If you’ve been relying on exaggerated mouth movements to teach your students pronunciation, a classroom full of people wearing masks is going to be challenging. But with a little background into phonetics and phonology, you can give your students the tools they need to succeed. I promise, we’ll go easy on the jargon—no need to dredge up your old textbooks from that MA course you did years ago to try to remember how to pronounce an “alveopalatal affricate.”
Little boxes made of frequencies
Our brains are very efficient at perceiving speech sounds. We can differentiate tiny differences in frequency within milliseconds, all while we’re parsing grammar, thinking about meaning, sometimes while walking and chewing bubble gum. We do this by splitting up all those tiny differences into discrete categories.  If you’re an English speaker, you’ve got a little box in your mind labeled /æ/ and another labeled /ɑ/, and your brain categorizes the sounds you hear almost instantly.
While we can’t watch what’s going on in our students’ mouths this semester, we can work on how they’re building those boxes in their own minds. English has absolutely gobs of sounds compared to most world languages, and you need to encourage your students to learn to cut their big boxes up. Japanese, Spanish and Greek students need to cut their big box labeled /a/ into smaller boxes labeled /æ/ and /ɑ/ and /ʌ/.
Fee, fie, foe, fum!
IPA Chart, http://www.internationalphoneticassociation.org/content/ipa-chart, available under a Creative Commons Attribution-Sharealike 3.0 Unported License. Copyright © 2015 International Phonetic Association."
When we say “front,” “central,” and “back,” I want you to focus on the middle of the tongue. Stick the tip of your tongue behind your bottom teeth, and move the thick middle part of your tongue around. Try to gesture with the part of the tongue I’ve colored in orange here. Up and down, back to front, see what sounds you make. When it comes to making vowel sounds, this is th
e part of the tongue that does the heavy lifting. We call it the “blade,” but feel free to call it the “middle” of the tongue, if that’s easier to remember.
When you’re teaching your students to produce English vowels, you’re really training their brain to differentiate fine distinctions in the placement of the tongue blade. Those differences of position make tiny adjustments to the frequencies of sounds that we make. The /i/ in <sheep> and the /ɪ/ in <ship> vary by just a few Hertz—but ask the Japanese guy who wanted to “take a sheet” if the distinction is important.
Here are some images you can use to explain the distinctions to your students. These images just show the simple vowels, or monophthongs, of English, and none of them have lip rounding. Feel free to share these images.
Encourage your students to move their tongues around and try the sounds. You might want to ask them to keep hold of the top of their mask, though, because those /æ/ and /ɑ/ sounds tend to pull on the bottom of the mask. Nobody likes to see a nose pop out!
Time is on your side
Learning to make these distinctions takes time. Many teachers get frustrated when they teach a sound two or three times and never hear it from their students. Give them time to adjust their perceptions and learn to hear the distinctions first, and you may start hearing more authentic, target-like sounds down the road a few weeks.
In the next article in this series, I’ll show you how you can teach weirder sounds like diphthongs and triphthongs using the same framework. Be patient, be kind, and give your students time to develop. Your work will pay off.
 C. T. Best, “A direct realist view of cross-language speech perception,” in Speech perception and linguistic experience: issues in cross-language research, W. Strange, Ed. Timonium, MD: York Press, 1995, pp. 171–204.
Photo Credit: Mira Kireeva (@solarfri) on Unsplash
Jeff is a language teacher and linguist based in Tokyo, Japan. His research focuses on second language phonology and articulatory phonetics—how we learn to use our mouths to make foreign sounds. He would very much like to know how you pronounce “marry, merry, and Mary". Jeff is a language teacher and linguist based in Tokyo, Japan. His research focuses on second language phonology and articulatory phonetics—how we learn to use our mouths to make foreign sounds. He would very much like to know how you pronounce “marry, merry, and Mary".
Twitter Contact: @JeffMoore