Students and Pronunciation Difficulties

All languages utilise a finite and limited set of sounds to convey meaning. Phonology is the ‘branch of linguistics that deals with the sound systems of a language’ (Cook, 2008, p.67). While adapting Communicative approaches in modern ESL teaching, producing the correct sounds of English takes a priority and especially in my teaching context. The students are 6-12 grade school teachers of Science, Math, ICT, and English in Al Ain region, in the United Arab Emirates. They are called in this government-sponsored programme in order to develop their English levels to cope with the changes in curricula they teach as they are now more English focused and based. The students are assessed by official IELTS (International English Language Testing System) results. All teachers are males, aged between 30-60, and have got Arabic as their native language (a small number have French as their second language – teachers from Tunisia.)

When it comes to sound systems, we can find many differences between English and Arabic. English ‘has 22 vowels and diphthongs to 24 consonants, Arabic has only eight vowels (three short, three long, and two diphthongs) to 32 consonants’ (Swan and Smith, 2001, p.196).

In tables 1 and 2, the shaded phonemes have equivalent or near equivalents in Arabic, and according to Swan and Smith, there should not be any difficulty in producing or perceiving these sounds:


The differences between Arabic and English reflect in the students’ pronunciation as they have difficulties and struggle in producing rather a good number of consonants and vowels. The most significant struggle in my classes is with the vowels (the short vowels /ə/ and /e/) and the consonants (/T/ and / ð/).

Many factors contribute to the problematic pronunciation of the above mentioned sounds. The predominant factor is the absence of the target-sound from learners’ first language. In this case, they are schwa / ə / and /e/ in Arabic Language. Thus, learners try to substitute it with a similar sound found in the first language.

As for the voiceless and voiced dental fricatives /T/ and / ð /, there is a tendency, especially in Egyptian students, to substitute the sounds with /s/ and /z/ respectively. Despite the presence of these sounds in Standard Arabic sound system, they do not exist anymore in the Egyptian Arabic accent. Therefore most utterances that include these sounds end up with errors like: this / ð Is/ and think / θ INk/. This is mainly due to Negative Input in which the students have already been exposed to in their schooldays.

Can the knowledge of how L1 is acquired help the ESL teacher?

     In what ways can the knowledge of how L1 is acquired help the ESL teacher?


The rise of Selinker, Krashen and Chomsky’s new theories in second language acquisition, forced the “contrastive analysis” approach, which is related to behaviourism and structuralism, to fade away. A greater attention was set towards Krashen’s theory regarding the similarities between the first language acquisition and the second language one (De Bot, Lowie, and Verspoor 2005, p.34-35). Despite the differences between first language acquisition and second language learning, studies show that first language acquisition and the second language learning share a number of common features and stages. Knowing these features would help giving more information about learning process, efficient teaching techniques, and consequently support and improve second language delivery.


There has been a shift in second language teaching methodology and approaches to embrace the similarities between first language acquisition and second language learning. Modern communicative approaches are the recent ones to oust old grammar-translation and other past-due theories. These approaches aim to reinforce the function over the form (Yule, 1985, p.166) in an attempt to simulate first language settings and conditions and adapt them for the use of the second language. This is mainly due to the fact that Second language conscious process of learning can be integrated along with the subconscious acquisition of language and may result in a better competence on the learner side. The more “natural” the setting in which learning takes place, the better the results were. Jim Scrivener (2005, p.32) goes further in this area and says ‘The purpose of learning a language is usually to enable you to take part in exchanges of information’, and that the traditional teaching methods ‘failed to give learners an opportunity to gain realistic experience in actually using the language knowledge gained’. In this sense, ESL includes and integrates more real-life situations, similar to those of L1 in a try to emphasise on function. This is a good reason why ESL teachers should adopt these communicative approaches and work on approximating ESL environment and settings as far as they can. 


In addition to the setting adaptation, knowing the stages and phases that children pass through when acquiring their first language can also help in second language learning. Second language learners and first language learners exhibit some similarities in the learning process. Ellis (1985, p.20-21) argues that second language learners’ early speech, after the silent periods and in accordance with formulaic chunks, is characterised to undergo a “propositional simplification”: A process in which learners tend to drop words as a result of inability to perform full sentences. Utterances like *Me no book and * You go? are frequent in my teaching context, especially in elementary and beginners classes. This simplification also appears in children’s telegraphic speech period between at the age between 24 and 30 months. It also shows a great similarity in developing syntax between first language learners and second language learners. Second language learners almost go through the same stages that children develop negation and interrogation in their first language. For questioning, students at first add Wh- in front of anything to form questions, or even change the intonation:




Nevertheless, negation starts by placing no or not before any word or phrase to make negatives:


* He not like lesson


The “overgeneralization” process which first language learners undergo (Yule, 1985, p.155) also does exist in second language learning. Students take one morphological rule, the plural –s for example, and apply it to all nouns. After that stage, they start figuring out irregular forms of plural nouns.


All the similarities mentioned above can be used as markers and guidelines in any ESL teaching context. Second language teachers would know by this comparison that learners -whether acquiring their first language or learning their second- do follow a specific order and go through some shared stages and process. They learn chunks before complete sentences, simple negation before using auxiliaries, and intonation change in questions before applying inversion rules, and so on.








           Cook, V 2008, Second Language Learning and Language Teaching, 4th edition, Hodder Education, London, UK.

           De Boot, K, Lowie, W & Verspoor M 2005, Second Language Acquisition, Routledge, New York, USA.

           Ellis, R 1997, Second Language Acquisition, Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK.

           Yule, G 1985, The Study of Language, 3rd edition, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.


Differences between First Language Acquisition and Second Language Learning

Differences between First Language Acquisition and Second
Language Learning

Differentiating Language learning from language acquisition is considered as one
of the many linguistic phenomena that emerged in the 20th century. The need for a
systematic study of how languages are learned was developed as part of the cultural
and communication expansion the world has witnessed (Ellis 1997, p.3).

First Language acquisition is the natural process in which children subconsciously
possess and develop the linguistic knowledge of the setting they live in. In contrast,
Second language learning takes place where the target language is the language
spoken in the language community that differs from the mother tongue “first
language” and distinguished from Foreign language learning in which the language is
absent from the setting of that community (De Bot, Lowie, and Verspoor 2005, p.7)

Many studies addressed the distinction between L1 (First language) acquisition and
L2 (Second language) learning. The very first thing to address is the natural process
in which L1 learners acquire their language knowledge. L2 learning is more of a
conscious one.

Compared to L1 learning, L2 learners develop this knowledge by utilising conscious
and cognitive efforts. De Bot, Lowie, and Verspoor (2005, p.7) argue that Krashen
and Terrel tried to draw a line between second language acquisition and learning
by stating that acquisition is a subconscious process and very similar to the one that
children develop in their first language.

Yule (1985, p.163) defines acquisition to be ‘…the gradual development of ability in a
language by using it naturally in communicative situations with others who know the
language’. He contrasts it with learning: ‘a more conscious process of accumulating
knowledge of the features, such as vocabulary and grammar, of a language, typically
in an institutional setting’.

The natural subconscious or conscious learning factor is highly and vitally linked and
attached to the linguistic setting. This leads to another major distinction between L1
and L2 learners which is exposure. The L1 acquisition, as defined earlier, takes place
in a setting where the acquired language is the language spoken by parents and or
caregiver. The acquirer is in a constant exposure to this language. Second language
learners have lesser contact with the language, and maybe as few as hours per week in
the case of foreign language learners (Yule, 1985, p.163).

There are also some individual differences that play part in this distinction and they
fall in two groups. First, physical differences and age: Children who are acquiring
their first language are still developing their speech organs. This explains the
gradual and natural development of sound production accompanied with the brain
development. L2 learners’ competence is also affected by age-related physical
conditions that hinder their learning. Yule (1985, p.145) argues that the readiness
of the human mind to receive and learn a new language is most in childhood, which
is called the critical period. Ellis (1995, p.67) describes the critical period that in
which ‘…language acquisition is easy and complete (i.e. native-speaker ability is

Second, cognitive and psychological differences: A number of cognitive and
psychological learning barriers that separate L2 learners from the L1 acquirers.
Recent studies show that motivation plays a great role in attaining language
proficiency. Cook (2008, p.136) states that bigger motivation leads to better
performance in L2. According to Cook, the motivation for learning falls in two
types: Integrative ‘… reflects whether the student identifies with the target culture
and people in some sense'; and instrumental one in which learning takes place for a
career or other practical reason (Cook (2008, p.136-137). Ellis (1995, p.75) even adds
two more types of motivation: Resultative motivation that takes place when learning
controls the motivation, and an intrinsic motivation in which it involves the activation,
arousal, and maintenance of the learning curiosity.

There are other cognitive factors that play a role in determining learner’s effort and
competence in the second language learning. Those factors are highly related to
aptitude which is “… natural ability for learning an L2″ (Ellis, 1995, p.73)