1 Segmentals: Overview

Undoubtedly, vowels and consonants (collectively known as segmentals) are at the heart of pronunciation teaching – they are the unavoidable building blocks of oral communication. In an intelligibility-based approach to pronunciation, this truth does not change. Being able to accurately pronounce the sounds of a language largely determines the degree of clarity a person will be able to communicate. However, this does not entail 100% accuracy. In fact, native listeners are quite adept at being able to piece together the meaning of words, phrases, and even sentences which contain a mispronunciation. In other words, the more a speaker’s pronunciation parallels that of the listener’s, the more the listener’s mind is able to process these features automatically, instead of consciously. As a listener devotes more effort towards deciphering the form (in this case, the individual sounds), the less brainpower they have to invest in understanding the speaker’s content, which is what we want to avoid!

The most important thing to remember when teaching or learning segmental features – in fact, with all pronunciation features – is that a great deal of it has to do with habit-building. It is quite easy to produce a segmental sound in isolation when it’s the primary focus; it’s another story to produce it consistently while devoting mental power towards developing content.

Thankfully, problems in mispronunciations are not random or chaotic. In fact, they can be highly predicted depending on the learner’s L1. There are three common, over-arching problems that language learners can run into when learning the sounds (or phones) of a second language:

  1. Learners frequently hear L2 phonemes as allophonic
    • Japanese speakers can have difficulties hearing the difference between /ɹ/ and /l/ and Korean speakers can have difficulties with /f/ and /p/ because these languages categorize the sounds as allophones
  2. L2 learners struggle to identify phonetically different L2 allophones as belonging to the same phoneme
    • Many L2 English learners struggle to identify the General American flap [ɾ] found in words like “water” as an allophone of /t/ because its voicing renders it much more like /d/
  3. Learners’ pronunciation is strongly impact by repeated listening to a word’s phonemic structure


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Oral Communication for Non-Native Speakers of English Copyright © 2020 by Timothy Kochem, Monica Ghosh, Lily Compton, and Elena Cotos is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.