Pronunciation – does it matter?

“Does it matter?”

  If you are a teacher you’ve probably heard that question dozens of times;  does it matter if you don’t spell it right, does it matter if the grammar’s wrong, does it matter if you don’t say it right?  Of course the answer will depend on the context.  What are they trying to do?  Have they been able to communicate even if there are mistakes?  Are we trying to build their confidence and fluency,  in which case we might let a few errors pass. If our learners get too hung up on getting things right all the time they won’t experiment, take the risks and develop the skills of being creative language users.  If they are aiming for A* in their written controlled assessment at GCSE then it almost certainly will matter more – they will at least be expected to use their dictionary to get details such as spellings and genders. 

When it comes to speaking there used to be that concept of the “sympathetic native speaker”, but how sympathetic can we be?  Grammatical errors, the wrong words and mispronunciation can all get in the way of communication.  When teaching Chinese correct pronunciation takes on a whole new dimension because of the different tones, as we discovered in class yesterday when confronted with tāng and táng, the former meaning soup and the latter sugar or sweets – could make for an interesting meal if you get it wrong. 

For learners of Chinese there are a couple of useful sites that can help them work independently to  “tune” their ear into the different sounds of Chinese and learn to distinguish between the various tones.  New Concept Mandarin has an introduction to Pinyin with a table where you can click on any combination of initial and final and get the sound for each tone; this is also represented visually. 

There is something similar on Chinesepod, where they make the point that you can’t read Pinyin, just as you would English, something which learners find confusing at times.  Chinesepod also has all the sound files in downloadable form which can be useful if you are putting together resources. 

My learners often ask me the Chinese use Pinyin;  the answer is that they don’t, at least not apart from when they first start to learn to read.  Pinyin was developed as a way of increasing literacy amongst the Chinese population and certainly helps us non native speakers get into the language faster than we would do otherwise.  Another resource which I’ve just come across  is this song  (also accessible from the Chinese songs page) which groups the initials and finals together by similar sound; it then moves on to the tones.  I could envisage developing some actions to go along with it….

Actions associated with sounds is at the heart of Rachel Hawkes’ philosophy of teaching phonics early in the language learning process.  Her website has a wealth of resources for Spanish, German and French.

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