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“The cæt in the hæt” – a workshop about English pronunciation

We decided to do our workshop on the topic of pronunciation as some of our Lao teachers still struggle with certain sounds of the English language. Many of them had shown interest in learning more about pronunciation, so that was one of the reasons why we invited not only our tandem English teachers but also the “Non-English teachers” of all three AfC schools.

Our workshop was held on 24 March from 4-6 p.m., directly after the school day ended so that as many teachers as possible could attend. We conducted it in the science lab at Ban Phang Heng Secondary School as it provided much space and a beamer.

We started our presentation by explaining the importance of correct pronunciation. First, we showed them a video that illustrated the struggles learners of the English language can have regarding pronunciation. We wanted to show them a few examples how words can be misunderstood if we place a different sound in a word (e. g. “think” vs. “sink” or “stink”).

This was followed by an introduction and visualisation of the places of articulation and the vowel chart in the mouth. In this context we explained what function our tongue and lips have for the production of certain sounds of the English language.

We also introduced the “IPA” – the International Phonetic Alphabet. IPA is an alphabetic system of  sounds used to help read/produce sounds in the way they should be pronounced, as the spelling does not necessarily do so – certainly not in English. This is also why you can always find the IPA transcriptions of words in square brackets behind the words in your dictionary.

After our presentation of the linguistic background we separated the teachers into four groups for the practical part – the “work stations”. Each work station provided a different topic: The “cat-sound” [æ] or “trap vowel”, the “bird-sound” [ɜː], the [l]/[r]-distinction, and intonation.

Every teacher received a reader, which we had prepared beforehand: It contained a short summary of our presentation and all exercises needed for the work stations. The Lao teachers then were supported by one German teacher at each station.

The cat-sound and bird-sound stations were provided with little mirrors. After a general explanation how the sounds are produced in the mouth the mirrors were used so the participants could check the shape of their lips and the position of their tongue. To produce the [ae] sound, for example, you have to drop your jaw all the way. This may feel awkward to learners whose first language does not contain this sound or movement, which may lead to embarrassment and therefore avoidance of the wide open mouth – and thus, to wrong pronunciation.

The bird-sound is the opposite! You have to spread your lips so it almost looks like you are smiling.

The [l]/[r]-distinction is often difficult for Lao native speakers as the [r]-sound exists in writing but it is no longer used in everyday language. That is why we first practised how the two different sounds (both sibilants, or “gliders”) are produced in the mouth and then practised their distinction with minimal pairs (words which only differ in one sound, here: [l]/[r], as in “lice” or “rice”) and limericks like “There was an old man from the Rhine”.

At the fourth work station we introduced intonation, which our learners had not dealt with consciously in the English language before. Here we explained that there is a different kind of melody in every language. The way our voice goes up and down in English on sentence level is very different to the 5-6 Lao tones of individual syllables.

Moreover, it was very important for us to mention that it is not the word by itself but also the way we intonate our language or how we stress certain parts of words which conveys the message. We therefore taught them that Yes/No-questions usually have a rising intonation whereas wh-questions go with a falling intonation.

This workshop was great fun for the participants and also for us. We hope that it was helpful for the teachers and that they will be able to continue improving their pronunciation in the future with the little stepping stones that we gave them.

Teachers are role models for their students or pupils – this is a universal tenet that does not only apply to Laos. As teachers of English it is important that we pass on the correct pronunciation to our pupils or students as they will pick up our way of speaking – including our mistakes.

Text by L. Jakob & T. Wintrich

Photos by J. Deißler

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