Speechant: a vowel notation system
to teach English pronunciation
Jorge dos Reis and Valerie Hazan
This paper introduces a new vowel notation system aimed at aiding the teaching of English pronunciation. This notation system, designed as an enhancement to orthographic text, was designed to use concepts borrowed from the representation of musical notes and is also linked to the acoustic characteristics of vowel sounds. Vowel timbre is represented in terms of the height of the symbol and vowel duration in terms of the length of the symbol. The Speechant system was evaluated in E F L adult education classes in Portugal. A formal assessment that measured the impact of a term’s tuition by looking at changes in accent ratings of the learners over that period showed that the group taught using the Speechant system showed greater improvements in pronunciation than the control group. Speechant may be an especially useful aid to pronunciation teaching in situations in which foreign languages are taught without the benefit of technological support.
The importance of developing good oral competence when learning a foreign language has been recognized in a framework document (Common European Framework of Reference for Language) published by the Council of Europe (2001), although the means of achieving good competence in a new language, especially if acquired in adulthood, is not spelt out. Pronunciation is an important element of oral competence, as a non-native pronunciation of the sounds or intonation patterns of an L2 can affect speech comprehension, even when L2 speakers are fluent and have a good level of language proficiency (Derwing and Munro 2005). The difficulties that learners have in acquiring speech sounds in an L2 that do not occur or which have a different phonological status in the L1 is well attested in countless research studies published over the last three decades (see Flege 2003 for a review). Age of L2 acquisition is a key factor that impacts on the development of good pronunciation and accurate discrimination of sounds in an L2. In the last two decades, with advances in speech technology and in multimedia computing, new approaches to teaching pronunciation have been developed within the framework of computer-assisted learning. There are now commercial products on the market that diagnose a learner’s mispronunciation of sounds in the L2 and suggest ways of correcting these errors, using animated articulatory displays (for example Neri, Cucchiarini, Strik, and Boves 2002). Other systems immerse language learners within a virtual world in which they interact with avatars in the L2 to complete simple tasks (for example Johnson and
E LT Journal Volume 66/2 April 2012; doi:10.1093/elt/ccr019
ª The Author 2011. Published by Oxford University Press; all rights reserved. Advance Access publication June 17, 2011
Valente 2008). Although such technological approaches are no doubt extremely valuable, it is still the case that much foreign language teaching, especially within the framework of adult education classes, is done without the benefit of computer-assisting learning or even without the benefit of less sophisticated tools such as audio or video recordings. In E F L classes at adult education centres in Portugal, for example, which served as a test bed for the work described here, English pronunciation is typically taught by a native Portuguese teacher, using words and sentences printed on flashcards. The challenge in Portugal and in many other countries where foreign languages are taught without the benefit of technological support is to provide an ‘aid to pronunciation teaching’ that may enhance the teaching of pronunciation based on orthographic text.
Learning to pronounce English accurately, using tuition methods based on orthographic text, is notoriously difficult due to two factors. First, at the phonetic level, as mentioned above, the E F L learner may have problems in...
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Jones, J. K. 1967. Colour Story Reading. London:
Neri, A., C. Cucchiarini, H. Strik, and L. Boves. 2002.
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