Helping with a foreign accent: Some cautions

When we hear someone struggling with English pronunciation, it’s easy for native speakers to feel they know exactly what the problem is. But are we always right in our diagnosis? Here’s some audio you can work through to demonstrate a common example.

First, you might like to try listening to a few non-native speakers attempting a difficult English word (each file less than 1 sec).

Can you tell what word they are trying to say? Who do you think pronounces it most intelligibly? It is worth jotting down your first impressions so you can refer back to them later. (Don’t be surprised if you find it difficult to hear the word in this out-of-context condition – that is quite normal. You will have a chance to hear it in context in a moment.)

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These words were taken from a short radio program describing the growing popularity in Paris of a fruity drink that you may be quite familiar with but that was new to the French at the time.

Here’s the whole program (2 min 30 sec). The key section (25sec) comes near the end and is repeated below in case you want to go straight to that, or refer to it again after listening to the whole program.

whole program (2min 30sec)

key section (25sec)

Do you notice it is far easier to understand the speakers in context? That is a normal feature of speech perception, as we discuss quite a lot at Rethink Speech. But here we are interested in a different phenomenon.

The presenter suggests the pronunciation difficulty is mainly caused by the ‘th’ sound – a notorious problem for learners of English as a second language. In fact, many English speakers stereotype French speakers as mispronouncing ‘th’ ‘all the time’.

But is that quite right? Listen again to the individual pronunciations (we’ve compiled them all into one file for you here).

What do you notice?

The first thing to note is that each speaker pronounces this word quite differently. Is it really valid to generalise across all of them in any way?

The next thing to note is that the speakers are particularly variable in their pronunciation of the ‘th’ sound. Three of them pronounce it very well, two quite well – and only three pronounce it completely incorrectly (two giving /z/ and one giving /s/).

Now here is the most important question

Are the speakers who produce a good ‘th’ consistently easier to understand than those who produce a bad ‘th’?

You might like to go back to the separate pronunciations at the top of the page to check this carefully. Better still, you could ask a friend who hasn’t read this article to come over and listen to the 8 short files, and see what they think the words are.

Now let’s take a less stereotyping approach to these accents

Here’s all the French speakers’ attempts together again.

And here’s some of the pronunciations of this word by the English speakers in the program.

What do the native pronunciations have in common that is different from most of the French speakers’ attempts?

Of course all the native speakers pronounce the ‘th’ sound correctly, but is that the biggest difference setting the native pronunciations apart from the foreign ones?

Perhaps you can hear that all the native pronunciations do two things:

  • put stress on the first syllable;
  • produce a l-o-n-g ‘oo’ vowel.

Do you hear that only one of the French speakers does both of those things? Several of them put the stress on the last syllable, which makes the word extremely hard to understand, even when ‘th’ is pronounced quite well. Almost all of them make the ‘oo’ sound far too short, which again affects intelligibility. Would you also agree that the one who gets the stress pattern and vowel length right is the easiest to understand?

In fact, this example confirms what has been demonstrated by a great deal of research over many decades. The suprasegmentals (including stress pattern) affect the intelligibility of words to English speakers more than the pronunciation of individual phonemes.

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But be careful in using this information to help non-native speakers – it is just as easy to be wrong in diagnosing stress and vowel-length problems as it is to be wrong in diagnosing phoneme problems!


Many thanks to Judy Gilbert for bringing this useful example to my attention. Judy is a pioneering advocate for the importance of pronunciation instruction in second language teaching, and especially for the importance of focusing on suprasegmentals as a way of helping learners attain comfortably intelligible English pronunciation.