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Workshop on 18 December 2017 – “Practising Pronunciation” and Lao-English interference

I invited all English teachers from Ban Pang Heng Secondary and Primary school as well as the science teachers Mr Sackbong and Mr Phit to join my workshop “Practicing Pronunciation” on the 18th of December 2017. I put the focus on common pronunciation difficulties for Lao EFL (English as a Foreign Language) learners by contrasting the structure of the English language (L2 or L3) with the structure of the Lao language (L1 or L2)1 in two notable examples. Interference mistakes2 in pronunciation usually occur in two cases: When phonological features from L2 do not exist in L1, or when features in L2 exist in L1 but are subject to different rules.

One such problem that springs to mind immediately when one thinks of Lao EFL learners (or Southeast Asian EFL learners in general) is the /r/ sound, since it does not exist in their phonology.3 Another difficulty that might occur stems from the Lao syllable/word structure, which is different in English: In Lao there are never two or more consonants following one another in one syllable/word, whereas a lot of English words include two or more consonants successively. These consonant clusters can occur in front, medial, or end position: e.g. “Sprite, splash, clock, glass” (front),  “chickpea, tenderly, lighthouse” (medial), “mugs, hand, soft, texts” (end).

The consequences of these dissimilar language rules are in the first case that Lao speakers tend to substitute or omit the “alien” phoneme(s) (single distinctive sounds in a language), as in “Eulo” for “€”, or, in the second case, that they add vowel phonemes in between consonants in clusters (“mos(e)kito”, “s(i)kirt”), as their L1 does not tolerate more than two consonants in a row in one syllable. Regular syllable-words in Lao are, e.g., “Sa-bai-di” (“how are you”, i.e. “hello”), “Khob chai” (“Thank you”), or “Thao dai?” (“how much is it?”).

Another key issue is that fricative4 and affricate5 consonants are often often used interchangeably by Lao learners. Therefore, there is a high risk of misunderstanding in English. If for example the affricate sound /tʃ/ (as in “chair”) is uttered as the fricative sound /ʃ / (as in “she”), the sentence “I will wash your sweater” takes on a different meaning, namely “I will watch your sweater”.

I prepared different worksheets for our Lao learners to practise the sounds that are difficult for them. The worksheets consisted of drill lists of different phonemes (/l/, /r/, /s/, /z/, /∫/, /t∫/ /ʒ/, /dʒ/), the exercise “Odd one out”, and word dictations.

As a warming-up activity I invited the teachers to brainstorm in groups of 2-3 persons and think about a) sounds they find hard to pronounce and b) what might be the reasons for this. They collected the sounds that present difficulties, and it turned out that – as I would have expected from the former research I did on Lao and Thai pronunciation problems in English – the central issues were the phonemes /r/ and /l/, as well as the distinction of fricative and affricate sounds (such as /s/, /z/, /∫/, /t∫/ /ʒ/, and /dʒ/).

In order to perform the /r/ sound with them I showed a flashcard of a roaring lion and encouraged them to roar like a lion. We had a lot of fun practising this sound in this playful way and it was pleasant to hear them producing the /r/ phoneme correctly. For the distinction of the /r/ and the /l/ sound I asked them to describe the tongue position during the production of both sounds. When uttering the /l/ sound the tongue touches the teeth and therefore should be visible. With the /r/ sound the tongue is pulled right back and should not be seen in the front area of the mouth. After this introduction they read aloud drill lists with the /r/ sound in pairs: One read out a word and the other one watched whether the tongue was visible or not.

Imagine the following question, in a restaurant: “Would you like that with lice (rice)?” Also, at the hotel, “I need to lock my room!” would depend on the same distinction, in two words. “I will fish your aircondition” would be an example of substitution, which can also sometimes be found in print, as in the “General Culliculum”, the “Faily-tale” book, or the exhibit in the Royal Palace in Luang Prabang that commends the “Loyal tailor”.

The following recording gives you examples of minimal pairs with the /l/ and /r/ sound.


A more tricky excercise was the word dictation. In partner work the teachers read out different words with the difficult sounds  /l/, /r/, /s/, /z/, /ʃ/, /tʃ/, /ʒ/, /tʒ/, and their partner would write down the words. Afterwards they checked if they wrote down the correct word. The added difficulty here was that there are no separate graphemes in English for each phoneme. For example, /s//z/ are both often written with the letter “s”, as in “house/houses”, and /z//ʒ/ can also be written with an “s” (his television).

In “Odd one out”, the participants read out minimal pairs, of which one was printed twice in that line. One teacher read out the words while his or her partner listened carefully and had to say which of the three words had been read twice. This forced participants to pay attention to each phoneme in each word.

Following this, we discussed the second issue, the consonant clusters. In the Lao language, the phonological structure of a syllable/word is fixed: Consonant-vowel-consonant. (There does not have to be a final consonant sound, but there cannot be two.) Interference mistakes therefore occur in clusters, i.e. substitution, omission, or addition of sounds in the English word.  For practising the pronunciation of words with consonant clusters I provided drill lists again. I noticed that problems mainly occured with consonant clusters (especially in addition with the /r/ or /l/ sound) in the beginning of a syllable/ word (e.g. “Sprite”, “cry”, “three”, “glass”). Consonant clusters starting with “st” were much easier for them to pronounce (e.g. “stone”, “style”).

The last aspect to cover were the different post-alveolar and alveolar fricative and affricate sounds /s/, /z/, /∫/, /ʒ/, /t∫/and /dʒ/. For this I asked the group to give example words that contained one of those phonemes, and I explained some rules when to use which phoneme:

  • s : usually for the letter “s“ (sun, snake, cats, slide)
  • ∫ : usually for “sh-“, “-iss“, “-tion“, “s“ before “u“ (she, mission, education, sure)
  • ʒ : usually for the ending „-sion“, „-sual“, „-sure“ (pleasure, casual, vision)
  • dʒ : usually for the letter „j“, for “-age” (jungle, jump, message)
  • t∫ : usually for „ch“, „tch“, „tu-“, „ti“ (chain, butcher, nature, question)

This video shows me and the teachers collecting example words for the /s/ phoneme:


Finally the teachers worked on a partner word dictation with these sounds and also an “Odd one out” list.

At the end of the workshop I handed out small IPA-charts,6 a picture of the production of the /l/ and /r/ sounds as well as a guide when to use which post-alveolar and alveolar fricative or affricate sound.

All in all I am very satisfied with the workshop: It was rewarding to see how the teachers were keen to learn more not only about the practical but also the theoretical background of English pronunciation, especially regarding the contrast to their L1, the Lao language. I hope to have given them a small insight into some of the differences between the Lao and English language so that in the future they will be better able to understand the interference issues they are facing and this way have a more solid basis for continuing their – challenging – work on their pronunciation skills.

And maybe our readers can now also finally figure out what “Sapalite” refers to and who “Kak Mak” and the “Kemelush” were? Or, at the airport, what you should answer when asked if you have a “thu-sek-bek”?

Text by M. Kirsten & I. Martin


1 In Applied Linguistics, L1 refers to the very first language one acquires naturally in social interactions while growing up. Any further language(s) learnt (mostly in an instututional context) is called second/third etc. language and abbreviated as L2, L3, etc.

2 The linguistic term “interference” relates to speakers and writers transferring linguistic features from their first language (L1) into a foreign language (L2). The application of knowlegde from one language to another can either be positive, or negative. If  if the linguistic structures of L1 and L2 are similar, the transfer often results in a correct language production, and therefore the interference is positive. However, the more different the two linguistic structures are, the more likely will the interference end up negatively, and minor errors occur in the language production.

3 Surprisingly, there used to be an “r” letter in the Lao alphabet. It got excluded from the Lao alphabet in the course of a language reform since most speakers pronounced it as /l/. However, it is still used to spell many country names (e.g. “Europe”, “Australia”, “America”), or in new loan words.

4 Fricatives are consonant sounds that are produced by inhibiting the airflow somewhere in the vocal tracts so that a hissing sound is audible (e.g. /z/ as in “zoo” or “s” as in “sun”).

5 Affricates are consonant sounds that start with a stop (a consonant sound in which the vocal tract is blocked so that all air stream stops, e.g. /t/or /d/) and end with a fricative (e.g. /ʃ/ as in “she”). Examples: /tʃ/ as in “church” or /dʒ/ as in “jungle” or “jeans”.

6 The International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) is an alphabetic transcription system for languages that root in the Latin alphabet. It functions as a standarized representation of each sound within a spoken language, as opposed to the letters of the written alphabet. This helps learners to pronounce a word correctly when they read it (with the IPA transcription) in a dictionary. Today, pronunciation help is provided by online dictionary audio tools as well. English orthography is notoriously difficult for learners to read correctly (and also to write, even for native speakers) because a) one phoneme can be written by different letters/graphemes, b) one letter can be pronounced in different ways depending on the position in the word or even the context, and c) English has more loan words from other languages than most other languages. This situation fossilized through Dr Johnson‘s Dictionary of the English Language in 1755.


English – Speak like a native! Thai pronunciation problems in English

Furman University – Phonology: Fricatives

Furman University – Phonology: Affricates

Wikipedia: Definition International Phonetic Alphabet

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