneseo


96/09 From-> Lynne Overesch-Maister <>
Subject: Re: pronunciation of "rr"

I use the name of a town in Michigan as a help for students that have
problems pronouncing the "rr". The town is Petoskey (pronounced
peh-toss'-key). If you say it quickly, the "t" sound can change into a
"d" ("peh-doss'-key) and repeating it over and over quickly creates the
beginning of the "rr" trill, which can then be prolonged until the
desired trill is mastered.

Lynne Overesch-Maister

96/09 From-> Patricia Seaver <>
Subject: Re: pronunciation of "rr"

I just remembered another trick I heard somewhere along the way for
learning trill r. Have the students practice with words that begin with
"r", placing a "d" before the r, over and over until they "feel" the
trill: drosa, drosa, droberto, droberto. Eventually, they drop the "d"
and (perhaps?) have the trill r.

Patricia Seaver

E. The Stuttering Enigma

96/10 From-> Lesley Nelson <>
Subject: Re: stuttering

>Singing in Spanish and speaking Spanish are two different things. In fact, one side
>of the brain is used for singing and the other for speaking. For example, people who
>stutter can sing with no problems. It's an odd phenomenon, no?

I have a student who stutters so much in English that people frequently
become impatient listening to him. His parents are very concerned about
this problem. He has never stuttered on even one word in Spanish. Have
any other FL teachers encountered similar situations? Lesley K. Nelson

Lesley Nelson

96/10 From-> "Marilyn V.J. Barrueta" <>
Subject: Re: stuttering

>I have a student who stutters so much in English that people frequently become
>impatient listening to him. His parents are very concerned about this problem. He
>has never stuttered on even one word in Spanish. Have any other FL teachers
>encountered similar situations? Lesley K. Nelson

Yes, actually I have, twice. I currently have a student who stutters in
English (not as badly as Lesley's student) who has not stuttered once in
the two years I have had him in Spanish. The other student I had some
years ago, and he had a really terrible stutter. What was interesting
was that when he would begin to speak, his face would become very
distorted, and he would have a terrible time getting the first two or
three syllables out -- but once started, the stutter would disappear.

At first the students laughed, thinking he was clowning; when they
realized he couldn't help it, they were pretty supportive. As the year
went on, gradually the distortions at the beginning got better, and by
the end of the year they were much less exaggerated, although still
quite evident. I was told that his doctor had recommended that he take a
language specifically for this problem -- and that was about 25 years
ago, so I assume there must be some knowledge base out there.

I might mention that I've had somewhat an opposite situation as well,
although not exactly stuttering. I've had a number of students who have
not been diagnosed with a problem before starting a language, who
clearly turn out to be dyslexic or have other linguistic problems. They
have successfully compensated for the problem until hitting a new
language in which they have not developed coping skills. There have been
enough of these students that when I see a student who is obviously
trying and somehow just can't get the sound or sound-symbol
correspondence right, I include request for testing in possible

Marilyn V.J. Barrueta

F. Melody (Rhythm?) of a Language

97/11 From-> "Dr. Lucinda Hart-Gonzalez" <>
Subject: Re: The Melody of Languages

Rebecca Schreuder wrote:

>I'm very interested in anything about the melody of any language but especially
>concerning Spanish and English since those are the languages I study and teach.

Sorry I don't know of any articles, but it is something I have long
espoused as a pronunciation teacher. Here's a simple exercise in hearing
and "singing." Have students listen to a natively spoken sentence, part
of a discourse, and then repeat it exactly in rhythm and intonation with
"ta ta ta ta." Then have then repeat you.

To train the ear up gradually, I recommend starting with a short phrase
and getting students to be accurate with that short phrase. Then have
them do the equivalent phrase in the other language, so they can
perceive the difference. Point out differences, both in rhythm and in
melody (intonation). Gradually extend the length of the phrases. You
might (depending on your class) have a pair do a mock dialog in just "ta
ta ta ta" and have the rest of the class say which language it was in.
This can be done humorously and still be effective.

The idea is to get the rhythm and flow of the language first, much as
infants do. My favorite example was my younger daughter at age
one-and-something, looking out the window and saying "Nnnnnnn ca-o n'da
bye-bye." The classic two-word sentence, but I saw it as much more. I
heard all of the melody and rhythm of a much longer sentence and assumed
that she was really saying "Oh, look. There's a carro going bye-bye."
She seemed to have heard first how long people's utterances were
supposed to be and what they sounded like melodically, and then she
filled in as she could. Worth a try.

Another nice exercise to convince students of the melodic differences is
to play somewhat muffled recordings of conversations or announcements in
the two languages, and have students identify the language without
hearing any words. They'll be amazed at how easily they can do that.

Cindy H-G


97/11 From-> Patricia Reynolds <>
Subject: Re: The Melody of Languages

If you think about this you will realize that the sounds that a language
makes are part of the pattern of the language. I have often found that
being unable to get the rhythm is what contributes to the inhibition of
a L2 learner using the language… just as you will count beats to get
into a song or dance… so the L2 learner has to catch the rhythm to be
able to discriminate the sounds of the pattern and thus make sense of
what they are hearing.

It has also been my experience that a dialect is a variation of the same
rhythm.... same sound… same pattern different beat!

Pat Reynolds


97/11 From-> Anne Stevens <>
Subject: Re: The Melody of Languages

Rebecca, Check out the work of Caleb Gattegno, founder of the Silent
Way, for lots on the spirit and melody of the language. Anne Stevens

Anne Stevens

The Contributors:

Ana Banos
Marilyn Barrueta
Jo Benn
Richard Boswell
Paul Conley
Cindy Hart-Gonzalez
Christy Hargescheimer
Eileen Johnson
Cindy Kendall
Peggy Koss
Richard Lee
Lesley Nelson
Lynne Overesch-Maister
Bob Peckham
Pat Reynolds
Rebecca Schreuder
Pat Seaver
Anne Stevens
Frances Sweeney


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