Vol. 10, Issue 2, December 2009

Pronunciation Corner
Joyce Mandell

Joyce Mandell

Working with Fossilized Pronunciation of Students

For a very long time, pronunciation was a kind of “stepchild” in the communicative classroom. However, with a renewed interest in teaching pronunciation skills early on in the acquisition process, students who are in low levels are increasingly exposed to pronunciation improvement right from the start.  But what about those students who have been here for many years and have successfully learned to read, write and speak English well enough to be working in a variety of professions, but still have serious pronunciation problems that interfere with effective communication?  I certainly do not have all the answers, but I’m offering five strategies for dealing with this kind of student.

#1 – First of all, I think it is most important to let the student know that it isn’t necessary to be perfect – what they need to do is increase the intelligibility of their spoken communication and not strive for perfection.  Many of my students who are successful businesspeople are frustrated at their lack of pronunciation progress after so many years of speaking the language.  I assure them that a lot of their current speaking ability is fine,   and that we’re just going to fix those aspects that interfere with clear communication.

#2 – Self-monitoring – It is never enough to “get it right” under a controlled situation in the classroom.  The student must be encouraged to spend time each day self-monitoring his/her pronunciation during the normal working hours.  I tell students that they should spend a short time each day in conversation with someone they are comfortable with, focusing on the way they are speaking as well as the message they are conveying.  For example, if a student is struggling with the voiceless “th” and usually says I “sink” instead of I “think,” I remind him to focus on a short conversation with someone during the day, paying attention to that very sound.  If he makes an incorrect substitution, he is allowed to stop and repeat the word with the correct initial sound.  This practice, if done carefully for a controlled time period each day, will increase the muscle memory and help internalize the new behavior.

#3 – As I’ve mentioned in a previous column, it’s not enough to be able to just hear the difference in two sounds.  It is very useful to help the student know how the sound feels and how it looks.  I would ask students to spend part of their practice time saying troublesome sounds silently, with their eyes closed, so that they can accurately pinpoint how the correct sound feels.  Physical sensations are very powerful and aid the learner in remembering the correct articulation.

#4 – Two techniques that are often used with fossilized learners are called “tracking” and “mirroring.”  Let the student videotape a short TV segment and have him choose a particular character to track.  He will then attempt to imitate what that speaker is saying word-for-word, following a few words behind the speaker.  Advise him to copy exactly the intonation pattern, the stress and rhythm, rate and volume of the speaker.  This is as much an exercise in acting as it is in pronunciation.  Encourage exaggeration!

#5 – Mirroring involves practicing in front of a mirror, mimicking the exact facial movements (mouth, eyebrows) as well as the body movements and gestures of a native speaker.  We native speakers move to the stressed syllable – either by moving our eyebrows, jutting our head forward, lifting the hand, etc.  It is like we are electrically wired to do this – but not these fossilized speakers.  They may have been speaking English for many years, yet they might never have made that connection between stress and body movement.

I hope some of these strategies and techniques help you in working with fossilized pronunciation, and I’d love to hear from any readers who have successfully incorporated these techniques into their teaching.


Joyce Mandell has been teaching speech and pronunciation skills to the non-native speaker for over 15 years, working in a variety of educational and business settings.  She is an adjunct at Baruch College in both Continuing and Professional Studies and the Communication Studies Department, where she teaches public speaking.  She also works individually with business professionals.

Feel free to contact her with questions or suggestions at dialogue@nystesol.org.