Teach English in ShuAnggou Zhen - Xuzhou Shi

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Laos is a land-locked country in Southeast Asia. The Lao language is closely related to the Thai language spoken in Thailand and almost the same as Thai Isan, spoken in northeast Thailand. Native speakers of Lao usually present similar pronunciation problems when speaking English, due to some characteristics of the Lao language such as no consonant clusters, limited final consonant options, and lack of common English sounds like “r” among others. The following explores each problem and seeks to provide possible helps to encourage Lao speakers in the English language. In the Lao language there are no consonant clusters such as “st” in “stop” or “bl” in “black”. Each consonant in the Lao language is separated by a vowel. A native Lao speaker tends to break the consonant cluster into two separate sounds, saying “sa-top” instead of “stop” and “ba-lack” instead of “black”. Given the prominence of consonant clusters in the English language, this problem could easily hinder the communication ability of a Lao person speaking English. Another characteristic of the Lao language that can create pronunciation problems for native Lao-speakers learning English is that each Lao syllable ends either in a vowel, a nasal consonant (m, n, or ng), or a stop (p, t, and k). In contrast, the English language is full of words that end with a fricative. There were five in the last sentence alone. Lao speakers usually turn the final fricative consonant into a stop. For example, “off” becomes “op” and “has” becomes “hat”. This habit can change the meaning of words and create misunderstandings. One major example is “is”, “it”, and “its”. When a Lao speaker is in the habit of changing final fricatives into stops, all the previous three words are pronounced “it”. Finally, the Lao language lacks a number of common English consonant and vowel sounds such as “ch”, “sh”, “r”, “ih” as in “it”, “oo/ou” as in “good” or “would”, and “w”. Because native Lao speakers have not been exposed to these sounds, they often change the sound to the closest Lao equivalent. Many times, this changes the meaning of the word or the sentence, creating confusion for listeners. These three pronunciation problems are rooted in the fact that Lao speakers are not used to hearing or producing these sounds. Because they have rarely heard them, they may not even be able to hear the difference. One way to begin correcting these problems is by exposing these students early and often to English sounds not produced in their native language. This could be done as a five-minute warm-up at the beginning of each class, focusing on a set of words that differ only by one sound. For example, each student is given a set of four picture cards with words that differ only by one sound: sheep, ship, chip, cheap would focus on the difference between “sh” and “ch” and the difference between “ih” and “ee”. The teacher begins by teaching each of the cards and having the students repeat after her. After the teacher is satisfied with the choral repetition, she begins to call out one of the words. The students raise the corresponding card as fast as they can. Students have to pay close attention to sounds they previously have not been able to distinguish. Once students are able to choose the correct word, the teacher can choose one student to take her place calling out the words. The student now has to correctly produce the sounds in order for the rest of the class to choose the right card. Another helpful activity to expose the speaker’s incorrect pronunciation is to record each student individually and allow them to listen back to themselves. Many students may think they are saying the sounds correctly until they hear themselves in a recording. This can easily be done on a phone with a recorder app and could possibly be assigned as homework so that students can record themselves and listen back in a quiet place. The problem of changing final consonant fricatives into stops needs to be approached differently than the other two issues. The Lao language does contain fricatives, they just never appear at the end of a syllable. The issue, then, is not that they cannot produce the sound, but that they are not used to producing it at the end of the syllable. This problem can be easily addressed by having the students practice fricatives at the end of the word by speaking two words they can easily pronounce together, the first ending in a vowel and the second starting with a fricative. For example, the word “peace” can be taught using “pea” and “sing”. The students would progress through the activity with direction from the teacher as follows: 1. “pea sing” repeated until the words run together, “peasing” 2. “pea sssssssssing” stretching out the fricative at the beginning of the second word 3. “pea sssssssss” removing the “ing” from the second word 4. “peas” shortening the “s” until it sounds like a normal pronunciation of “peace” This activity can be easily changed to practice each fricative found at the end of syllables. It can also use humorous combinations of words to keep the students laughing and engaged. Although it is unlikely that native Lao speakers learning English in Laos will speak with a clear American or British accent, these main pronunciation problems that make communication unclear must be addressed. The activities that address these problems are not only easy to conduct in a classroom, they can also be a lot of fun for the students. With exposure and practice, Lao speakers can avoid making these common pronunciation mistakes.