Pronunciation of words

Part 1: Individual words

In English, words are rarely pronounced the way they are spelled. Here, an online teacher, Melanie (American), provides short video lessons, between 4 and 10 minutes each, contrasting and comparing words that many speakers of other languages find difficult in English.

Note: Most English words with “ch” are pronounced “tsh”: chief, charming, channel. However, in words with a Greek stem the sound is often “k” (archaeology, chasm, hierarchy) and in loanwords from modern Romance languages it’s “sh” (chute, cache, machete)

Part 2: Individual sounds

Now study sounds that many Germans in particular have trouble making. Getting “v” and “w” right is particularly important to avoid misunderstanding. Practice “minimal pairs”, or words that are the same except for that one sound. Also watch closely how a native speaker makes them, and mouth the sounds yourself, exaggerating the movements your mouth makes. The new sounds must become a habit. The more practice, the better. Watch the two embedded videos to get started.

Part 3: Phonemic chart


Learn to distinguish sounds using this chart, which is built around the geography of your mouth. Tools:

Note to teachers: It’s well worth watching Adrian Underhill‘s teacher training session – 1 hour

To teachers: I posted this on Moodle for self-study (see screenshot of the top part of the web page). For those of you using Moodle with college students and thinking about how to layout a page, here’s food for thought: Pages load far more slowly when videos are embedded in them, and wifi connections at universities may be slow. I make long pages rather than many short ones, since users prefer to scroll down to check how much there is, which means a lot of data is being loaded at once. So Not to try my students’ patience, I didn’t embed most of the videos, just provided a link. I actually only embedded them here and there, after I saw my (impatient and honest) husband just check the first couple of links, which go to very similar videos, so he missed the more entertaining ones in the second half.

So we might think about embedding one video to raise interest, adding that short intro and a reference to study time needed, and then just link to the following ones beneath. I’m also wondering in retrospect whether it was a good idea to start with Melanie’s videos, as good as they are, since talking heads are more eyecatching and engaging.

In this case, I didn’t add any tasks for practice. This is just reference to self-contained online lessons. I’ll use them as resources to follow-up our face-to-face teaching, or to have something there for the students who only come in to class periodically (this is an ongoing, supplementary, not-for-credit open learning environment for a group of 100 PhD students).

The sequence may seem backwards from an in-class  didactic point of view – Adrian Underhill starts with the phonemic chart – but since this is self-study, I thought starting with mispronounced words was less likely to alienate learners.


Stress and Intonation

These are the videos I posted on the Moodle site for students, for self-study in intonation. All are by the same online teacher, who does a really fabulous job, taking learners into the world of stress patterns with practice sentences like this:

Clients get haircuts.
Clients will get haircuts.
His clients will get haircuts.
His clients will get good haircuts.
All of his clients will get good haircuts.

Jennifer’s lesson 8: Stress patterns
Video a – introduction
Video b – cont.: stress for emphasis
Video c – reading practice

Jennifer’s lesson 9: Advanced Stress Patterns
Video a – follow-up lesson on rhythm
Video b – cont.: emphasis on last content word
Video c – exercises

Jennifer’s lesson 10: Intonation

Video a – introduction
Video b – cont.
Video c – cont.
Video d – exercises

Teaching pronunciation using jazz chants

Carol Graham trains teachers how to use jazz chants to teach pronunciation. They’re great energizers and get learners speaking faster than they can think – one of the elements of fluency.

I’ll be doing some jazz chants in the telephoning part of a compact course next week, first giving them some jazz chant minis (see below), and then having them notice stress patterns as we start using each phrase (i.e. finding the onset and tonic syllables, trying out how the meaning changes when patterns change). Carol Graham says it’s very difficult for non-native speakers to put together jazz chants, so if they do discover rhythm patterns on their own, going as far as making their own chants, that’s very impressive.  Anyway, I’ll give them short chants, like these:

  • Hold on, __ I’ll put you through. OK, I’ll get back to you.
  • I’ll fax it to you. I’ll give you a call. I’ll call you right back. No, I’ll wait for your call.
  • Let me see if he’s in. I think he’s gone out. He’ll be back at 1. Shall I have him call you?
  • I’ll make sure she gets your message. Let me see what I can do. I’ll make sure she calls you back. Let me read that back to you.

I like having learners get up and clap their hands or snap their fingers, or do arm movements to go with these.

Vicki Hollett recently made a lovely jazz chant video that includes karaoke, for the language of making appointments here.


Midnight in Paris: Discourse markers

Today my main task was to find examples of discourse markers in context in a movie trailer, explaining their functions in a given utterance. I chose Midnight in Paris by Woody Allen and, because it caught my imagination, transcribed and thought through more than necessary. It’s fun to examine a dialogue and make what is implicitly understood explicit. I’ve disregarded intonation here, but that would be another interesting look at this.

We’re been using an impressive grammar coursebook, Martin Parrott Grammar for English Language Teachers, these past few weeks, under Lindsay Clandfield’s tutelage. I’m looking forward to the face-to-face part of the course, because I’ve been lagging behind in the distance section. I’ve frankly found it exceedingly difficult to keep up discipline, especially with other work going on. Still, since this grammar module began I’ve started feeling more clued in. I have loads of gaps in grammar, but perhaps they’re easier to fill than in other areas, say: pronunciation, where I’ve been learning from scratch. Anyway, Martin Parrott teaches a “Virtual English Masterclass” on the BBC Learning English website here.

Transcript of trailer

Scene 1
Man 1: I mean, th-, this is unbelievable. There’s no city like this in the world.
Woman 1: You’re in love with a fantasy.
Man 1: I’m in love with you.
“This” refers to Monet’s garden, where they are walking, and all of Paris, the city they’ve just begun to experience. His stammer and “I mean” are expressions of his personal emotional involvement, which he communicates in an attempt to influence how his fiancé will react, getting her to share his enthusiasm.
Her very cool reaction shows that she isn’t willing to buy into his feelings.

Scene 2
Woman 2: What are you…?
Woman 1: //Oh, hey!//
Woman 2: … what are you doing here?
Woman 1: Dad’s here on business and we just decided to… freeload along!
Woman 2: (laughter) Oh!
Man 2: That’s great! We can spend some time together.
Woman 1://Oh, that’d be nice!//
Man 1://Oh, I don’t know, I think// we have a lot of commitments
Woman 1: (Silence)
Man 1: but I’m sure it’s, well
Woman 1: What?
Man 1:// (mumble)//
“Oh, I don’t know” is a hedge to buy time while the man tries to think of a way to stop the others from making plans to meet up. He makes up a phony excuse. Then he uses the contrasting, polite, non-committal, face-saving marker “But I’m sure” to repair any damage he may have caused by emphasizing their willingness to be friendly and sociable. However, while he is saying it, he notices that he’s misjudged the situation as his fiancé falls silent and fails to give him verbal support. Knowing he’s lost their common ground, he leaves the “repair” phrase dangling (well is another hedge), so that when she openly challenges him, saying “What?”, the conversation breaks down.

Scene 3
Man 2: If I’m not mistaken, Rodin’s work was influenced by his wife, Camille.
Expert: Rose was the wife!
Man 2: No, he was never married to Rose.
“If I’m not mistaken” is a conversation management marker that calls attention to and seeks to establish the authoritative knowledge of the speaker. Her word stress shows that she disagrees, and expresses disbelief. He defends his authority.

Scene 4
Woman 1: I hope you’re not going to be as anti-social tomorrow.
Man 1: I’m not quite as taken with him as you are. Well, he’s a pseudo-intellectual.

“As”: The two of them are criticizing each other using benchmarks for comparison (his “bad” behavior compared to the “good” behavior she wants from him tomorrow; her being “taken with” Man 2 as opposed to his disapproval). They’re competing for what they consider appropriate. “Well” is a discourse marker that expresses reservation, shows he is considering what she has said, indicates that he is thinking about and taking up the topic.

Scene 5
Man 2: Slightly more tannic than the ’59. I prefer a smoky feeling.

Scene 6
Man 2: Carol and I are gonna go dancing.
Woman 2: //Dancing!//
Woman 1: //Oh!//
Man 2: I know a great place. Interested?
Man 1: No,…
Woman 1: //Sure! yeah!//
Man 1: // no, no,// no, now, I don’t want to be a killjoy,
Woman 1: //Oh, come on!//
Man 1: // but I, I,// I, I need to get a little fresh air.
The man’s response is pure emotional hedging, preemptive apology, beating an escape.

Scene 7
Woman 1: What time did you get in last night?
Man 1: Not that late, and I’m planning on going on another little hike tonight.
He uses the adverb “that” and the adjective “little” to diminish the size of the affront, and humor ( the “healthy” connotations of going on a “hike” add a touch of irony) to try and charm her into letting him get away with it.

Scene 8
Mother: Where’s Bill run off to?
Woman 1: Been walking around Paris.
No discourse markers, but a telling register: The flippant question and her laconic, elliptical answer use distancing techniques.

Scene 9
Father: Where do you think he goes every night?
Mother: He walks and gets ideas.
Father: Uh-huh.
“Uh-huh” is an nterjection, here expressing disbelief.

Scene 10
Woman 1: Why are you so dressed up?
Man 1: I was just doing a little writing.
Woman 1: You… dressed up and put on cologne to write?
Man 1: Yeah, you know how I can think better in the shower, and I get the, the positive ions going in there.
Hedging, humor to charm her into letting him off the hook

Scene 11
Father: I had a private detective follow him.
Other woman: And what happened?
Father: I don’t know. The detective agency says the detective is missing.
“And” shows anticipation and the willingness to support the storyteller.

Scene 12
Man 1: I’m in very perplexing situation.
The word “a” is swallowed by an emotional pause filled with things he can’t talk about – perhaps “I’m in love” or “I’m in trouble”.

The trailer doesn’t give away too much, does it? Can’t wait to see the film! Comes recommended by Chris.

Sound wave: Owa Tana Siam

This brilliant sketch by the late Ronnie Barker is an eye-opener – or an ear-opener! – to how we preempt meaning when we listen. I found it on Abiloon’s lovely blog – full transcript there.

I would use this video to raise student awareness for the way we anticipate what the speaker will say next.

In The Language Instinct, Steven Pinker summarizes speech research showing that we can recognize and recollect nonsensical word streams better if they follow known syntax, and adds:

“If one thinks of the sound wave as sitting at the bottom of a hierarchy from sounds to phonemes to words and phrases to the meanings of sentences to general knowledge, these demonstrations seem to imply that human speech perception works from the top down rather than just the bottom up. Maybe we are constantly guessing what a speaker will say next, using every scrap of conscious and unconscious knowledge at our disposal, from how coarticulation distorts sounds, to the rules of English phonology, to stereotypes about who tends to do what to whom in the world, to hunches about what our conversational partner has in mind at that very moment. If the expectations are accurate enough, the accoustic analysis can be fairly crude; what the sound wave lacks, the context can fill in.” (p. 181)

The more accurate our expectations are regarding what we will hear, the more generous we can be in analyzing/ adding what is missing in the sound wave. Conversely, the less accurate the listener’s knowledge of English syntax and discourse, the less generous he or she can be with mispronounced words. Filling in the gaps in what we hear based on prediction requires fast thinking. Small wonder that speakers of ELF, as they tune into each other, tend to be happy to drop connected speech.

Science, at least within the field and among peers, is high context, little needs to be explained. College students who share a field anticipate specialized vocabulary and are ready and able to correctly interpret quite a variety of pronunciations of such terms. “What the sound wave lacks, the context can fill in.” This contributes to the surprizing range in mutually intelligible pronunciation that I have been encountering.

If I were to use this video, we could also use the song at the end for a Mondegreen-style misheard or rather misspelled lyrics activity, for connected speech awareness. It’s  introduced from 3:20: “And now, in confusion, I would like you to join me in singing the Siamese notional anthem to the tune of God Save the Queer: O’wa ta’na Si’am.” One would need to explain “twit” and “nit”. Hmm… I’m not sure how valuable this would be, especially since the other part is so thought-provoking. Will just have to try it out.

Practice academic writing skills 2: Ambiguity

One of the most important elements of good writing is clarity. Unfortunately, English has a lot of potential for ambiguity, which makes it easy to write ambiguous sentences. Great for humor, of course, but not a lot of help when it comes to writing works of science! One example is the use of prepositions.


  • I saw the man with a telescope.
  • I saw the man through a telescope.
  • Do you have any books on antique furniture?
  • Do you have any books about antique furniture?

In each case, both prepositions are correct, but the second choice is unambiguous.

A great source of trouble are invisible phrase structures, like defining clauses (introduced by which, that, who – or nothing!), extended prepositional phrases full of relatively unconnected information and long-distance dependencies using structures like if…then and either…or.


  • They’re having a barbecue in the garden behind the house they are renting next Saturday at 8. (They’re only renting the house at eight o’clock?)
  • They’re having a barbecue next Saturday at 8 in the garden behind the house they are renting.

What went wrong in the first sentence? The reader expects information that belongs together to be close together.


Here are some more similar phrases. Enjoy, determine what makes them ambiguous, and then suggest how to rephrase them.

1. Yoko Ono will talk about her husband John Lennon who was killed in an interview with Barbara Walters.
2. Two cars were reported stolen by the Griveton police yesterday.
3. The license fee for altered dogs with a certificate will be $3 and for pets owned by senior citizens who have not been altered the fee will be $1.50.
4. Tonight’s program discusses stress, exercise, nutrition and sex with Celtic forward Scott Wedman, Dr. Ruth Westheimer, and Dick Cavett.
5. We will sell gasoline to anyone in a glass container.
6. For sale: Mixing bowl set designed to please a cook with round bottom for efficient beating.
7. “I once shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got into my pyjamas I’ll never know.” Groucho Marx in Animal Crackers

Ambiguous phrases 1.-7. from Steven Pinker, The Language Instinct, p. 94

(This is a post on the Moodle Scientific Writing Forum I’m developing for the PROGRESS group at Uni Potsdam. Feel free to use if you like, let me know if the explanations click or fizzle.)

Practice academic writing skills 1: Parallelism

Parallelism adds elegance to your writing:

Clumsy: They work with great care and effectively.
Elegant: They work carefully and effectively.

Clumsy: Making contacts is as important as to give a good presentation.
Elegant: Making contacts is as important as giving a good presentation.

Clumsy: We analyzed the extensive data, which was highly complex.
Elegant: We analyzed the extensive, highly complex data.

Clumsy: We hope to visit the site, so the measurements will be completed by the end of the month.
Elegant: We hope to visit the site and complete the measurements by the end of the month. (Note: drop the second “to”)

Parallelism is required by some grammar structures – see the examples in red. The dependent phrases in blue must take the same parallel form following the grammar words in red. They are equally dependent on the headword in green. So it’s: headwordgrammar worddependent phrasegrammar worddependent phrase.

  • not only A, but also B
    Error: I not only do research on A, but also on B. (verb with object, object only)
    Correct: I do research not only on A, but also on B. (two dependent objects)
  • Error: I do not only research, but also teach. (noun, verb)
    Correct: I not only do research, but also teach. (two dependent verbs)
  • neither A, nor B
    Error: Johnson’s research neither considered recent developments nor objections previously raised by his colleagues. (active verb phrase, phrase without an active verb)
    Correct: Johnson’s research considered neither recent developments nor objections previously raised by his colleagues. (two noun phrases dependent on “considered”)
  • both A and B
    Error: The project helps geoscience faculty stay up-to-date both with research and teaching methods. (with is misplaced)
    Correct: The project helps geoscience faculty stay up-to-date with both research and teaching methods. (two dependent objects)
  • A, B and (or) C
  • I look forward to A and B
  • In terms of A and B
  • more A and less B

There are more practice sentences here (link).


  1. Leonardo da Vinci was an artist, a scientist, and he made inventions.
  2. The ancient Greek scientist Archimedes discovered the principle of boyancy, devised formulas for calculating the areas of various geometric figures, and he is remembered as the inventor of the Archimedean screw.
  3. According to the principle of boyancy, a boat floats and baloons will rise because they weigh less than the water or air they displace.
  4. I look forward to both seeing and to talking to you soon.
  5. The members of the expedition were advised to work hard and against relying on luck.
  6. During the embargo, oil was extremely expensive and not at all easy to get.
  7. The givernment is considering banning imports of genetically modified food products and to lower tariffs on organcally grown foods.
  8. Intellectually and in terms of morality, the educational system is failing children in need.
  9. People may wear different clothes, but they still use them to express what they have got, the way that they believe or the amount of money they have.
  10. I arrived in Barcelona without knowing anyone and I could not understand any Spanish.

Phrases 1.-10. from Paula Maier, Teaching Academic Writing,  p.45, unpublished manuscript for KommUNIkation, LMU München, a teacher training project 2005-7 organized by Elena Gallo.

(This is a post on the Moodle Scientific Writing Forum I’m developing for the PROGRESS group at Uni Potsdam. Feel free to use if you like, let me know if the explanations click or fizzle.)