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English as a Foreign Language (EFL)
English as a Second Language (ESL)
Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL)

"Writing, in a way, is listening to the others' language and reading with the others' eyes."
Trinh T. Minh-Ha, Woman, Native,
Other: Writing Postcoloniality and Feminism.

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 Writing.

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 TOEFL.

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 success.

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 grave.

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 written English.

Student Writing

Partial Analysis

She said that the boy’s father is an alchol attict but the story she told make me warm and bright. My country also has freedom of assemble. But in 2008 spring when we were opposed to import the U.S. beef, we lost our right. After that, our government is scare about every assemble whether it is peaful or not. Our country went back 30 years when we don’t have that right

The writer misspells _attict_ because she hears the voiced alveolar plosive _d_ as the unvoiced alveolar plosive _t_ in her native Korean. She possibly uses the wrong word form in writing the verb _assemble_ rather than the noun _assembly_ or does not choose the letter _y_ but the letter _e_ because _e_ represents the sound pronounced as a  close front vowel or as a level tone in Korean. She can apply the two-vowel rule to learn correct spelling.

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.

Yesterday, I had time to look at all the essays that I have written in your writing class. They were not little. I wrote quite a lot of essays including free writes, first drafts, and final drafts. I feel very satisfied with those and I feel a deep thanks for you. On my papers, there were many advices and comments you gave me. I can read your passion in teaching and your love for students. I appreciate them so much.

I was not sure whether I could survive in your class. Actually, it was not really easy to take your writing class. Sometimes I was very stressed and regretted taking that class. However, now, I realize that all assignments and essays were not such a huge burden that I couldn’t deal with, and they were very helpful not only to improve my English skills but to broaden my thoughts. Thank you sooooo much for everything.

Persuasive Pen
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