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Language Teaching 53(3) 1998

Language Teaching 53(3) 1998


A Small "Content Course" in English Phonology1)**


Everette Busbee

(Jeonju University)



Busbee, Everette (1998). A small "content course" in English phonology, 53(???).

A trend in EFL teaching is toward "content courses," which provide a classroom with the comprehensible input necessary for language acquisition, and which overcome the artificiality of communication in the typical communicative classroom by teaching subject matter in English. Another trend in EFL teaching is to view listening and pronunciation as so interrelated that the improvement of one is accompanied by improvement in the other. Accordingly, poor listening skills and poor pronunciation among Korean university EFL students suggest a double need for more opportunities to hear English that can be comprehended, as well as a need for instruction in the theory of how English is actually spoken. Because adult EFL students can put their intellect to work to learn English faster than children, an appropriate subject for university EFL students is English phonology emphasizing suprasegmentals, which are receiving increased attention as elements of communication. With this in mind, a series of fifteen 5- to 15-minute lectures was developed for weekly presentation during a semester-long conversation course for high beginners or above.




   A recent trend in EFL teaching is the "content course," in which subject matter is taught in a target language. Such courses, according to Snow (1991), are in keeping with the tradition of English for Special (or Specific) Purposes (ESP) courses. Long and Richards (1987, p. 74) conclude that ESP courses have an "obvious relevance in satisfying student needs" which "should also make them more motivating than general English courses." However, although ESP has been popular, like most new ideas in the field of language learning, it has not produced the hoped-for results. Lynch and Hudson (1991, p. 218) simply say that the "1980s have not proven to be a period of innovation and growth for ESP," and then quote Master (1985): "The honeymoon is over and self analysis has set in."

   Perhaps the reason for the lower-than-expected effectiveness of ESP courses is that they are first and foremost EFL courses. Instead of "This is a desk," we have "This is a Pentium II 400 MHz chip." That is, ESP classes suffer from the same major flaw as EFL classes: try as teachers may to keep things "communicative," an aura of artificiality hangs over the classroom. For sustained communication, one person must have a prolonged, genuine need to get information from another.

   Because a "need to know" exists in the academic classroom, the emulation of the academic classroom by English teachers offers possibilities for sustained communication. Content courses are so dedicated to the subject matter that it is the only thing tested for, with the result that verbal exchanges between teacher and students involve communication with a need to know, and often involve negotiation of meaning. If students in a content course are at the appropriate level for the English presented in class, and if the teacher is adept at making the English comprehensible, the communicative environment of a content course provides large quantities of comprehensible input (CI).

   Still, it may be argued that merely teaching a content course in English does not qualify as English teaching. In response to such a contention, Krashen (1984, p. 62) goes so far as to conclude that "comprehensible subject-matter teaching is language teaching" [his emphasis]. A major by-product of content courses taught in English would therefore be improved English. In spite of this, we often hear that a teacher should not waste class time by talking, that the students should talk instead. However, aside from the question of the possible negative effect of beginning students hearing nothing but English spoken by other beginners, the major reason NSs are flown halfway round the world to Korea is so Korean students can hear NS English.

   Insisting that most class time be spent on student speech production is decidedly old fashioned. Well over a decade ago as strong a CLT advocate as Littlewood (1984) concluded "the evidence suggests that the internal processing of mechanisms operate equally effectively (perhaps more effectively) when the learner is not producing language himself.... We need to accord a more substantial role to receptive activities than has often been the case." Littlewood continues that "so far as our teaching methodology is concerned, this is a welcome conclusion, because listening and reading activities offer a number of practical advantages in the classroom,... however large the classroom."

   Still, as Sheen (1994) suggests, we should be wary of Krashen's (1984) sweeping conclusions. In a general review of the position that CI alone will suffice for language acquisition, a position held by Krashen (1992) and Long and Crookes (1992), Sheen concludes that as far as he was aware, no research demonstrated that CI alone will bring about substantial levels of acquisition. However, he also stated that "Obviously, CI is an essential element of the acquisition process" (p. 135). This recognition of the value of CI by such a strong critic of Krashen (1984) and Long and Crookes (1992) would suggest that a prudent EFL program, even one with limited time and NS resources, would include considerable amounts of CI.




   Supporters of Krashen's (1984) view of CI assume that if the input is comprehensible, acquisition will occur. Strictly speaking, however, this is not true. The actual requirement is that the input be comprehended. Although this does not seem to be stated explicitly anywhere in the literature, Sheen (1994) implies it when he says that "perhaps the most crucial variable controlling the success or failure in language learning [is] the individual effort of all students to apply themselves to the difficult task of learning another language.... A great deal of hard work [is required] in order to achieve success" (p. 145). Sheen notes that there is little mention of this subject in the literature. Evidently a realist, Sheen comments wryly on today's emphasis on "student needs," stating that in EFL teaching in Europe, which is quite successful, one of the needs of EFL students is to pass exams.

   While we can never assure comprehension, we can increase the likelihood of comprehension. Interesting subject matter helps, of course, but the fact is, for sustained attention among language students, some form of gentle pressure on students may be required, as seen in Ohio University's foreign language program. There, language students must spend, at their convenience, a certain number of hours independently repeating tapes in lab, where they are monitored by an assistant who periodically cycles through all stations at the control panel and reports to their professors those students who, rather than playing and repeating tapes, are doing something such as reading a magazine.

   A major method of maintaining student attention throughout the world of education is the test. Tests can consist of things other than formal questions, answers, and a grade. Asher's (1977) Total Physical Response (TPR) may be effective not because of a hypothetical neurological connection between body movement and language retention, but because TPR is a constant oral exam in which students demonstrate their listening skills, not by written or spoken answers, but by physical responses that are as clear-cut as the answers on a multiple choice test. This forces a student to attend carefully to what a teacher is saying. For whatever reasons, be it genuine interest or a desire for feelings of success, teacher approval, or peer acceptance, students expend effort on TPR. TPR is analogous to the following situation: a content course lecturer stops every two minutes and asks a multiple choice question. Students then punch the answer into their desktop computers, based on the information they have just received from the lecture, and a wrong answer turns on a flashing red light.

   Given the extreme demands a content places on student attention, especially for lower level classes, it is unlikely that a content course will be successful without having a rigorous testing program, and a test should be given early to establish the necessity of paying attention.




   Adams (1995) has written about the successful teaching of English Literature classes in English to English majors here in Korea. Content courses, to be available for other than English or English education majors, must expand into other academic fields, but the fields appropriate for high-beginner/intermediate students are limited. Such disciplines as history and anthropology, if taught in any meaningful way, would overwhelm students. More appropriate would be a course in a less technical field, such as the history of rock music.

   A content course in computers might be better still, in that input will usually be broken up into digestible chunks, and the teacher can check classroom monitors for student understanding. For three years I have taught a college-level 3-credit introductory computer course in English Microsoft Windows. The class is a general elective that draws students from across the entire student population, which generally ensures that students have at least basic English skills. The demands on students are high, for the class involves the use of graphics and layout programs as well as Web browsers and word processing, and we also work with macros and Object Linking and Embedding. Still, the students are generally capable of handling the material.

   Many universities in Korea, it would seem, could offer a similar content course taught by a NS. However, it is often more difficult than might appear. Snow (1991, p. 326) concludes that becoming "familiar enough with the content material to put it to meaningful use... is one of the most difficult, yet indispensible, requirements of content-based teaching." That is, the first requirement of a content course is a teacher who knows the material well enough to teach it. Many NSs lack skills in computers, and those who do have skills are often limited to basic word processing, e-mailing, and Web browsing. A 3-credit computer content course centered on word processing would be in danger of being boring, and working with e-mailing and surfing the Web are too simple to keep a teacher speaking three hours a week for a semester.

   Even if a NS with broad computer skills can be found, the high turnover among NSs would hinder the development of a coherent course. The first time or two a teacher teaches any course demands considerable time and energy, but a computer course is especially demanding. There is no textbook for such a course and no tradition for teaching it, and programs and operating systems often change, so the course must be made out of "whole cloth" and continually updated.



   Perhaps something closer to home than computers, such as improving both listening and pronunciation by looking at the way English is actually spoken, would provide a better subject for content teaching. The Education Testing Service recently released figures on TOEFL scores, and South Korea was at the bottom among 25 Asian countries in listening comprehension, tied with Japan, North Korea, Macau, and Burma (Korea Times, May 30, 1997). However, South Koreans have considerable reading comprehension and grammar skills, because the nation's rank in TOEFL scores jumps to 11th place after reading and grammar scores are averaged with listening scores.

   This situation has long called for listening instruction, and in 1993, I was asked to develop and teach annually a two-credit course in listening comprehension for English education sophomores at Jeonju University. At the same time I also developed and began teaching a two-credit course in pronunciation for the same students. That these two courses should be related was suggested by a fairly common situation among EFL instructors, dual expertise in listening and pronunciation, as seen in Morley (1991a, 1991b) and Gilbert (1987, 1993). Gilbert (1993) makes the connection explicit by stating that the way English is heard is closely related to how it is spoken, and Murphy (1991) contends that raising student consciousness of how English is actually pronounced can promote both pronunciation and listening.

   In her pronunciation text Clear Speech, Gilbert (1993) includes, albeit on a basic level, a description of several English phonological patterns, that is, the "rules" of pronunciation. As Dekeyser (1994) coyly puts it, "The teaching of rules has been a controversial issue." However, it is undeniable that students often reap a substantial benefit from "knowing the rules." Overseas universities require a certain level on the TOEFL test simply because students achieving that level can function in an English-language environment, and it is a truism that the best essays in an advanced composition class come from students with the highest TOEIC scores. In a similar vein, learning the rules of English pronunciation could also reasonably be expected to benefit students.

   This would be especially valuable at Korean universities, where improved student pronunciation must often begin with breaking habits derived from years of English study in an environment where input is largely written. This is because for breaking any bad habit, conscious awareness of the new goal is helpful. As I will show later, poor pronunciation patterns among Korean university students exist side-by-side with incorrect concepts as to how English is spoken. That is, student predictions of how a given piece of English is pronounced are often wrong, though usually quite consistent among students.




   In response to this need of students for instruction in English phonology, I developed a series of fifteen 5- to 15-minute "minilectures," one per week for a semester, on the theory of English pronunciation. These lectures are particularly appropriate for university students, whose intellectual skills can lead to more rapid language learning than shown by children, but they would also be good for high school students. The lectures cover the connection between pronunciation and listening, the schwa, the reduction of function words, focus, syllables, syllable-final consonants, consonant reductions, Korean-English equivalents, linking, difficulties arising from spelling, and using Korean letters in writing English. Although they were developed for a pronunciation class and used in conjunction with a pronunciation text and tapes, the lectures are appropriate for any conversation class for high beginners or above.

   Other English teachers in Korea have also felt the need for formal instruction in pronunciation. In a paper calling for such instruction in EFL programs, Lee (1997) found that in 30 consecutive 70-minute conversation classes, the explanation (in Korean) of articulation accompanied by repeating from NS tapes for five to ten minutes a class was "effective enough to contribute considerably to improvement in pronunciation." Lee looked at the issue from the production side, citing Brown's (1994) call for "clear, comprehensible" rather than "accent-free" English, not a realistic goal anyway.

   Han (1996) looked at the teaching of pronunciation from both the production and reception side, and concluded that the teaching of pronunciation and of listening through pronunciation-oriented listening tasks improved both pronunciation and listening. Han found that students were weak in recognizing contractions/reductions in English, which "strongly reflects the fact that Korean students have received segment-oriented pronunciation teaching" (p. 44). She also found that students with higher proficiency in listening tended to have better pronunciation, which agrees with Gilbert (1993). Because Han's subjects were students in a phonetics class, she also taught them phonological rules, and concluded that "EFL teachers should explicitly raise EFL students' awareness of how English sounds are actually spoken and how suprasegmentals are used to communicate meaning" (p. 54).

   Another researcher, No (1997), working with the effect of students adding the vowel as a "finishing vowel" for syllable-final English consonants that cannot be syllable-final in Korean, also concluded that a suprasegmental, in this case syllable structure, was more important for pronunciation rating than the accurate production of segments.

   While for Lee (1997) and Han (1996) the medium of instruction as to how English is spoken was Korean (ideal for rapid learning), the lecture series in this study is in English, either by a NS or near-NS. For Korean EFL instructors, who have usually studied phonology, this would at most entail learning to put theory into practice with examples, but most NSs in Korea have no training in phonetics. Han (1996) has called for EFL teachers who have a solid background in both methodology and the sound system of English, so it would be advisable for NSs planning to use the lectures to spend time with a general pronunciation book, such as Prator and Robinett (1985) or Kreidler (1989).




   A solution to the demands that a full content course places on a teacher (which are mentioned above), as well as on a university bureaucracy in the form of a lengthy authorization process, could be to devote a portion of a conversation course to content, and this is what the lectures were envisioned for, although they were developed in a pronunciation course. While teaching content is more demanding of a teacher than such things as orchestrating communicative activities, with the use of these lectures, either as is or moderately modified, the teacher will expend little energy in course development.

   Fotos (1994) has referred to "teachers who have become committed to the use of communicative approaches to language learning, wherein learners are given a rich variety of comprehensible input." For these conversation teachers, the lectures would be of value, and could be incorporated into any conversation class for high-beginners and above. The lectures would tie in with the rest of the course, because students are expected to put their knowledge to use. Five or ten times a class, outside of the time dedicated to the lectures, the teacher can quickly point out a word, phrase, or sentence in the conversation text and ask a student to predict its pronunciation.




   To determine the general level of Korean high school student understanding of the theory of English pronunciation, I gave a written test to 22 first-semester college freshmen English education majors at Jeonju University. They were asked several warm-up questions about their study of English during middle and high school, and were then asked the questions below, which were accompanied by a Korean translation. The first four were fill-in-the-blank, and the last four were multiple choice. Responses are given as percentages.


1. In school you used to write English with hangul, as in He can go, . Using hangul the same way, write the following:

a. son of a king     

( 36.4%, 27.3%, 18.2%, or 9.1%) plus 오브






  b. They have a dog.

데이 해브 (도그 36.4%, 59.1%)


데이 해버


c. work

워크 72.7%;  워어크 9.1%;  워르크 9.1%;  얼크 4.5%;  4.5%

d. walk

워크 81.8%;     얼크 9.1%;     4.5%;     워어크 4.5%


2. The English letter h is usually pronounced similarly to (h = ).

  a. How is the English letter a in a stressed syllable usually pronounced? (a = ?)

95.5%;  4.5%

  b. How is the English letter o in a stressed syllable usually pronounced? (o = ?)

95.5%;  4.5%


3. Remember, in has one syllable, after has two, Korean has three, and university has five. How many syllables do the following words have?

  a. sports

1 syllable 31.8%;   2 syllables 9.1%;   3 syllables 59.1%

  b. butter

2 syllables 100%

  c. have

1 syllable 13.6%;   2 syllables 86.4%

4. Using phonetic symbols, write the following words:

  a. truck

/trʌk/ 63.6%;   /trək/ 13.6%;   other incorrect 22.7%


  b. sheep

/ʃip/ or /ʃi:p/ 86.4%;   incorrect 13.6%

  c. supply

/sə plai/ 9.1%;   /sʌ plai/ 68.2%;   other incorrect 22.7%

  d. machine

/mə ʃin or ʃi:n/ 40.9%;   /mʌ ʃin/ 13.6%

/mə or mʌ ʧin/ 13.6%;   other incorrect 31.8%


5. Which Korean vowel equals /a/?

95.4%;   4.5%;   0%;   0%;   0%;   0%


6. Which Korean vowel equals /ə/?

0%;  95.4%;  0%;  0%;  4.5%;  0% 


7. How are the following written phonetically?

  a. thus:

/ðʌs/ 100%;  /ɵʌs/ 0%;  /ɸʌs/   0%

  b: check

/ʃɛk/ 0%;  /ʧɛk/ 100%;  /ʣæk/ 0%


8. What is the biggest difference between the English /ə/ and most other English vowels?

It isn't very different.  22.7%

It is produced less clearly.  31.8%

It is produced more clearly.  9.1%

It is produced further back in the throat.  36.4%



  These results are largely what any long-term English teacher in Korea would have predicted. The sample size is not large, but the 22 subjects graduated from 18 different high schools in nine different cities, which suggests a general validity for Korea. In addition, the patterns of answers were clear cut. I have drawn the following conclusions: First, based on questions 1-3, entering college freshmen have a well-defined view of both English pronunciation and how English and Korean pronunciation relate, the view has considerable consistency from student to student, and the view contains flaws. Second, based on questions 4-7, entering college freshmen have a reasonable acquaintance with phonetics and the IPA, although there are problems, as in distinguishing between /ʌ/ and /ə/. Third, based on question 8, entering freshmen have little concept of the English schwa, the "unclear vowel."

   [It is not within the scope of this paper to test the effectiveness of the lectures on teaching the theory of English pronunciation. I have always presented the lectures in a pronunciation course in which students also work extensively with the pronunciation text Clear Speech (Gilbert, 1993), which includes simplified rules of phonology, so learning by those students would not be due to just the lectures. However, intuitively the material in the lectures is easy to grasp, and further, students perform well enough on the written portion of the course's final exam to make typical grades, and the questions, all on the theory of English pronunciation, are short answer rather than multiple choice.]




   Because most NSs teaching a conversation class normally spend at least a small portion of each class talking about English or other subjects, it might be said that a formal lecture series is unnecessary. However, it is the formality of a lecture that makes it effective. While some students may listen carefully and be able to benefit from such things as a teacher's description of a movie or a lengthy explanation of a particular idiom, much of this sort of input is often not comprehended by students. It may be that the teacher lacks the skills to make the input comprehensible, or that the input is too disorganized to be coherent, or even that students are not really aware that they are supposed to be comprehending. As Park (1995) notes, tests that are used for college screening put "disproportionate emphasis on the testee's ability to analyze, and translate word-for-word, a small amount of written English" (p. 254). That is, students have studied English for many years in a system where the content is discarded after "solving the problem." Such analysis and translation is far from sustained communication. It is therefore often a shock to students to learn that the goal is to grasp the meaning of what is said in class, retain it, and later put it to use in predicting the pronunciation of a given sentence.

   A formal lecture, in addition to being more organized and placing better-defined demands on students than teacher talk, also offers itself more readily to reviewing, which will give further CI as well as increase retention. One effect of the lecture/exam system that can easily be overlooked is that it provides powerful motivation for a NS to work to be comprehended. (This is not necessarily be in effect for a content course taught by a professor fluent in Korean, because when communication becomes difficult, the temptation is great to switch to Korean, and this may become a habit.) At any rate, the English in a content course for adults normally has to be modified according to the level of the students.




   Content courses, according to Snow (1991), can be "immersion" (conducted completely in unmodified English) or "sheltered" (conducted in English adjusted for the English skills of students). Snow adds that immersion courses tend to be for elementary students, while the English used in adult courses usually involves "'packaging' instruction in ways appropriate to the language learner's developing language system" (p. 322). Enright (1991) suggests ways in which English for content courses is modified into a more accessible "teacher talk," such as speaking slowly, pausing, repeating often, and rephrasing. To this I will add using gestures and putting quick sketches on the board.

   It is also useful, just as it is in an academic course taught in the students' L1, to spend extra time with terminology by writing it on the board and defining it, though this should be kept to a minimum. The frequent questioning of individual students is also valuable, not just to maintain attention, and not just as a means of obtaining feedback to see if the students understand, although this is of course valuable: asking questions presents the material another way, and eliciting the correct answer is a form of review for the other students.

   Whatever the teacher has to do to make the spoken English comprehensible must be done, for this is at the heart of a successful content course. Still, despite teacher efforts to speak slowly, pause, etc., as suggested above, communication the first two or three weeks is hard to come by. However, both the rate of learning and the speed of the English soon increase, for the spoken English of the lecturer should evolve along with student comprehension skills. In fact, in the fourth and fifth weeks of class the first three lessons can quickly be reviewed in their entirety. The difficulty of the questions the teacher asks can also be increased, "raising the ante," as Enright (1991, p. 390) calls it.

   Although the use of handouts to reduce instruction time and improve retention is tempting, I use no handouts. Student mastery of the subject matter is a major goal of the class, but so is providing comprehended oral input, and given student strengths in reading, their attention naturally shifts from oral input to the written input of any handout they receive, and their efforts to comprehend the oral input drop sharply. The use of handouts is further detrimental in that students are more likely to appreciate the theory of English pronunciation as a valuable practical tool, rather than dry theory, if their first encounter with the theory is interwoven with oral examples that they attend to.


XI. Discussion and Conclusions


   I have presented the case for the widespread teaching of content within the framework of a traditional conversation class, in that it would provide comprehensible input, which is required for language acquisition (Krashen, 1984; Sheen, 1994). Such teaching of content, which Adams (1995) has carried out in Korea, seems to be rare among NSs in this country. I have also provided a one-semester series of 15 lectures that may be useful to conversation teachers by making their classroom environments more communicative by helping them to provide students with a rich supply of comprehensible input. Even if a teacher does not wish to teach on the subject of phonology, the lecture series may point to other possibilities. However, I do present in this paper the case for teaching the theory of English pronunciation, at least to university students, as a way to improve both listening and pronunciation (Murphy, 1991; Gilbert, 1993; Han, 1996). Finally, I have provided both general and specific information on how to teach a content course in Korea.

   The 15 lectures on the theory of English pronunciation presented in the appendix are based on the following assumptions:


1. Processing large quantities of CI, although not in itself enough to lead to acquisition, is central to the process of acquisition, or as Sheen (1994) puts it, CI is essential, but not sufficient in itself, to bring about acquisition.

2. Teaching content in the target language is an excellent way of providing CI, or as Krashen (1984) maintains, "comprehensible subject-matter teaching is language teaching."

3. While it would be valuable to offer Korean college students a variety of content courses taught in English, such as basic computers, design for non-art majors, the history of jazz, or international cooking, there are many problems involved in authorizing and developing such courses, as well as in keeping them staffed with qualified teachers.

4. A way to circumvent the difficulty of offering content courses is to include the teaching of content in conversation courses. This would be an excellent use of NS resources, especially with English classes usually so large. Littlewood (1984), strongly questioning whether speaking is as central to the basic learning of a language as is usually assumed, concluded that "we need to accord a more substantial role to... listening and reading activities, [which] offer a number of practical advantages in the classroom... however large the class may be." In addition, the frequent change of class activities keeps student interest high, and a short lecture is one more activity.

5. Given the overwhelming consensus among ESL theoreticians that CI is necessary for language acquisition, the task has gone beyond experimentation on the effectiveness of content teaching as a means of language teaching. What is now needed in the field of EFL content teaching is for teachers to begin including the teaching of content in their repertoire. This would be facilitated by developing content course lesson plans that can be put to broad-based use across a variety of situations. To be widely useful, the plans must meet the following criteria: 1) They must be detailed enough to provide a basis for teaching a course, alleviating the often overwhelming demands required of a teacher for course development from scratch. 2) They must be short, from 5 to 15 minutes long. 3) They must deal with readily comprehensible material, yet the material must be complex enough to require a reasonable amount of speaking to cover.

6. Such lesson plans will have no value unless teachers using them master the skills of delivering oral input that is both comprehensible and comprehended. The speaking style of a teacher must differ significantly from the "teacher talk" normally seen in EFL classes in Korea. To increase the likelihood that the oral input is comprehensible, the teacher should speak slowly, pause, repeat often, and rephrase, use gestures and put quick sketches on the board. It is also helpful to review frequently and to write terminology on the board and define it. To increase the likelihood that the oral input is comprehended, the teacher should ask individual students questions during the lecture and should maintain an active testing program.

7. Although any subject that is presented so as to be comprehensible would suffice, a good choice for subject matter in a conversation class would be anything directly relating to learning English. A good candidate would be the theory of English pronunciation. Murphy (1991) suggests that formal instruction in phonetics improves both pronunciation and listening, an idea supported by the work of Han (1996). This would is especially valuable for Korea, where listening comprehension is a major weakness (Korea Times, May 30, 1997).




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Snow, M. A. (1991). Teaching language through content. In M. Celce-Murcia (Ed.), Teaching English as a second or foreign language (pp. 315-328). Boston: Heinle and Heinle.




Lecture 1  A Good Way to Improve Your Ear


A good way to improve your listening skills is to practice pronunciation of "real" English. As your tongue improves, so does your ear. For six or seven years you have often heard English with every letter clearly pronounced. You can understand other students, but understanding Americans or the British or Australians is difficult. Why? In your memory, like in a computer's memory, you have information about how you think English is pronounced, but much of this information is incorrect. You expect to hear I got up at eight, /ai gɔt ʌp æt eit/, but a native speaker says /ai ga dʌ pə deit/. So you can't comprehend it. You must replace the incorrect expectations in your memory. To help you do this, we will work on the theory of English pronunciation about ten minutes each week for most of the semester.


Lecture 2 The Schwa (I)


   To a native speaker of English, the schwa, or ə, is a wonderful sound, because it uses few muscles and needs just a little energy to say. It is as if the schwa is in a comfortable valley, and other vowels are on the rough mountain. The vowels on the mountain often roll down into the valley and become a schwa. The first vowels of marine, meridian, miraculous, morality, and surround are all schwas. There is a big difference between a true schwa, /ə/, and /ʌ/. We can see the difference in supply and supper. The u of supply, unstressed, is a true schwa, a much weaker vowel than the stressed u of supper. The schwa has been called the "unclear vowel."

   A rule of English pronunciation is that most unstressed vowels are a schwa, whatever the written letter. Because there are more unstressed syllables than stressed in English, the schwa is the most common English vowel. Therefore, learning about the schwa improves your pronunciation and rhythm without requiring a lot of work.

   We can say the schwa more quickly than stressed vowels. Many common little words have a schwa, as do most unstressed syllables in longer words. Changing between "quick" unstressed syllables and "slow" stressed syllables gives English much of its rhythm. If your English is slow, maybe you don't use the schwa.


Lecture 3  The Schwa (II)


   The schwa is the most common English vowel. These sentences, except for the first, all have an a, e, i, o, and u (in bold type) that is a schwa.

Madonna and Maria sat in their pajamas and had bananas and Coca Cola.

Evidence shows the elephant ate the octopus.

Korean celebrities form a successful category.

The principal opposes difficult problems.

Crocodiles and alligators suppress ambivalence.


Lecture 4  Common Little Words, Pronounced Carelessly? (I)


   The more common an English word is, the less energy native speakers use saying it. Consonants disappear. Will becomes ll and her becomes er. Vowels weaken, and can becomes /kɘn/. The preposition of is hidden between syllables, and cup of olives becomes /kʌ pə va lIvz/. These reductions cause problems, because the most reduced pronunciations are for the most common words. (Students should realize that the pronunciation only seems to be careless. The pronunciation is of course perfect for NSs, and is scientifically predictable.)

   What are some of these words? To begin with, what is the most common word in the English language? That's right, the. Here are the top 10: the, of, and, to, a, in, that, it, is, and I. About 25% of all English words, both spoken and written, are these words. They are almost always unstressed, so the vowel is reduced to a schwa. But Korean students usually pronounce these words with stress and with the vowel pronounced as it is written.

   The reduction of unstressed syllables allows them to be "squeezed" between the content words. The sentence Joe called home and Joe will have called her at home take about the same length of time to say.


Lecture 5 Common Little Words, Pronounced Carelessly? (II)


   The careful Korean mispronunciation of the short common words doesn't hinder talking to native speakers. However, a problem arises when Koreans expect native speakers to pronounce the common little words the same way as Koreans. Unfortunately, that is what Korean students normally expect, so 25% of each sentence is very difficult to "hear." In addition to the ten most common words we have learned, there are other common words that native speakers usually reduce. They sound very different from the way they are spelled.

or   from    what    am     us     her    you    are

as   he     do      has     at     his    does   was

an   him    did     them    had    will    than   can

   The common little words are arrows, road signs, and reminders of what and who we are talking about, and how they all relate. The word a normally tells us we are being introduced to a noun, and the tells us we were introduced to it before. The word of may point to a possessor, and is is an arrow that points in two directions to show a kind of equality. The word to is an arrow that points in the direction of action to a place or a person. The word it points back to some noun, and the words I, me, and my point to the speaker or writer. The word will points to the future.

   The common little words allow English to make sense. In addition, many short content words communicate powerfully. In one of Lincoln's famous speeches, over 2/3 of the words are one syllable. Only 10% are over two syllables.???


Lecture 6  Telegraph Language and Common Function Words


   We can divide English words into two groups, those containing a lot of information, and those having just a little information. Words with a lot of information are called content words, and words with only a little information are called function words. They usually have one syllable and a reduced vowel. Many have a reduced consonant. The reduction of the common function words makes sense, because they carry little information, and are often predictable.

   Years ago, people needing to send a message quickly sent a telegram. Telegrams were expensive. Telegrams were paid for by the word, so eliminating unnecessary words saved money. A telegram could read:

I have spent all my money on wine and women. I am sleeping at a pig farm, and I am asking for your forgiveness. Is it OK for me to come home?

Or the telegram could be written in telegraph style:

Spent all money. Wine, women. Sleeping pig farm. Asking forgiveness. OK come home?

   The saving is over 50%. All the words we deleted are function words. Only the content words remain. These are the words that receive stress. We could send another telegram, using only the function words, the unstressed words.

I have my on and. I am at a, and I am for your. Is it for me to?

   This makes no sense. Notice that if we have the content words, we can guess many of the missing function words. If we can guess them, they have little information. The function word version is useless. It could mean just about anything, such as:

I have studied all my books on kindness and generosity. I am praying at a church, and I am asking for your happiness. Is it OK for me to send money?


Lecture 7  Focus


   In English, important words are usually marked by extra stress. This helps focus the listener's attention on the important words. Although stress differences are difficult for Korean students, researchers have found that focus is important for communication in English. As we study, we will occasionally look at focus. Remember, focus is logical: stressed words are often the ones that concern new information, as in the dialog below.

   Chulsu: You have a message.

   Insuk: Is it important?

   Chulsu: Yes, it's from your boyfriend.

   Insuk: What did he say.

   Chulsu: He said you should meet him.

   Insuk: Did he say where I should meet him?

   Chulsu: Yes, at the park.


Lecture 8  The Difference between English and Korean Syllables


   What is the shape of a syllable? This isn't a strange question. In Korean, the shape of a syllable is roughly a square. , , , and all fit nicely into a little square box. Korean children even learn to write in boxes. English is different. Both I and strengths are one syllable. Korean syllables can be "square" because there are only four possible patterns for Korean syllables: a single vowel (v), or a single consonant followed by a vowel (cv), or a vowel followed by a single consonant (vc), or a single consonant followed by a vowel followed by a single consonant (cvc). Notice that straps is cccvcc, and blasts is ccvccc. Syllables always contain only one pronounced vowel, so you can see straps has only one syllable.

   The standard Korean way to pronounce English consonant strings is to break them up with the Korean vowel . Straw /strɔ/ has only one vowel, but Koreans add two vowels, which to a native speaker may sound like /sə tə rɔ/. When writing, Koreans never break a syllable at the end of a line. 버섯국 is divided as 버섯- or -섯국, never as 버서-ㅅ국 . Native speakers of English also "feel" syllables strongly. They divide restrict as re-strict, not res-trict.

Lecture 9  Some Consonants End Syllables in English but not Korean


   A /t/ sound at the end of a syllable is common in both Korean and English. 버섯, , cat, and lately all have a syllable-final /t/. (Korean has several letters that are pronounced /t/ at the end of a syllable: , , , , and .) However, while many English syllables end with /s/, such as kiss, peace, and pass, a final /s/ is not found in Korean. As a result Koreans write kiss as 키스 and peace as 피스. Consonants that in English can be both syllable initial and final, but only syllable initial in Korean, are /b/, /g/, /ʤ/, /ʧ/, and /s/. The usual Korean way to pronounce these consonants when syllable final is to add another syllable that consists of the final consonant and the Korean vowel . In addition to 키스, we have 캐브 for cab, 도그 for dog, 비치 for beach, 에츠 for etch, and 에즈 for edge.


Lecture 10  Consonant Reductions


   A source of listening comprehension problems is consonant reduction, such as the loss of the initial h in the common function words he, her, him, his, has, and have. Does he love her? rhymes with fuzzy cover. I will read a very short story. I will then reread it and often stop and repeat two or three words. You spell the words I say.

   John went to school. When he got there, his teacher asked him to explain why he was late. He told her he was sorry, that he had to help his little brother do his homework. His teacher said he should promise her immediately that he would never be late again, and he should tell his brother to do his own homework.

   [Here the teacher should pronounce when he like whinny, promise her like promiser, etc.]

   The letter t is often reduced. Americans especially don't like t and try to kill it. They are successful with the first t in international, the second t in twenty, and the t in What do you need? But often they only wound the t, and it becomes a d, as in but he can /bʌ di kæn/.


Lecture 11 Korean and English Letters may not Equate as Expected

   We all know that the Korean letter is roughly the same as the English letter b. And that is about the same as the letter d. However, most new Korean college students believe that the Korean letter and the English letter a are equal, and this is not true. First, we have already learned that the unstressed letter a is usually a schwa. Second, a stressed a not marked as long by a following e (as in made or take) or an accompanying i (as in mail or paid) is usually , as in cat, back, and after. The letter a sounding like the Korean , as in father, is much less common. What is the Korean letter that equals the stressed English letter o? Followed immediately by a written consonant and not followed by a final e, the English o is most often . The English word top is pronounced as if it were written . We also have hot, bottle, rock, and profit.

   Let's look at the purpose of the final e in English. How do you pronounce cut? How about cute? How do you pronounce kit? How about kite? The e is silent, but it has a function. It changes the pronunciation of the vowel in front of it. So we have hat-hate, pet-Pete, kit-kite, not-note, and cut-cute. The rule about the final e is that it makes the vowel preceeding it long. Or we can say it causes the vowel to be pronounced like the name of the vowel, a, e, i, o, or u.

   There are other spellings that can indicate a vowel should be pronounced a special way. We said that the stressed English o is usually /a/, unless it has a final e or is marked as /o/ some other way, so hop is /hap/ and hope is /hop/. For /o/ we also have coat, bowl, and soul. That is, if we want the /o/ sound in English, we usually have to add another letter to o.


Lecture 12  Closely Related Words are Linked


   Linking is one of the most important rules in English pronunciation. After learning how English is linked, a student can "hear" spoken English better. Linking is a simple idea: closely-related words in English sentences are linked together, like the links in a chain. Words that are separate when we write them are often blended together when we say them, so that the dividing lines between words disappear. Linked English is spoken so smoothly that a beginning student cannot hear when one word stops and another starts.

   Syllables that begin with vowels "steal" the final sound of the previous syllable. Olive begins with a vowel, so black olive is pronounced /blæ ka lIv/. Big apple is /bI gæ pəl/. Korean also has this rule. The second syllable of 심은하 begins with a vowel, so it steals from the first syllable. Further, in Korean as in English, /h/ is often dropped, and in the third syllable disappears, so it really begins with a vowel. The pronunciation of 심은하 is 시므나 /ʃi mɨ na/.

   Look at these sentences.

Each year, they killed a beautiful princess, and a dragon came and ate her. (Came and ate her is pronounced similarly to terminator.)

The light fell on the metal at the station. (This is pronounced similarly to delightful ornamental intonation.)

Meet me on the bridge. (Me on is pronounced similarly to the English neon, and to the Korean 미안 of 미안하다, to be sorry. The words me and on are not broken up, but are like one word.)

   An enemy of linking is adding the vowel to the end of certain words. This gives big dog as 비그 도그 /bi gɨ do gɨ/. Unlinked English is spoken very slowly. If you can never repeat a short English sentence as fast as your teacher, maybe your English is unlinked.


Lecture 13  English is not Spoken as Written, but neither is Korean


   English students all over the world often make a big mistake. They believe English is spoken as it is written. Native speakers of English here in Korea also make the same mistake about Korean. As we saw, they may pronounce 심은하 with no linking. They may pronounce 한복 with an aspirated /k/, and 작년 as /ʤak nyɔn/. The English last year is also pronounced quite differently from the way it is written, /læs ʧir/. Written English may at times show spoken English only roughly. The vowel in to is normally the same as the vowel in the unstressed article a, the schwa. In fact, several common words can even be reduced to a lone schwa. This is true for of in lot of beer, to in want to go, and or in black or white.

   Especially in American English, t often sounds like a d. The famous example is butter, but we also have the t in to sounding like a d in I beg you to go. The t in digital also sounds like a d.

   As we have seen, words with more than one syllable can be a problem. We write the first three syllables in photograph and photography the same, but the vowels are pronounced differently. However, the rule of vowel reduction predicts that the vowels in photograph and photography are different.


Lecture 14  Problems Arising from Spelling


   We are told that Korean is a scientific language, and that it is spoken exactly as it is written, but 깻잎 is pronounced as if it were spelled 깬닙. 백육십 is pronounced as if it were written 뱅뉵십. All written languages have such problems. There are three major causes of the problems EFL students, and even American middle school students, have with English spelling. The first is that the schwa, the most common English vowel, doesn't have a letter to represent it. But English can hardly have a letter to represent the schwa, because that would mean that the spelling of photograph /fo tə græf/ and photography /fə ta grə fi/ would be very different.

   The second major cause of spelling problems is that English uses the alphabet of ancient Rome, which doesn't represent some English sounds very well. Korea is lucky to have a wonderful alphabet designed just for Korean sounds. The third major problem involving English spelling is that writing in the English alphabet began long ago, over twice as long ago as writing in the Korean alphabet. Pronunciations in English have had a long time to drift away from spellings.


Lecture 15  Writing English Phonetically with Hangul


   Koreans sometimes write English with Korean characters, which can serve a valuable purpose. Just as many Americans in Korea can read Daejeon but not 대전 on a road sign, Koreans who cannot read or speak English need a way to refer to such things as the names of foreign movies. Thus the movie Philadelphia is Koreanized as 필라델피아, which Koreans understand. However, it fails in oral communication with a non-Korean. 필라델피아 is incomprehensible to native speakers of English because the English ph is /f/, not , and the vowels of the second and last syllables, /ə/, differ dramatically from the strong .

   Although writing English with Korean characters has little value for pronunciation, middle and high school students may use Korean characters to write English they have to memorize. They may begin to believe that English sounds can be accurately captured with Korean sounds. However, Korean has no syllable-final /b/, /g/, /ʤ/, /s/, or /ʧ/, and it has no /f/, /v/, /ɵ/, /ð/ or /z/ at all. Further, /r/ and /l/ are problematic. Equating , a strong vowel, with the weak schwa kills the rhythm of English. Finally, using to break up consonant strings destroys English syllables. English pronunciation is very different from Korean pronunciation, so the Korean alphabet is a poor tool for understanding how English is spoken.

*This study was supported by a Jeonju University grant.