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:

vowels-1

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.

“THE YOUNGER THE BETTER, THE OLDER THE BETTER” A research on the receptive skills’ acquisition in public school teachers as ESL students in Al Ain, UAE

STUDENTS, CONTEXT, AND TIME: The research includes the tests results of school teachers who are studying in an ESL training programme in the public (Government) schools in Al Ain region in the UAE. The programme is meant to last for 3 years. The students, the school teachers, are mostly from UAE, Egypt, Jordan, and Syria . The course is part of the professional development and the educational reforms governed by Abu Dhabi Educational council.
RESEARCH AND ASSESSMENT: The research consists of the results of 6 listening and reading placement tests being taken by the students (school teachers) over 2 academic years.
TRENDS: The students fall into 3 main age groups: A (30-39 years), B (40-49 years), and C (50-59 years). The research concludes that the younger students (group A) and the older students (group C) showed a clear progress in acquiring receptive skills. On the contrary, the middle-aged group (group B) showed rather a decline in the results. REASONS: There are many reasons that can determine the development of such skills, yet the research will explore age-related factors without denying the possible presence of other factors.
CONSEQUENCES: This research will shed the light on the importance of the age factor and its role in acquiring the receptive skills, and how it can prove to be of a high importance especially for older adults. It will also underline the challenges and the suggestions for developing listening and reading skills for the middle group in the future.


group-agroup-b

group-c

 

 

Question Tags, are they dispensable in ESL teaching?

Tag questions are considered to be a noticeable feature of modern spoken English. A tag questions is short question attached to a statement. The understanding of tag questions is vital in Second Language Learners effective communication. Despite the presence of tag questions variants in other languages (in German nicht wahr?, French n’est-ce pas?, or Spanish verdad,)  some Second Language Learners are still finding some difficulty in understanding the form , the use, and the meaning of tag questions. Factors like polarity, affirmative versus negative, and intonation add an extra challenge for non-native speakers. Therefore, and in the course of English as Lingua Franca, or English as an international language, many linguists consider tag questions to be a disposable element for Second Language Learners. R. Quirk (1982) proposes the concept of Nuclear English in which he introduces simplified forms of native Standard English. Those forms help easier learning of English, especially after stripping off features which can be “dispensable” and “disproportionately burdensome.”

One of the challenges that Second Language Learners usually face is the first language (L1) interference, or transfer, in their learning process. When it comes to tag questions, many languages lack this element, or they have a different way in expressing the meaning intended by tag questions. For example, Arabic uses totally new items in the tag question in order to express different meaning of the tag questions. Learners may cease to use structures learned before because they are not fully integrated into their interlanguage systems[i]. They may even rely on one highly frequent tag question (isn’t it? For example) and over use it in most cases to produce ungrammatical utterances[ii]:

* You are coming today, isn’t it?

The technique of making tag questions is not a simple one. It requires a full understanding of forming questions, understanding the operator function, awareness of the difference between affirmative and negative tag questions, marked and unmarked tag questions, polarity, and the placing of a new lexical item which may not exist in the original statement.

Probably the most important element regarding the use of tag questions is intonation. The meaning of tag questions differs as there are two possible intonations patterns. The rising-falling intonation pattern is the most common one as it is used to seek confirmation, making a point, agreement, or sure of the statement:

 

The rising intonation is used when seeking to elicit a no or yes answer, being unsure, or seeking further clarification[iii]

 

Second language learners have some difficulty controlling the intonation. Thus, the whole purpose of question tag, which is better communication, can be lost easily.

There is no shred of a doubt that when linguists consider question tags “dispensable” feature in teaching English as a Second Language, they take into consideration the complexity and the intricacy of their use, meaning, and the difficulty of forming them.  Nevertheless, using tag questions can enhance the communication between English speakers, and I think that this element should be taught at a certain stage where the English learner is able to fully command them and use them in the proper way.


[i] Lightbown, P.M , Spada, N. (2006) How Languages are Learned Oxford University Press

[ii] Celce-Murcia, M. Larsen-Freeman, D. (1999) The Grammar Book Second Edition, Heinle and Heinle Publishers

[iii] Shepherd, J. Rossner, R. Taylor, J (1985) Ways to Grammar Macmillan Publishers LTD