Teaching English Pronunciation to Italian Students

A TEFL guide based on Pronuncia Inglese

When it comes to learning a new language, any student is faced with the task of learning new sounds (phonemes) and patterns. Unless one learns these new sounds one will pronounce the new language with the sounds of his/her native language. This can be likened to a guitarist who only knows one song and tries to play a new song with the chords of the old song. The new song wouldn’t sound right. A linguistic term which refers to pronouncing a new language with the sounds of ones native language is L1 interference or Language Transfer (1). A brief look at some characteristics of Italian phonology can be revealing to EFL teachers planning to work with Italians.

This paper examines three aspects of teaching pronunciation to Italians:
a) Stress
b) Four critical English phonemes absent in Italian,
c) Three biased tendencies. In each case, exposure to the Italian language can help teachers.
a) Italian is a “syllabic” language, as opposed to English which is a “stress” language. Italians tend to give each syllable in a word equal weight (except for the accent), while English speakers tend to accentuate one syllable per word and pronounce the rest of the syllables more quietly, denoting a lazy or easy going approach. Many Italian students require getting used to pronouncing words like unbelievable, absolutely, or reincarnation. If we are to make another musical analogy it’s as if the rhythm of English is different from Italian. Longer words are often excellent examples to practice with students.
b) The four phonemes /schwa/,/I/,/r/, and /theta(s)/ are entirely absent from Italian, and yet about 75% of English words contain at least one of them, usually more. While other phonemes differ significantly among different English accents, the /schwa/,/I/,/r/,and /theta/ remain essential to speaking all forms of English, especially International English. Looking at these phonemes and their Italian counterparts can be very useful. The Italian language has few vowel variations, and it can be seen as quite pure when it comes to enunciating vowels (2). The Italian vowels “AA,EE,II,OO,UU” are basic building blocks of the language and learning new vowels requires focused work from the Italian student. Partly due to the stress (and release) characteristic of the English language, the /schwa/ is the most commonly occurring phoneme. Very few Italian students pronounce the schwa, perhaps 1%. Italian pronunciation is based on orthography. Words are literally pronounced the way they’re written so the /schwa/, unknown to most, requires a good introduction. The words “zebra” and “lesson” are erroneously pronounced “zibrAAh” and “lessOOn”. The schwa usually appears in unstressed syllables and students can practice the /schwa/ with non-emphasized vowels, and enjoy the benefit of saying words like pen’/cil – while relaxing on the second syllable (where the schwa lies). Another vowel, the English /I/ is characteristically pronounced as “ee” (/i:/) by Italians, and yet a useful thing to point out is that the /I/ is pronounced as being between the /i:/ and the /e/ sounds, or a lazy /i:/ and thus more open – /I/. The Italian “r” is rolled and acquiring the English /r/ is something that has to be learned. Without practice the /r/ sound will be difficult to learn, just as an English speaker would need to practice rolling his r’s to speak Italian. The Theta or “th” sounds (voiced and unvoiced) are also absent in Italian, they are often pronounced as “d” or “t”, “de tree cats on de fence”. TEFL interventions can plan lessons (or parts) that focus on one phoneme, and provide word examples to practice. A possibility is to practice drilling the isolated phonemes first, and then simple words containing the targeted phoneme. “Drilling” is an exercise through which students repeat a word or sound after the teacher, about three times. Students’ accuracy tends to improve with each repetition. Words containing more than one of the four phonemes may be drilled at the end of a lesson or with advanced students. It’s worth keeping in mind that the vast majority of Italian speakers do not pronounce the four phonemes correctly.
c) Once again, understanding Italian sound patterns can help appreciate why certain errors are made. According to contrast analysis theory the elements of a language that are different from ones own will be most difficult to learn (3), and the tendency to repeat the same error over time is a bias and it is more difficult to correct than an error. This is why practice through repetition is key. Most Italian speakers of English will display one to three of the following three biases: 1) The fake final vowel: As Italian words almost never end in a consonant, doing so proves to be difficult for many. The result is that Italians may “add” an unspecified vowel sound (often a schwa, ironically) to words ending in a consonant. Some examples are, “booka, mucha, repeata”. 2) The final “s” omission: Italian words don’t end in consonants and words ending in /s/ are a special challenge, they are often difficult to be remembered and pronounced – yet a myriad of English words end in s (plurals, third person singular verbs like eats goes etc., personal pronouns such as yours and theirs, and generic words such as this, vase, and synthesis. As the first example relates to the addition of a final unspecified vowel, and the second example to the omission of “s’s”, the last example 3) is about additions/omissions of the “H” sound.“H’s” are also very rare in Italian, they are paradoxically added where not needed and omitted when needed. Some examples of omission are, “OTEL instead of HOTEL” and“AVV” instead of “HAVE”. Examples of addition include, “HAR” instead of “ARE” and “HUS” instead of “US”. Finally some examples of both addition and omission are, “HA AT” instead of “A HAT” (a classic), and “HA UNDRED” instead of “A HUNDRED”.
Students will thrive in a setting that allows them to repeat new phonemes many times, and not feel they are doing anything wrong or silly. By providing TEFL interventions ranging from occasional class drills to pronunciation classes held regularly, we can help students learn a new pronunciation, a new song!

1 Language Transfer
2 Italian Chorus
Contrastive Analysis
This paper is based on PRONUNCIA INGLESE (book + CD) which was developed with the notion that a few minutes of focused work each day can change the way we speak a foreign language. The book is simple, short, and straightforward. The CD has excercises aimed at improving pronunciation of the phonemes discussed in the text, critical to general English pronunciation.