Is pronunciation pivotal to speaking?

Language is nothing but a mode of communication and this act of communication takes place both in speech and in writing having variations in their respective exposures. Written English and Spoken English have, as such, two distinct and separate features of their own. Written language is an affair of sound. Writing consists of marks on paper without any noise or sound and is visually/optically perceived whereas speaking comprises of organized sounds and is audibly characterized. In other words, speech and writing retain audio and visual signals/attributes respectively. The aim of learning a language should, therefore, be to make one capable of expressing oneself flawlessly both in written and oral expressions. It must not be forgotten that a qualitative piece of written expression may yield naught if it is orally mispronounced or incorrectly sounded or articulated. In the language of Professor Gimson,

" Gross errors of pronunciation seriously distract attention and interfere with the communication process, however adequate the remainder of the utterance may be.' The same theme of communication process is echoed in an illustrious saying of Confucius, the Chinese sage------ 'If language is not correct then what is said is not what is meant. If what is said is not meant, then what ought to be done remains undone.'

The communicative feature of a language, in fact, helps a person formulate his/her thought and encode it for the benefit of others who decode it. This act of encoding and decoding takes place virtually simultaneously. To achieve the effect of communication both the sender and the receiver of the code should be familiar with the signaling system and be on the same frequency otherwise message sent would be missing. All these, beyond any doubt, necessitate the importance of learning a language with its correct and thereby meaningful pronunciation to reach the goal of communication.

Language, in fact, starts with the ear and the secret of all language learning enshrines in imitation. This gift of imitation, at long last, paves the way for the gift of speech --- a set habit in the pronunciation of sounds. Not to speak of learning a foreign language only, even in the case of learning one's own mother tongue this process of imitation plays a key role. A child starts learning their own mother tongue through imitation from their infancy. A child's first language is not necessarily the one which their mother speaks.

No child is born with a special aptitude for a particular language nor do they inherit it. They learn their language from their surroundings and especially from the lips of their mother. Thus the habit of speech grows much early or first before the habit of reading or writing sets in and imitation forms the very basis of this process. This is universally applicable for all language training so far as one's mother tongue is concerned. But the scenario of learning a second language like English is different in the context of Bangladesh. Here the normal order of four skills ----- listening, speaking, reading and writing (LSRW) may vary because of the socio-cultural background. This order, as I can perceive from my experience, stands as reading, writing, listening and speaking (RWLS). To pick up a habit of correct/standard speech (spoken language), one needs to adhere to the following:

Imitation: Since imitation is the soul of adopting a correct speech habit, one should imitate correctly and properly. It is a kind of intuitive mimicry on the part of the students. That is to say, the individual teacher's pronunciation of a word (which is taught) should be closely imitated by the students through listen-and-repeat method. It is, therefore, essential that an opportunity of hearing a language correctly be made available to the learners. This can be done, at the first stage, by a teacher who is capable of making correct sounds. If possible, this teacher should be from those whose mother tongue is English i.e. he/she should be a native speaker of the language. In the context of Bangladesh, though it may be difficult to find one but definitely not impossible. However, in the absence of such a native speaker, efforts should be made to find out a local/non-native speaker who has at least a fair amount of knowledge of the sound system of English. No audio-lingual approach can, however, achieve complete success in the absence of qualified, trained teachers. Machines cannot replace teachers, however effective they may be. A teacher is a teacher and they are a model before their pupils and can shape their students in the desired way. The approach is and ought to be teacher-oriented; that is to say, the aids require planned utilization by specially trained teachers. Not only does the state of poorly qualified teacher cause wastage of students' time but also of public resources.

Careful listening: Listening being one of the four basic skills of language learning, a habit of listening carefully and not mere hearing the sounds should be instilled into the learners before they pick up a language. Unless one can hear the sounds accurately and tell them apart, one cannot hope to reproduce them in the correct pattern. This habit demands proper training of the ear for hearing the new sounds correctly. In modern times this may be achieved through the audio-visual aids. However, a regular habit of listening to British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) or Voice of America (VOA) programes, television programes, taped materials, and watching films will help improve one's skill and efficiency in speech. However, modern technology has advanced a lot. English pronunciation books from standard sources like Oxford and Cambridge University press are now equipped with visual features that help a learner pick up standard pronunciations.  (to be continued)

The writer is a vice principal and O levels  English language teacher at  London Grace International School

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