Monday, March 6, 2017

Let's Get Our Motors Running for Pronunciation

Steps to speech production

1. The brain triggers the following steps.
2. The diaphragm muscle helps inflate and deflate lungs.
3. The lungs pump air up to the mouth.
4. The vocal cords vibrate air from the lungs.
5. The nose, mouth, lips, and tongue modify vibrating air to form sounds.
6. The words exit the mouth.

The speech organs

Familiarity with the organs of speech or basic articulatory phonetics is essential. This aids the teacher in explaining how individual sounds are produced. A typical sagittal view includes:

  • Lips
  • Jaw
  • Tongue
  • Oral cavity
  • Palate
  • Nasal cavity
  • Pharynx
  • Epiglottis
  • Larynx
  • Esophagus


In our conference workshop, participants are asked to say one or more tongue twisters to a neighbor.

Tongue twisters

1.  She sells seashells by the seashore.
2.  The rain in Spain stays mainly on the plain.
3.  Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers. A peck of pickled peppers Peter Piper picked. If Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers, where's the peck of pickled peppers Peter Piper picked?
4.  How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood? He would chuck, he would, as much as he could, and chuck as much wood as a woodchuck would if a woodchuck could chuck wood.

Focus on preparation for oral work

Once the brain has told us to speak, pronunciation is a physical act. Speaking a language other than our familiar, primary language requires different movements of the vocal apparatus (cheeks, jaw, lips, tongue, teeth, glottis, lungs). Gaining control and flexibility of one's physical speaking apparatus facilitates changes in accent and voice quality and enhances overall oral production. Let's get our motors running and sharpen our pronunciation skills by doing exercises that enhance Speech Production Steps 2-6.

We begin by standing up in a group facing a calming picture, such as a serene view of mountains reflected in a placid lake. We turn to loosening our bodies, breathing deeply, sending away stress, welcoming relaxation, and centering ourselves.  Then we focus our attention on noticing, using, and stretching and strengthening our speech organs. 

Marsha's Pronunciation Workout

1. Stand with feet shoulder-width apart.
2. Extend arms to side and shake loosely from the shoulders.
3. Bend over from the waist, exhale, hang.  Come up, inhale, stretch arms to ceiling.
4. Loosen chest and abdomen.  Breathe deeply.
5. Roll and loosen shoulders.
6. Rotate head gently in a big circle. Breathe deeply. Loosen and relax body, concentrating on one area at a time. (arms, shoulders, back, chest, neck, back of head, ears, top of head, forehead, temples, eyes, nose, cheeks, jaw, lips, tongue)
7. “Wake up” by yawning a big “aaaah!”  Stretch your mouth: (a) whole mouth,  (b) one side at a time.
8. Stretch mouth from side to side, up, down, forward, back, around and around.  Make funny faces!
9. Loosen cheeks manually.  Massage cheeks, jaw, chin.  Inhale ---> Exhale “Blah, Blah, Blah....” loosely.
10. Loosen lips manually.  Inhale ----> Exhale by vibrating lips against each other.
11. Waggle tongue in and out, hitting teeth. Keep lips relaxed.
12. Vocalize vowel sounds at comfortable pitch, using full breath.  Focus on position of jaw, tongue, lips. (iy > 𝔞, i  > u, 𝔞 > i𝔞 > u, i > 𝔞, 𝔞 > u


In our workshop, participants are asked to repeat the tongue twisters to a neighbor. When asked if they feel any difference, the vast majority inevitably acknowledge that the second time is easier than the first. Speakers feel a greater range and an enhanced degree of flexibility. This allows us to recite the sentences more fluidly.

Please note: I am not advocating the use of tongue twisters per se, especially without prior warm-up exercises, but rather as an instrument for the fluent English speakers in the teachers' workshop to test the efficacy of my pronunciation workout. I recommend that teachers choose phrases and sentences that are in line with the cognitive and linguistic abilities of the students.

Questions from teachers in the audience

Q: How do you get your students to do these exercises? Do they feel uncomfortable or strange or silly?

A: Sure, there's a certain self-consciousness when they do it for the first time. If you have a good rapport with your students, you invite (not force) them to participate, you keep humor alive, you give them a proper introduction, you can get good results. Consider the particular interests or experiences of your students and make analogies with doing scales and chords to warm up to play a piano concerto, or hitting a hundred balls from a pitching machine to prepare for hitting a baseball during a real game. The more often speakers do tongue waggles, for example, the more flexible the tongue becomes. The more flexible the tongue is, the easier it is to move into the necessary positions during articulation of sounds for speaking. Here's a way to introduce pronunciation workout Steps 7-12 to students: Pronunciation is a physical act. Let's do warm-up exercises! This video is followed by many others in Pronunciation Doctor's Pronunciation Workouts playlist. Some are short and limited to working out one set of articulators, while others are longer and start from diaphragmatic breathing.  Feel free to use them with your students!

Q: Will this help wake up my high school students at 7:45 am?

A: You bet it will! It will also help re-energize the adults who come to evening classes after a long day of work and re-focus their attention from the issues of their work day to what you are about to teach them or have them practice.

Q: How does this help teach regional accents?

A: Pronunciation workouts are not language or dialect-specific. I recommend them for any kind of speaking activity--pronunciation exercises, role--plays, reader's theater, oral presentation--in any language. (Demonstrating with different accents, I continue.) Some languages and accents require a tighter set of facial muscles, a more forward-focused tension, while articulation in others is more back-focused or looser, like this. Gaining greater control of the speech organs can help speakers modify their oral production in many ways.

Q: Can we do these exercises in other classes besides pronunciation?

A: Absolutely yes! Do you have students who enter the classroom with worries, anxieties, apprehension, or other baggage that may interfere with what you wish to teach them? (Yes! Nod, nod!) Steps 1-6 of my workout, which focus on breathing, are especially effective to relieve tension, allow individuals to center their thoughts and feelings on the present, in essence, to leave the baggage at the door. It is a kind of mindfulness training that can benefit learners in any class or situation.

Q: What if I don't remember what to do?

A: As with many other types of performance, the more you practice, the more your competence and confidence grow. In the meanwhile, Pronunciation Doctor is available 24/7 on Youtube to guide you and your class or to co-teach with you!

Pronunciation Workout Resources

Video playlist (2013-present): Pronunciation Workout Videos
Blog post (2016):
Paper (2015): Pronunciation workout (Teaching Tip).In J. Levis, R. Mohammed, M. Qian & Z. Zhou (Eds). Proceedings of the 6th Pronunciation in Second LanguageLearning and Teaching Conference (ISSN 2380-9566), Santa Barbara, CA (pp. 267-269). Ames, IA: Iowa State University. 
Article (1994): Pronunciation Warm Up, in K. Bailey & L. Savage, (Eds.), New ways in teaching speaking, (pp. 202-204). Alexandria, VA: Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages, Inc. (TESOL).

Workshop participants 

Participants are engaged in breathing, centering, and relaxing; we pay attention to our diaphragms pumping air through our lungs to our mouth. We exercise our cheeks, jaws, lips, and tongues.

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