by Nicolas Celedon
Hi everybody! What a pleasure to read Andreas’ blog and all the posts. It’s true that every English speaking region has its own way of expressing itself in English. Many times that difference stems from the various linguistic origins the groups of people previously had. And it’s also true that the various linguistic backgrounds today affect the way our EFL students learn. I remember a story one of my students once told me:
Mariella (Spanish speaker-B2 CEF level), a director of well-known international company, was on a business trip in London. She had some free time and decided to go shopping. She managed to buy clothes and toys for her kids so well that she needed more travel space for all her shopping. While visiting a department store she wanted to buy a suitcase and she ended up in a candy store, where a clerk kindly showed her sweet cases.
So why did this happen to her?
English doesn’t have a phonemic orthography (the representation in writing of the English language is not one sound-one letter). The English spelling system is the result of a development process that has been going on for over 1,000 years, ever since some missionaries attempted to use the 23-letter Latin alphabet to represent the more than 35 phonemes of Old English.
This prominent feature of English makes it difficult not only for EFL students, but also for native speakers to learn. It is hard for the latter to avoid “rediculous” spellings and children who read a great deal often produce spelling pronunciations, as they have no way of knowing other than the spelling how the rare words they encounter are correctly pronounced.
That is one of the difficulties EFL students face when learning the language. Most of our Uruguayan business English students are adults who read a lot and just interact orally in English now and again. They are likewise vulnerable to producing spelling pronunciations.
This is aggravated by the fact that many words have a Latin origin in both Spanish and English and as a result they have similar spellings. In addition to that, Spanish, despite not having a perfect one-to-one correspondence between the written symbols and the sounds, it is pretty close. So, Uruguayan students are prone to pronounce every single consonant of English as if it were Spanish.
Latins used to say “Verba volant scripta manent” (Spoken words fly away, written ones stay).That is what happens to our students when they learn a word first in writing. The spelling image of the word is so powerful that even if they hear the word pronounced correctly and recognize it later they don’t reproduce what they hear but continue producing the spelling pronunciation.
That’s why you will hear Spanish speaker saying lounge instead of launch, row (quarrel) instead of raw, Iceland instead of island, soap instead of soup, and many others.
Another consequence of having a non-phonetic spelling is that sometimes there are groups of letters that have more than one pronunciation. Let’s take the letters “ough” and we’ll see that these four letters represent five different pronunciations (though, tough, trough, through, thought)
So, my fellow colleagues, how do you tackle this situation where eyes are stronger than ears? As I have found in my own experience with teaching most of the time is not enough to correct the pronunciation mistake and we have to do something concrete about it.
One thing I do when there is a word that contains a silent letter is crossing it out. For instance: b in debt, g in sign, etc.
Sometimes I resort to special spellings like thru, EZ, K9, so that students can remember the phonemic spelling of a word.
In addition to that, I usually vocalize words that may present pronunciation problems for students, so they hear and say them in context several times before they see them in writing.
So I would like to know what you think about this topic, if that is also a problem when teaching English to people with other mother tongues than Spanish and if so, how you try to solve it.