143: Don't over-pronounce sounds

Exaggeration is not authentic speech.


Hi again, and welcome back to Seattle Learning Academy's American English pronunciation podcast. My name is Mandy, and this is our 143rd episode.

Last week, I had an opportunity to present on the topic of pronunciation at a teachers' conference. One of the issues I stressed to teachers is to not encourage students to over-pronounce, or exaggerate sounds. Since so many teachers approached me after the sessions to talk more on this topic, I thought I'd dedicate a podcast to it.

By exaggerating, I mean practicing saying a sound by moving the mouth and vocal tract more than it would move in natural speech or by stressing a syllable with more emphasis than is necessary. Learning how to exaggerate has no purpose, since that isn't the skill actually used when speaking.

I'm going to include some limited International Phonetic Alphabet symbols in the transcripts for this show. To read this show's transcripts, go to www.pronuncian.com/podcast and click "Episode 143."

Here are some examples of how students are taught to over-produce sounds.

First, spreading the lips for the long e /i/. The long e sounds like (long e) and is the vowel sound in the word keep. Because the jaw is mostly closed for this sound, the lips automatically form a smaller slit for the air to pass through. The lips go where they do because the jaw is where it is. The problem with teaching students to actively spread the lips for the long e is that then it seems like the difference between that sound and the short i /ɪ/ is the position of the lips. The short i sounds like (short i) and is the vowel sound in the word sit. In fact, the difference is a slightly lowered tongue position along with the short i having slightly less duration. I can create both the long e and and short i with essentially the same lip position, so I don't need to exaggerate the shape of the lips.

Another example is opening the mouth too much for the short a /æ/ and the short o /ɑ/. The short a is the vowel sound in the word cat and the short o is the vowel sound in the word top. Yes, the jaw is more open for these sounds, but not so far open that you can look deep into someone's mouth and see the the top of the tongue and into the inside of the throat (at least not unless that person is trying to yell across a room or is loudly sing a song).

Also, the short o has rounded lips, but this does not need to be exaggerated. Again, the rounded lips are a function of the jaw position. Since the jaw is dropped during this sound, the lips become rounder. If the tongue is in the wrong position inside the mouth, the rounding of the lips won't create the correct sound. The same thing is true of the short a sound.

I also include putting the tip of the tongue between the front teeth for the th sounds /ð, θ/ in the category of over-producing. I've said before that you can create the correct sound with the tip of your tongue between your teeth, but it isn't necessary. The same sound is created with the tip of the tongue behind the top front teeth. Then, since the tongue isn't as far forward, it's easier to link to the sounds before and after the th sounds.

Now let's talk about over-producing syllables.

Words can have up to three levels of stress, and all three of them are important. The tendency is for teachers to accept a really strong primary stress, then too strong of a secondary stress, and then let the syllable that should be unstressed not get reduced. At its worst, this will sound like yelling. Luckily, most non-native speakers won't speak like this because it intuitively sounds so wrong in conversation. Instead, those non-native speakers default back to incorrect patterns of giving stressed and secondarily stressed syllables equal stress, and never reducing a vowel sound in an unstressed position. For instance, the word economic is pronounced as /ˌɛk ə ˈnɑm ɪk/, not /ˈik oʊ ˈnɑm ɪk/.

Finally, function words should be reduced or else they are likely being over-pronounced. I'm talking about words like to, you, for, of, and can. Yes, when I say them in isolation, I say their full citation form. The citation form is what the dictionary shows. Reduced forms are sometimes shown second, and sound like /tə, jə, fɚ, ə(v), k(ə)n/. An over-pronunciation of the function words will not usually cause miscommunication, but will alter the rhythm of spoken English and can fatigue listeners.

I am very glad that more teachers are paying attention to specifically teaching English pronunciation; it needs to happen. But be careful of learning to exaggerate sounds if it means moving your vocal tract into a position that is not used by a native speaker; it's better to learn the subtleties of the sounds as they actually exist. An additional benefit is that listening comprehension improves once it is understand how words are truly pronounced in authentic speech.

Of course, you can listen to authentic speech by listening to an audiobook read by a native English speaker. You can get a free audio book by signing up for a free 14-day trial of Audible.com. Use our special web address: www.audiblepodcast.com/pronuncian as a way to help support this show and to get your free audio book to keep. If you cancel your subscription with Audible before 14 days, you are charged nothing, but you get to keep your free book.

That's all for today everyone. This has been a Seattle Learning Academy digital publication. SLA is where the world comes to learn.

Thanks for listening.