I recently had lunch with my friend Sue, who teaches English as a Second Language (ESL) to adults in Boston. She said that she spends a fair amount of time explaining to her students how to pronounce English words.
For example, how to move one's mouth and where to put one's tongue to produce certain sounds.
English is a hard language to pronounce just right. Particular “culprits” for foreigners are often the two “th” sounds (think/those); the “l” and “r” sounds; “v” and “w”; and the combination “wh.” (This infographic demonstrates well the difficulties English learners often encounter.)
As she was talking about how to produce various sounds, she laughed and moved her jaw around, by way of demonstration.
A mouth full of teeth...
When we speak our own language, we don't think about “mouth mechanics.” We don't think about how our jaw is moving, where we place our tongue, and how we position our teeth, etc.
But try to pronounce a foreign word that has a sound which is not part of your own language – and suddenly there you are, aware that you have “a mouth full of teeth.” There's a Dutch expression: “je staat met een mond vol tanden” (you stand with a mouth full of teeth), which aptly describes a sudden feeling of awkwardness about speaking up. I love this expression because it makes me smile.
I think about it when the “mechanics” of my “foreign language mouth” fail. Just one of these all too human moments!
My friend went on to describe how one of her students had difficulty with a particular sound in English. Then she said: “All I did was tell him to put his tongue against his lower teeth.” He tried it, and the word sounded “like spoken by a native.” All the other students applauded.
English and German Speakers
When I was teaching (college) German, I would ostentatiously demonstrate “mouth mechanics” for certain German sounds that are difficult for Americans. For example, the difference between the harsh “ch” and the soft one.
Or the sound of the German “l” which is light and lilting, as opposed to the American one, which has a “heavy” sound. The German “l” is produced in the front of the month, the American one in the back.
On the other hand, Germans find the English “w” is a hard sound to pronounce. It's a sound that does not exist in German. (The German “w” is pronounced like an English “v”.) Remembering to “round” his lips (like blowing) helped my husband improve his English “w”s!
The wisdom of teaching "Mouth Mechanics"
Later, during the time that I was a writer and editor of self-teaching language courses, mentioning “mouth mechanics” was off limits.
But I'm coming back to the wisdom of my teaching days. And so, I've decided to start including a few critical “mouth mechanic” descriptions in our Games for Language courses.
Once you've understood the mechanics of producing a particular sound, the next step is to practice.
Certain French sounds and sound combinations always were hard for me (my first language was German). But here I am, babbling away in French with my friends and relatives, no problem.
What has helped me to get over the pronunciation hurdle is practicing a lot, while remembering some key French “mouth mechanics.”
And if you want to pick up some quick French "mouth mechanics" tips read this post.