Non-native-English speakers (NNES) studying English as a
foreign or second language often have to pass the TOEFL to
enter U.S. colleges and universities. There are four
separate tests in Speaking, Listening, Reading, and
But there is no test in PRONUNCIATION. Not only that, but
few college and university ESL programs offer it. Without
understanding how this essential skill affects competence
in the four tested skills, students struggle to pass the
Competence in speaking, listening, and writing to a large
degree depends on how listeners encode and decode the
sounds they hear. What they hear is filtered through the
way they construct meaning in their native language. The
building blocks of the spoken word, which are consonants,
vowels, syllables, stress, rhythm, and intonation, vary
widely in languages such as Arabic, Chinese, Farsi,
Japanese, Korean, Brazilian Portuguese, Romanian, Russian,
Spanish, Vietnamese, and West African.
These are the native languages of most of my students.
They need to know how to listen, speak, and write English
to get a job, study for a degree, and advance in a career.
Therefore I incorporate my knowledge of language systems
and especially the influence of pronunciation in teaching
and tutoring the other four skills.
In the story of The Three Billy Goats Gruff, three goats
wanted to cross a bridge to reach the hillside to make
themselves fat, but a powerful and ugly troll under the
bridge threatened to gobble them up if they tried to
cross. Pronunciation is the powerful and ugly troll under
the bridge that threatens the intelligible speaking,
accurate listening, and exact writing necessary for NNES
The Big Billy Goat Gruff took on the troll. Using what he
had, his horns, and the tools at his disposal, some
stones, the Big Billy Goat Gruff crushed the troll to
bits, body and bones, and tossed him down to his watery
With a knowledgeable and patient teacher, learners of
English wrestling with not understanding and not being
understood can acquire tools to defeat the troll of
pronunciation. Specifically, the teacher guides students
through practice and application of individual sounds as
well as rhythm, stress, and intonation.
The following example of student writing has errors in
subject-verb agreement, usage, verb tense, sentence
structure, and spelling. The analysis examines only how
pronunciation can trip up the listener and trap their
For further evidence of the power of
pronunciation, read The
Chaos. Native English
speakers may laugh, but NNESs likely will not.
Every accomplishment begins with a first step. As
Aristotle said, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence,
then, is not an act but a habit.”
The following testimonials are from students in my ESL
classes at Concordia University between 2006 and 2008:
I always wanted to tell you that you are the best writing
teacher I’ve ever had. It’s true your class was tough, but
after I came back here [to Korea], I realized that I
learned much more than I had thought.