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Working on pronunciation at the Lao-German Technical College – two workshops in March 2017

“I’m going to sleep” or “I’m going to slip”?
“Would you like a beer?” or “would you like a bear”?
“We eat rice” or “we eat lice”?

We used the first weeks in our four classes and during our everyday life to listen to our Lao friends’ way of speaking English very closely. Quickly we got an idea of what might cause the difficulties and which sounds seemed to be hard to pronounce for them. We combined this with what we already knew about the Lao language and what Team III had told us in advance, and we were then able to create an English pronunciation workshop that fitted the needs of a Lao learner perfectly.

After we had decided on the issues we wanted to help the Laotians to improve we decided to divide the content into two parts and invited our teacher-students to the voluntary workshops in two consecutive weeks. We then covered three to four issues in each workshop. Examples of aspects of the English language that cause difficulties for someone whose first language is Lao are the pronunciation of the voiceless dental fricative “th” [θ] and its voiced counterpart “th” [ð], as well as the voiceless postalveolar sibilant “sh” [ ʃ ] (the Lao language only has “s”).

Our first workshop took place on 15th March 2017, and we were happy to work with 17 motivated Laotians on the “cat-sound” ([æ], as in [kæt], the “bird-vowel” ([ɜː], as in [bɜːd], and the distinction between [v], [w], and [f]. These sounds do not exist or are difficult to pronounce for learners with Lao as a first language. (This we have in common: German learners also sometimes have difficulties in these areas.) After having introduced our plan for the afternoon, which consisted of an introduction, the forming of groups, three group work phases, a break, and a conclusion, each of us three started to work with their group of five to six people at a separate “station” with one particular topic.

The handout we had prepared in advance for every participant helped us structure the exercises that focused on different levels of difficulty: First, we clarified the production of the sounds (the place and manner of articulation) and practiced this in our seating circles. Our Lao student-friends were happy to have us volunteers as linguistic models and watched us closely while we produced the sounds. Afterwards, it was time for the so-called “minimal pairs“: These are words that only differ in one sound, which can change the meaning completely, e.g. “pig and big” or “bad” and “bed”. This exemplified the importance of correct pronunciation. Once the difference of the sounds had become understandable for everyone, we continued with advanced exercises, i.e. listening closely to us reading minimal pairs while circling the word with the correct letter/[sound], trying to read drill sentences out loud, and a little partner game similar to “Bingo” that demanded very concentrated listening.

When all three groups had finished, the participants went on to the next group station and worked on the next topic. After two rounds of 30 minutes’ practice it was time for a little break, in which everybody had the possibility to exchange views on the program and grab some snacks. The workshop ended after one last round of group work and a little feedback talk afterwards, which luckily was very positive!

One week later we were able to welcome even more excited participants – some of them had already taken part in the first workshop, some others were new to it. As the three of us got support from Prof. Martin and Ms Heike Müller on that day, we could even offer four stations this time, which focused on the distinction between [s], [sh], and [ch], [v], [f] and [th], as well as [b/p], [g/k] and [d/t] at the beginning and at the end of a word (the so-called “initial” and “final obstruents”). From a linguistic perspective, it is interesting to note that while German learners (from the South) often mix those obstruents up (voicing the voiceless initial obstruents and devoicing the final voiced ones), Lao learners sometimes drop final consonants altogether because certain vowels (e.g. the diphthong [aɪ̯]) cannot be followed by certain consonants in their own language, which is why “rice” usually comes out as “ri” or “li”, or “inside” as “insi”. We call this linguistic phenomenon “interference”. For the foreign language teacher, understanding where such interferences originate helps to help the learner overcome their difficulties.

The structure of our program was the same as for the first workshop and worked out very well, i.e. we started with demonstrating and clarifying the places and manners of articulation of these sounds, then went on to practice minimal pairs, and closed with drill sentences and partner exercises.

All in all, the workshops were a full success: The effort of our teacher-students was definitely audible and the three of us enjoyed listening to them getting better and actually applying the newly learned content in our classes right on the very next day.

Text by A. Reiling, S. Schulz & C. Morlock

Photos by H. Müller & A. Reiling

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