Problem Areas Nonnative Speakers of English Often Have with Pronunciation and How to Overcome These Problems

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Pronunciation is an essential part of language. According to Fries (1945), the main problem in learning a new language is not the vocabulary but it is instead the mastery of the sound system, which is to understand the stream of speech and to hear distinctive sound features. Pronunciation is important to avoid misunderstandings when communicating. It is seen as a prerequisite for the development of speaking skill (Celce-Murcia & Goodwin, 1991). Pronunciation, according to Microsoft Encarta 2007, means “the way in which a sound, word, or language is articulated, especially in conforming to an accepted standard”. According to Hinofotis and Bailey (1981, as cited by Celce-Murcia and Goodwin, 1991), one will not be able to communicate orally with bad pronunciation of words. This paper will discuss three problem areas nonnative speakers of English often have with pronunciation and how to overcome these problems. Nonnative speakers of English here refer to people whose first language is not English. The three problem areas identified are problems in sounds or phonemes, stress and intonation. SOUNDS (PHONEMES)

The first problem area that will be discussed here is related to sounds or phonemes, and the production of sounds in the English language. Nonnative speakers often use their first language as a starting point in learning a new language. On account of this, they may have problems producing sounds of English words due to the lack of certain English phonemes in the first language’s sound system. When a nonnative speaker is introduced to these new phonemes, it may be difficult for the person to get used to the phonemes. The use of the first language as a guideline to learning English also limits how phonemes are produced or heard. As a result, they would not be able to distinguish different pronunciations (French-Fuller, 1999). For example, a Spanish speaker of English will not be able to differentiate between /b/ and /v/ because they are both phonetically identical in the Spanish language. This is the same for Arabic speakers of English where they could not tell the difference between /b/ and /p/ since there is no phoneme /p/ in Arabic (Champs-Elysées Inc).

Another problem with nonnative speakers’ pronunciation regarding sounds is the difficulty with aspiration (Fatimah Adelina Sastrawidjaja, 1989). A consonant is aspirated when it is articulated by closing the speech organs and then releasing air suddenly. Some languages do not have aspiration at word final position. For example, English /p/ and /t/ are usually aspirated at word final position, but in Malay, it remains devoiced. When they are not able to hear stop consonant aspiration, they could not tell the differences of words like ‘sag’ and ‘sagged’, and thus pronouncing them both /sæg/ instead of /sæg/ and /sægd/. According to Bent and Bradlow, 2003; Smith et al., 2003 (as cited by Tsukada et al., 2004), the absence of noticeable releases at word final position in speech of nonnative speakers could lessen intelligibility.

Nonnative speakers might also have problems pronouncing vowels. Although inability to pronounce vowels do not affect understanding in most situations, but there are conditions where this inability could result in misunderstandings. This is because some languages do not have as many diphthong and triphthong sounds as English does. For example, the Malay language only has three diphthongs with no triphthong. Malay speakers of English will have a hard time recognizing these sounds which results in simplifying triphthongs into diphthongs and diphthongs into single vowel sounds. When this happens, words like cot, coat, court, caught, and cart will be made to sound the same (George, 1972 as cited by French-Fuller, 1999). STRESS

Stress is the second identified problem area. According to Harmer (2002), stress is the term used to describe the position where pitch differs, vowels become longer, and volume increases in a word or phrase....
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