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Thursday, May 1, 2014


ON the one hand, I have to be fairly tolerant of imperfect pronunciation. The idea is not for every student to be perfect, at a native speaker level. I have even had colleagues who were quite bad, though not in my present job. As usual, I think "worse than me = unacceptable." So if I'm not perfect, that's ok, but I wouldn't want to have colleagues a whole lot worse than me.

Still, a significant portion of students in advanced level Spanish courses (junior / senior level, for us 400 and 500] really need improvement. Let's say there will be 5-7 students like this in a class of 20.

What I would like to see is:

--correct accentuation. Everyone is capable of emphasizing one syllable of a word over the rest of them, and learning what syllables that is.

--approximate phonemes. That is, the o of posible doesn't have to be perfect, but it cannot be the o of the English "possible." You should never pronounce u like the u of English umbrella. They don't have that sound in Spanish. Everyone is capable of this too. That is, pronouncing Spanish at least with the closest equivalent phonemes in English.

[Once the phonemes are more or less approximate, then the student can work on improvement.]

--basic ability to read aloud a correctly written Spanish text in a way comprehensible to a native speaker unaccostumed to English. Everyone can do that.

--elimination of English tags: um, like, you know... [when speaking Spanish]

What is needed is:

--Enough input. The students have to have sufficient exposure to good, authentic models.

--Knowledge of spelling conventions of Spanish. Students should know things like: h is silent.

--Knowledge of what phonemes exist and don't.

--Practice reading aloud; auto-critiques of recordings.

A phonetics course is great, but a course can lead to sophisticated knowledge of allophones, regional differences, and many other interesting things, without necessarily improving the student's pronunciation. I don't really care what exact accent the students are striving to emulate, as long as they hit basics common to all dialects of Spanish.

A student should have to produce a tape, to be judged anonymously by a knowledgeable person, at an acceptable level.


Vance Maverick said...

Phonetics should also lead to awareness of the wide world of phonemes that are not in standard Spanish. Even promiscuous English is a narrow culling.

Jonathan said...

Sure, but I'd like them to first see what phonemes Spanish has selected for its use. There is plenty of variation among dialects, and students can have fun with that, or learn interesting things about other languages we aren't studying. My frustration is students who have had phonetics and learned all the extras, but haven't learned the two or three most basics things you actually need to know to make your Spanish be comprehensible.

Vance Maverick said...

We're in agreement, and I have no trouble believing your experience. I guess I'm saying that if "properly" taught, in the spirit of Daniel Jones, phonetics should help a student to quickly take stock of a language's phonetic inventory, and start producing the right phonemes, leaving the "accent" as work for later.

Jonathan said...

Yes. But how much later? I remember I just read the pronuncation guide of good Spanish dictionary, when I first was starting out, and I had it made after that, more or less.