Posted by: Wahyu Adi Purnomo | February 1, 2009

Some Important Steps to Master Native-Like Pronunciation

There is a saying that “if you are a foreigner, you will always have a foreign accent,” which often discourages language learners from studying pronunciation seriously. However, based on my experience, I proved myself that although I started learning English pronunciation at the age of twenty, I could manage to master native-like pronunciation by means of listening regularly to English news programme and imitating the announcers’ pronunciation intensively. From this fact, I concluded that every learner in Indonesia can master native-like pronunciation as long as he/she knows some basic knowledge of phonology and gets sufficient native English input and practices intensively.
Key words: pronunciation, phonology, input

1. Introduction
When we are speaking English with other people, the first thing they notice, which can create impression about the quality of our language, is our pronunciation. Good pronunciation should be one of the first things that we learn in English. We can live without advanced vocabulary since we can use simple words to say what we want to say. Moreover, we can live without advanced grammar for we can use simple grammar structures instead. But there is no such thing as simple pronunciation. If we do not have good pronunciation, we have the opposite – bad pronunciation.
The results of bad pronunciation are tragic. Even if we use great vocabulary and grammar, people may simply not understand what we want to say if we do not pronounce the word correctly. For example, if we pronounce sleep, [sləp] and not [sli:p], or if we pronounce ghost [gost] instead of [gəust], native speakers will have serious problems understanding us.
There are some factors which can be addressed as the cause of the EFL learners’ poor pronunciation, such as: (1) teachers who tend to ignore the importance of teaching students with good pronunciation since they think that it is a bit difficult and complicated to teach (Acton 1997, Wang 2005, Jia 2007); (2) the fact that many English sounds are different from those of L1; and (3) clear reflection of the L1 phonological transfer (Ramelan 1994:6, Ohata 2004, Cho 2004, Saito 2007). There are several consonants as pointed out by Ramelan (1994: 6) namely voiced stop consonants /b, d, g/ which are found in both English and Indonesian, but differ in their distributions. In English, those stops occur at utterance initial, medial, and final position such as in the following words: book, ago, sad. In Indonesian, however, they occur only at word initial and medial position, but never at word final position, for instance in the words: beras, kabar. In Indonesian orthography, the letters b, d, g are sometimes found at word final position such as in: sebab, abad, grobag, but they are pronounced as voiceless stops, that is /p/, /t/, /k/ respectively.
There is one possible explanation why most learners find it hard to master English pronunciation. The explanation has its roots in the Critical Period Hypothesis proposed by Eric Lenneberg in 1967. Lenneberg (in Salkind 1985: 35) suggested that one’s first language must be acquired before puberty (about 12 years of age). After puberty, he claimed, neurological changes in the brain make it impossible to fully learn a language. To support his hypothesis, Lenneberg made an experiment involving children who were kept in isolation from others and had no contact with their first language until after puberty. These children kept making basic grammar mistakes, no matter how long they tried to learn the language.
The Critical Period Hypothesis has been generalized to refer to second/foreign language acquisition, leading to statements such as: “If you don’t acquire a second/foreign language before puberty, you will always have problems with some parts of its grammar and pronunciation.” This causes language learners to interpret their flaws as a neurological necessity and discourages them from trying to improve.
However, based on my own experience, it seems that pronunciation skill has more to do with how much input we get than how early we begin learning. Take my example: I was born in Indonesia and started attending English classes at 12. Despite my young age (which, in theory, should have allowed me to learn very quickly), I could not pronounce English words well. After 8 years of attending classes my pronunciation was still poor and I could not discriminate between British and American pronunciation. Finally, at 20, I started taking English seriously — listening to BBC English news program 4-5 times a week for one semester. As a result, since that period of learning, my pronunciation has been nearly as good as native speakers’, especially those from Britain. According to many linguists, I have already past my critical period, but on the contrary, I started making fantastic progress. I was learning faster than I had ever learned as a child. In only six months, I managed to master native-like pronunciation. From the experience, I believe that Indonesian learners can master English pronunciation well as long as they can manage to get good English pronunciation input and tirelessly imitate it.
This paper discusses some steps every Indonesian learner needs to take in order to master native-like pronunciation. These steps include knowing all English phonemes, choosing American or British pronunciation, listening to BBC or CNN International English news programme regularly, and practicing their pronunciation intensively.
2. Some Steps to Master Native-like Pronunciation
A number of researchers and teachers have used several methods to teach pronunciation. (Stenson, Downing, Smith, Smith 1992, Sobkowiak 2005,) use multimedia and automatic speech recognition programmes to teach suprasegmental features of English pronunciation. (Shudong, Higgins, and Shima 2005) employ internet-based support system to improve Japanese English pronunciation. While, the other researchers still rely on the use of minimal pairs (Greer 2004, Luchini 2005, Cohen 2007), phoneme discrimination (Boku 1998), and teaching pronunciation in a communicative way (Murphy 2003: 116) to improve students’ pronunciation. However, the use of computer and internet may in some parts of Indonesia still become something difficult to access. Thus, it would be impossible to use this method to teach students pronunciation. Below I propose a method which seems to be feasible for most Indonesian to apply.
In order to master the English pronunciation, learners have to:
1. know all English phonemes,
2. choose American or British pronunciation (or both),
3. listen to English news programme regularly and practice their pronunciation intensively.
2.1 Knowing All English Phonemes
Knowing all English phonemes is the first important step for English learners. Phonemes, according to Trubetzkoy in Fudge (1973: 51) are the distinctive marks of the configuration of words. Each word must contain as many phonemes, and in such a sequence, as to distinguish itself from any other word. Totally, English has forty eight phonemes which are divided into twelve vowels, eight diphthongs and twenty-four consonants. These phonemes are presented in the following table.
No. IPA Word
1. /i:/ neat, seeks, deed, eat
2. /I/ knit, six, did, it
3. /e/ bell, men, fed, shed
4. /æ/ sack, tap, pad, plan
5. / / top, rot, hot, rock
6. /Λ/ truck, rug, mud, cut
7. /o:/ clause, call, law, haul
8. /u/ pull, full, would, could
9. /u:/ pool, fool, wooed, cooed
10. /ə/ away, along, an, ahead
11. /з:/ fur, blur, turn, learn
12. /α:/ arm, father, mother, far

No. IPA Words
1. /eI/ bail, fade, main, shade
2. /aI/ five, eye, cry, fly
3. /әu/ code, cope, cone, hope
4. /au/ now, out, shout, mouth
5. /eə/ where, air,
6. /Iə/ near, here, clear, fear
7. / I/ boy, toy, joy, join
8. /uə/ poor, cure, tour,

No. IPA Words
1. /b/ bad, bore, big, bus
2. /d/ do, dad, deer, desk
3. /f/ find, fuel, fry, fly
4. /g/ great, goal, game, goose
5. /h/ how, hello, hair, hunt
6. /j/ jar, jam, juice, joke
7. /k/ cat, kidney, cute, car
8. /l/ luck, lazy, life, lamp
9. /m/ mop, monkey, moon, milk
10. /n/ net, noon, near, nail
11. /η/ sing, finger, ring, hang
12. /p/ people, pain, pet, proud
13. /r/ rush, rare, run, rent
14. /s/ seal, sit, sun, slim
15. /∫/ shy, shake, shall, shine
16. /t/ tea, time, table, tree
17. /t∫/ check, chin, chair, chain
18. /θ/ thin, thick, think, thank
19. /δ/ this, that, there, them
20. /v/ veil, virus, vest, voice
21. /w/ wet, wire, wool, want
22. /z/ zoo, zinc, zero, zip
23. / / pleasure, measure, vision, treasure
24. /d / jar, gym, jail, juice

Learning the basic phonology will enable us to pronounce our L2 better. A good way to start is to learn the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), as shown in the above table, which can be used to represent all the phonemes of English and is therefore a reliable guide to pronunciation. If we take the time to familiarize ourselves with the IPA symbols, the phonemes they represent and how to pronounce them, we will find this knowledge invaluable in our language learning. It is particularly because the IPA is used to indicate pronunciation in some dictionaries and language textbooks. In some cases we may not be able to hear particular phonemes, but we can be sure that we are pronouncing them correctly if we have our tongue, lips and teeth in the necessary positions and if our breath is moving in the right direction.
Instead of the above segmental elements of phonology, we also have to know about its suprasegmental elements, which cover word stress, rhythm, and intonation. According to Dalton and Seidlhofer (1994: 38-9), word stress is the characteristics patterning different syllables in a word. There are some differences between word stress in Finnish, Czech, Polish, Spanish, and English. In Finnish and Czech it is always the first syllable in a word which receives the main stress, while in Polish it is the last one. In the case of Spanish the rule is somewhat more detailed but still very general: stress the penultimate syllable of the word ends in a vowel, /-n/, or /s/; otherwise stress the last syllable. While, word-stress in English is fixed in the sense that every word has its ‘own’ stress pattern, which is an important part of its identity (together with its characteristic sounds and its meaning) Dalton and Seidlhofer (1994: 38-9). Moreover, (Celce-Murcia, Brinton, and Goodwin 1996: 152) add that the word and sentence stress combine to create the rhythm of an English utterance – that is, the regular, patterned beat of stressed and unstressed syllables and pauses. This rhythmic pattern is similar to the rhythm of a musical phrase. While, another suprasegmental feature of pronunciation, i.e. intonation, is the entire melodic line, which involves the rising and falling of the voice to various pitch levels during the articulation of an utterance.
2.2 Choosing American or British Pronunciation
The next step after learning the English sounds is choosing to use British or American pronunciation or both. These two types of pronunciation, according to Dalton and Seidlhofer (2001: 5), are called accents since they are regional and/or social varieties which only differ with respect to phonology (sound level). Different kinds of English have different pronunciation. Below is an example taken from an intermediate textbook contrasting British and American English pronunciation.

Interaction 1: Listening/Speaking (Tanka, Most, and Baker) in Bailey (2005: 110)
In order to learn speaking one kind of English, we should learn both of them. In this case, I will use British accent as the example of target study. If we want to speak pure British English and we do not want to have an American accent at all, we should pay attention to American accents. This is based on the fact that in our daily life though we want to speak British English only, we will still hear some American English, too. According to Krashen’s comprehensible input hypothesis (in Alwright and Bailey 1991: 121), “target language data which were understandable but with effort – and were slightly more advanced than the second language learner’s current level of comfortable understanding – would promote learning. In other words, what we hear is the basis for what we speak. This is because of the imitation-skill that we employ when learning pronunciation. Thus, metaphorically, in learning speaking pure British, American input is our hindrance and we need to know how to defend against it. One way would be to remove the hindrance from our environment. But this is impossible since we live in Indonesia where there is much American input coming from electronic media. Therefore, we need to be prepared for the constant existence of the hindrance. We must be “immune”. We must be so prepared, so vaccinated, that the existence of the hindrance is harmless. Thus, the only way to solve this problem is that we must be able to recognize it. If we do not see the difference between American input and British input, both kinds will influence our output, via the imitation-skill.
2.3 Listening to English News Programme and Practicing Intensively
The next step after we choose British pronunciation as our target study is enhancing our knowledge about British pronunciation. On the basis of my experience, it’s not so important to spend a lot of time practicing; it’s more important to do it regularly. I find that just starting to pay attention to pronunciation helps me improve a great deal. It is a good idea to try to imitate English words whenever we are listening to British English input. One way that I propose to replace the infeasibility of the access to computer and internet especially in school is to provide students with English channels programmes. Providing these facilities is not expensive. What a school needs to do is just preparing a television equipped with monthly subscribed international television channels. In Indonesia, the cost of the subscription is quite cheap. It is only around one hundred and fifty thousand rupiah per month – a reasonable and affordable price for an abundant of advantages for developing students’ pronunciation. In order to foster students’ pronunciation skill, teacher can assign students to watch BBC World Service or CNN International news programme regularly, for example three to four times a week. Both BBC World Service and CNN International are news programmes from United Kingdom using the standard British pronunciation, namely RP (Received Pronunciation). While watching the news, students should also try to imitate the pronunciation including the movement of the announcers’ lips. After watching the news, students are encouraged to pronounce English words with British pronunciation whenever they are somewhere alone with a little time to spare, e.g. while waiting for the bus, taking a shower, or more importantly when they watch the news programme. Once our mouth and tongue get used to the new sounds, we will not find them difficult at all.
3. Conclusion
Learning how to pronounce a foreign language like a native speaker is difficult but not impossible. The better our pronunciation, the better people will understand us and the easier we will find it to understand them. Some steps we need to do are knowing all English phonemes, choosing American or British pronunciation, listening to BBC or CNN International English news programme regularly, and being diligent and persistent in gaining input on one of type of pronunciation and tirelessly trying pronouncing it whenever and wherever we are.

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Bailey, K. M. 2005. Practical English Language Teaching: Speaking. Singapore: Mc Graw Hill

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Celce-Murcia, N., Brinton, M. D., & Goodwin, J. M. (1996). Teaching Pronunciation. A reference for teachers of English to speakers of other languages. New York: CUP.

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  1. you have written something useful for your readers especially those who is learning English. I do agree with you that mastering pronunciation is quite important. however, it is not an easy thing. There are so many elements that we have to master and it takes a long time to speak as a native speaker. just sharing, for SMA student’s actually teaching pronunciation is important but the teachers don’t pay attention to their students’ pronunciation because if their students have been able to speak English is enough. It is difficult to encourage students to speak English coz they are shy and worried if their friends laugh at their English. That’s the problem…I think it’s better to teach pronunciation earlier to those who is learning English whether they are elementary, junior high school or senior high school students…because by our good pronunciation we can communicate well with the foreigners. Actually my pronunciation is not quite good, may be U don’t mind helping me to have good pronunciation. OK, KEEP SPIRIT! YOU HAVE TO GIVE YOUR SWTY SPIRIT, TOO AND PRAY FOR HER TO PASS THIS ALL SEMESTER WELL. SO THAT SHE CAN GRADUATE IN 1,5 YEARS LATER…AMIN

    • The main problem existing in most schools in our country is that actually students are not acquainted with good model of pronunciation especially from their teachers. However, in fact, students can get good model of pronunciation very easily from TV or internet; but, there is no one who can guide them to use the resource very effectively. My thesis project will attempt to build awareness among students about the important of having not necessarily native-like but comprehensible pronunciation and to guide them to be independent learners who can make use any learning sources available around them.
      Swty, don’t feel hopeless with your pronunciation. There is still lots of time to learn it. Me myself started learning pronunciation from the age of 20 and I could make it. Moreover, I believe that we can make it, swty, graduate together in 1,5 years. You must also not forget to pray to God in the last part of night for your success because He is the only One can make it.

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