91. Pronunciation in Reading Aloud

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Reader

Reading aloud in English makes numerous linguistic demands on top of the ordinary non-linguistic ones

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TYPES OF SKILL IN READING ALOUD

Reading aloud is a quite common activity in academic and professional life. The ability to do it well, however, rarely comes easily: even reading aloud in your mother tongue calls for a range of special non-linguistic skills, many of the kind also needed for acting. Reading aloud in a new language is obviously much harder again.

The English language presents plenty of difficulties in this respect, possessing a number of areas that typically trip up readers lacking a deep familiarity with it. In this post I wish first to look briefly at non-linguistic skills for reading aloud, and then to consider in detail how the English language itself is likely to give problems to speakers of other languages when they attempt to read it aloud.

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NON-LINGUISTIC (DELIVERY) SKILLS FOR READING ALOUD

The kind of skills that make the difference between good and bad mother-tongue readers are similar to those needed for successful acting. The following seem to be among the most important.

(i) Rehearsing the reading beforehand, so that even the difficult parts become smooth.

(ii) Maximising eye-contact with the audience. Keeping a finger under the words as you read them allows you to look up regularly without losing your place in the text.

(iii) Concentrating on the message of what you are reading, and not the language.

(iv) Reading at the right pace: too slow is better than too fast, especially if your pronunciation is poor.

(v) Pausing in the right places. Pauses are needed more often than at punctuation marks (see 50. Right & Wrong Comma Places), but not after every word. Sentences consist of “sense groups” – groups of words that naturally go together, for example to make the subject of the sentence or an adverbial – and pauses normally come before and after sense groups. They also often precede emphasised words.

(vi) Speaking with the right volume. It is particularly important not to speak too quietly.

(vii) Highlighting important and contrasting ideas by emphasising the words that carry them.

A few ideas for developing these skills can be read in the article within this blog entitled Should language learners ever be asked to read aloud in class?

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LINGUISTIC SKILLS FOR READING ALOUD

Some of the most important English Language skills are as follows.

1. Pronouncing Unfamiliar Words

This is perhaps the most obvious linguistic problem that English gives to speakers of other languages. The main causes are the unreliability of English spelling (illustrated within this blog in posts like 29. Illogical Vowel Spellings,  86. The Pronunciation of “e” and “i” and 155. Silent Consonants) and the unpredictability of word stress. Happily, the solution is quite easy: checking the pronunciation in a dictionary whilst rehearsing.

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2. Converting Numbers to their Spoken Form

The difference between written and spoken numbers is extensively analysed in the post 67. Numbers in Spoken English. As an example, 3-digit numbers like 374 need when read aloud to include the word and after the word hundred.

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3. Pronouncing Difficult Sounds

Since no two languages have exactly the same sounds – and even the ones that are similar may be used in different ways – reading aloud in a new language involves pronouncing unfamiliar sounds. This is not always a difficulty, but errors are normal as well. Readers may or may not be aware of their mispronunciations. The less obvious ones can be discovered by asking another person to listen to rehearsals. Exercises to practise problem sounds can then be used.

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4. Stressing the Right Syllables

Words are made up of syllables. English syllables can be pronounced strongly or weakly. Strong ones are usually said to be “stressed” (see 125. Stress and Emphasis). A single stressed syllable is found in most words, along with a variable number of unstressed ones (the exception is small single-syllable words like of, which are usually unstressed).

It is very important to stress the right syllable in a multi-syllable word. Here are some words where learners of English often stress the wrong syllable. Readers are invited to name the syllables they think are stressed and then check the answers at the bottom of this page.

QUIZ: Name the stressed syllable in each word (answers below)

agreement, argument, appreciated, challenge, committee, complaint, descent, detailed, determine, development, forfeit, management, opponent, organised, prevalent, purchase, recognise, resit, response, seventy, success, surprise, welcome.

Stress errors are much more likely than mispronounced sounds to escape your notice when you read aloud. Studying lists like the above can help to reduce errors, as can asking another person to listen to reading rehearsals.

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5. Pronouncing Unstressed Vowels

A major aspect of spoken English is the tendency of vowel letters to be pronounced differently according to whether or not their syllable is stressed. Stress causes vowels to be pronounced as we would normally expect, but without it the pronunciation frequently becomes either /Ə/ or /ı/. For example, stressed “u” in inDUStrial sounds the same as in cut, but unstressed in INdustry it has the /Ə/ sound instead. More on this is in the posts 41. Unexpected Vowels in Derived Words and 125. Stress and Emphasis, while 86. The Pronunciation of “e” and “i” offers some guidelines on when to say /ı/ instead of /Ə/).

Many speakers whose mother tongue is not English pronounce all English vowels in their primary way, without changing them to /Ə/ or /ı/ as necessary. Being able to make these changes can considerably improve pronunciation. Observing their occurrence in the speech of expert users is one improvement strategy; checking word pronunciations in a dictionary is another.

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6. Adapting Pronunciations to Neighbouring Sounds

When certain sounds combine with certain other sounds in their own or an adjacent word, their pronunciation subtly changes, even though their spelling usually remains the same. A word that undergoes a fairly well-known change of this kind is the: pronounced with /Ə/ before consonants and /ı/ before vowels. Other important changes are:

(i) Consonant Transfer. When the first of two closely-linked words ends with a consonant and the second begins with a vowel (as in loG On, darK Eyes or caN Open), the consonant is often said as if it started the second word (lo gon, dar keyes, ca nopen). This is true even when the final consonant of the first word has a silent vowel after it, as in come out.

(ii) Consonant Lengthening. This occurs when the same consonant sound ends the first word and begins the second, as in can never, with the and enough food. Instead of saying the sound twice, it sounds more natural to say it once but with more time than usual.

(iii) Consonant Reduction. This usually involves the so-called “plosive” consonants: /p, t, k, b, d, g/. Their pronunciation is likely to be reduced when either they precede another consonant (e.g. seT Down, suBMit) or end a sense group (e.g. come to a stoP, hold ouT). A full explanation of this area is downloadable from the Learning Materials page of this blog (sheet #12). For some grammar misunderstandings that it can cause, see 144. Words that are Often Heard Wrongly.

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7. Using Intonation

Whole books have been written on the nature and uses of English intonation. Here I just want to mention two uses that are especially important for reading aloud. The first is showing whether or not a sentence is finished – corresponding on the one hand to full stops and semi-colons, and on the other to commas, colons and dashes. Full stops are normally indicated with a falling tone on the word before, the others by a fall-rise. The most common error is to use the full stop tone in the wrong place. This happens particularly before colons and in the middle of lists. It is very disconcerting for a listener to hear a list continued when intonation has signalled its end.

The other important use of intonation is for emphasis. Listening to a text is much more interesting if important and contrasting words are emphasised. The kind of intonation that creates emphasis can be thought of as an extra strong form of stress (see 125. Stress & Emphasis).

Further information about intonation in reading aloud can be downloaded from the Learning Materials page of this blog (sheet #13).

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ANSWERS TO QUIZ ON STRESS: The stressed syllable is underlined in each word below.

agreement, argument, appreciated, challenge, committee, complaint, descent, detailed, determine, development, forfeit, management, opponent, organised, prevalent, purchase, recognise, resit, response, seventy, success, surprise, welcome.

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