Teach English in Zhaoji Zhen - Huai'an Shi

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In my time teaching English to beginner-level students in Japan, teaching pronunciation has presented a number of challenges. One reason for this is the difference in size between the Japanese and English phonemic inventories, with the former being significantly smaller. Another significant issue deals with students’ preconceptions of what English ought to sound like. These preconceptions are created in part by the presence of loan words and the unique usage of the English alphabet in Japanese. Despite these hurdles, however, there are many ways to overcome them. With roughly 5 vowel sounds and 15 consonant sounds, Japanese has a significantly smaller phonemic inventory than English. Consequently, there are many sounds that the average beginner-level Japanese student may have trouble hearing, differentiating between, and pronouncing. For example, students may have trouble with /l/ (e.g. “l” in “lid”) or /ɹ/ (e.g. “r” “red”) as they aren’t used as often or at all in Japanese. They are often confused with /r/, which is used regularly in Japanese. Similarly, /v/ (e.g. “v” in “victory”), /ð/ (e.g. “th” in “this”), and /θ/ (e.g. “th” in “think”) are often heard or pronounced as /b/, /s/, and /z/ respectively. The differences between the two phonemic inventories give rise to another recurring pronunciation problem. In Japanese, the vast majority of consonant sounds are followed by a vowel sound, and they often apply this rule to English words without realizing it. For instance, “stop” may be pronounced as something like “sɯ-to-pu”. Correcting individual issues isn’t particularly difficult, however. Ideally, it would be good to be able to dedicate more time to studying phonics, but that has not usually been possible in my case due to the constraints of class curricula. However, I have found success in noting common problems and addressing them beforehand or immediately after they appear, while being sure not to over-correct and demoralize students. Drawing diagrams depicting the shape or position of the mouth or tongue and slowly repeating individual sounds or target words has proven effective, particularly in combination. Peer dictation has yielded good results as well, depending on the class and each individual’s level of confidence. Having children try tongue twisters has also made particularly large hurdles into something more fun as well! One more hurdle in teaching pronunciation are the preconceptions associated with what English is. These preconceptions are formed, in part, from how the Japanese language utilizes a host of loanwords, many of which derive from English. These words have been modified for use with the Japanese phonemic inventory, and while they are similar, they still remain different to their English counterparts (e.g. the Japanese word “keːki” vs. the English word “keɪk”). Students, hearing that they are similar, often treat a target word and its Japanese loanword counterpart as one and the same, ultimately using the loanword when speaking English. This can happen even when the target word has been drilled multiple times, and can affect not only pronunciation of sounds, but how the word is stressed as well. Another aspect of the Japanese language that may create false expectations is its use of the roman alphabet to represent Japanese sounds. This usage is typically learned before writing is introduced in English classes. The characters used are exactly the same as in English, but the sounds tied to them and how they are read have been adapted for Japanese. As an example, the English word “make” would be read and pronounced as “mä-ke” if read in Japanese. As a result, using the English alphabet to demonstrate pronunciation or for notetaking has sometimes led to mispronunciation of words later on. However, these issues ultimately boil down to habits derived from their native language. These habits eventually should give way to new habits as time is spent using English in a variety of contexts. It would again be best to address this by teaching phonics as early as is appropriate to highlight the differences between the two languages. Introducing characters of the International Phonetic Alphabet into lessons to clarify problem sounds may also prove beneficial. However, if these solutions can’t be used due to time constraints, one can perhaps only try to anticipate problems and address them as they present themselves. Making a point to contrast target words and their loanword counterparts with slow and careful pronunciation so that the differences can be heard by students has done wonders for my lessons. The issue of the alphabet has proved somewhat more difficult, but careful and sparing use of writing during lessons, at least until students have been taught more about English phonics, seems to be effective. Being conscious of what is written on the board, slow and repeated pronunciation of text on the board and in the textbook, and trying to encourage students to be aware of what they are writing down have all helped... though at times it may seem like an uphill battle! In conclusion, teaching English to beginner-level students in Japan has made me aware of a number of reoccurring problems related to teaching pronunciation. These problems typically stem from the differences between the English and Japanese phonemic inventories, as well as similarities between the two languages that, unexpectedly, can make learning how to pronounce English words more difficult. The simplest and most effective solutions to these problems are often not possible to implement in reality, but many good solutions still do exist—certainly more than I am personally familiar with. Regardless, it is clear to me that observation, patience, and careful practice are important keys to facing these problems.