One of the biggest reasons why parents push to have their very young children learn English is because they want exposure to the language during the child’s Critical Period. Studies don’t agree on exactly when this period ends, and it might be slightly different for each child. However, there is a general consensus that, especially when it comes to pronunciation and language fluency, the earlier the child begins to learn the language, the better. Some more conservative studies suggest that if a child does not begin to learn a language by the age of 5, the child will not be able to speak the language like a native speaker. When it comes to grammar and syntax, studies show that the timeline is much more flexible. Older children are able to learn grammar, and second language acquisition for children in the 7-14 year age range can be very successful. But when we are looking at pronouncing the language like a native speaker, it seems that early exposure is critical. And, if we consider that the goal of language is effective communication, pronunciation is critical when it comes to getting our message across to the listener. In fact, oftentimes HOW we say something influences comprehension just as much as WHAT we say. A single mispronounced sound or misplaced stress can cause the listener to completely misunderstand the intended meaning.
If you are VIPKID teacher, you probably know the struggle of teaching and correcting pronunciation. Unfortunately, while most teachers are generally familiar with the grammar rules of English and how to teach them, many of us have not spent a lot of time studying the phonetics of American English. In fact, many elements of pronunciation are just so ingrained in us from an early age that we do not even recognize them or have the ability to pinpoint what they are. We can, however, recognize when something is off or missing…when something doesn’t sound quite right. The challenge, then, is identifying the issue, explaining the problem, and helping the student correct it. Not an easy task! While the VIPKID curriculum does a pretty good job teaching phonics, it does not really provide as much for teaching phonetics (aside from the PreVIPKID curriculum). The workshops and materials for teachers do provide instruction on synthetic phonics, which is helpful for reading and for the pronunciation of certain sounds to some extent. If you haven’t looked over the information on synthetic phonics, I recommend you take some time to do that because it is a good place to start.
When we are talking about pronunciation, it is important to remember that we are actually examining two things: segmentals and suprasegmentals. Segmentals are the individual sounds; suprasegmentals apply to different segments that come together. Basically, you can think of suprasegmentals as all the “other stuff” that affects pronunciation: intonation, word stress, syllable stress, prosody/rhythm, etc. Many people think of pronunciation as simply pronouncing all of the sounds correctly, but that is only one small part of the way we speak. In fact (and I find this super interesting!), for many American listeners, fixing the suprasegmentals of a non-native English speaker’s speech can actually have a bigger impact on perceived “accent” than fixing segmentals. The bad news is…suprasegmentals are less tangible for most people and are generally much harder to adjust once they are “set” by our native language. Obviously, there is no hope in trying to explain to BaoBao the difference between syllable stress and stress patterns in descriptive phrases vs. set phrases. Many native English speaking adults will look at you funny if you try to explain it! The good news is, most of the VIPKID students are still young enough to copy and acquire these elements without having to understand them, which is why the listening phase and the parroting-everything-back phase are actually really useful as long as the teacher is speaking slowly yet naturally.
I do, however, think it is helpful for the teacher to have some knowledge of suprasegmentals, especially those elements that are specifically harder for native Chinese speakers. This allows the teacher to be prepared for common mistakes. It can also help us remember to continue to speak “naturally” even when we slow down our normal speech rate for beginner students. Keeping the importance of suprasegmentals in mind will also ensure that we take the parts of the VIPKID curriculum that really help with suprasegmentals seriously: songs and poems. Yes, I am sure we have all gotten to that dreaded Five Little Monkeys Jumping on the Bed slide with 30 seconds left on the clock and thought…NOOOOOO! I personally dread all the songs actually, because I have a horrible singing voice. It is truly dreadful.
This part of the curriculum serves an important purpose though. Even if the student has no clue what we are saying, when they mimic your singing, they are incorporating the suprasegmental elements that they need. It is actually beneficial that they don’t understand the meaning, because this allows them to focus completely on mimicking your prosody, stress, and intonation…all the things that are almost impossible to teach. You might even notice that, if the student is more advanced, they try to read the words to the song rather than just mimic you, and they end up getting the rhythm wrong. Poetry acts in the same way because, even though you are not singing, the intonation and stress is exaggerated. And again, the WAY you speak is the focus of the activity rather than the meaning of the content.
I’ll be doing a short series of posts on three suprasegmentals: intonation, stress, and prosody. I plan to give a short overview of what they are, what to keep in mind when working with native Mandarin speakers, and (hopefully!) a few useful tips for helping your students with this element of pronunciation in the context of the VIPKID classroom. After that, I will write a short series on helping students listen to and reproduce the more difficult individual sounds. Although teaching pronunciation can be tricky and sometimes straight up confusing, it is an essential part of learning a language. The more you know about what your mouth (and everything in it!) is doing, the easier it will be to teach correct pronunciation to your VIPKID students.