Tag Archives: Morphology

Some advice on teaching the pronunciation of past tense endings

Recently this blog has been a bit of a pronunciation geek’s paradise, due to my extended reflections on my pronunciation course. Somehow, this has led me to be seen as a bit of an authority on pronunciation (other far more knowledgeable sources are available) and people sometimes ask me for advice. One such person  was Ratnavathy Ragunathan-Chandrasegaran, whose blog can be found here. I thought I’d share her question and my response with the class. Ratna said:

I’ve got a question about pronunciation. This week, I’m planning to teach the pronunciation of the past simple verbs to my learners (‘t’, ‘d’, ‘id’). Well, when I look at different websites, it says that it depends on the voiced and unvoiced consonants of the base verb. Most websites seem to say that the “voiced consonants” cause a vibration at the vocal chord when pronounced, and the unvoiced consonants doesn’t cause a vibration at the vocal chord. Apparently when we place our fingers on our throat, we’d be able to find out.

But I find that this really doesn’t work for me. When I place my fingers on my vocal chord, I still feel a vibration when I pronounce “b” and “p”.

Is there any other way that I can explain and get my learners to understand easily? Would love some insight from you.

And this was my response:

I’d start out by saying that I don’t think it’s going to be hugely important for your learners to be able to tell the difference between ‘t’ and ‘d’ in this context (past tense) anyway, from either a receptive or productive point of view (though in other contexts it is very important). If they can make some kind of short sound there I don’t think it really matters whether it’s more ‘t’ or ‘d’ ish. What is important is that it isn’t a full on ‘id’. What I mean is that ‘workd’ or ‘workt’ is probably fine, but ‘workid’ isn’t.

The reason I say this is that in the final position in a syllable there really is very little difference between a ‘voiced’ and ‘unvoiced’ consonant. I put the names in inverted commas because when they are at the end of a syllable they are often not voiced anyway, and also not exploded (ie there’s no air released) which is another distinguishing factor. The only significant difference that they make is to the length of the vowel before the final consonant (if you want to check this, try saying bat and bad and notice how much longer bad is).

So, for verbs that end with an unvoiced consonant, it’s almost impossible to get this wrong. If fact, you can’t really say ‘workd’ without mangling the pronunciation horribly. For verbs that end with a voiced one, the key is not actually the final sound, but extending the vowel a little bit, and having it fall slightly towards the end (ask if you want me to explain a bit more).

In terms of teaching this, I would stay well away from the voiced/unvoiced rules, and just see if students can do it with verbs they already know. If they can, set up some columns on the board and have them sort ones they know, and then see if they can do the same for ones that they don’t. Do lots of drilling and practice (like making stories with a list of verbs), but I would stay away from actually teaching them the rule. In general I don’t think teaching rules works for pronunciation. It’s just too much extra cognitive load for an already overworked brain.

Incidentally, in the first position in a syllable, voiced consonants should be distinguishable by voice (vibration of the vocal cords), and also by the fact that more air is expelled in the production of the unvoiced ones.

Would you agree with this? Would even ‘workid be ok’? Are there other ways to distinguish and teach ‘d’ and ‘t’ in final consonant position? On further investigation I think that I touch my tongue against the apex of the alveolar ridge (the one behind your teeth) for ‘d’, and slightly further towards the teeth for ‘t’, but this may just be me. I’m not even sure if it’s significant. Anyway, if you have any other tips, comments or advice, feel free to leave a comment below.