May 2022

We’ve prepared our largest issue yet to tackle pronunciation, one of the most important aspects of language learning and teaching. We explore the neuroscience behind pronunciation, and of course we also have a plethora of practical teaching tips for practitioners to bring straight into their classrooms. Find yourself a comfortable place to sit and digest this month’s magazine!


Our cover: “The tongue has no bones, but is strong enough to break a heart. So be careful with your words.” – Unknown

photo by Ryunosuke Kikuno on Unsplash; others from Pixabay & Openverse Creative Commons

Watch before you read...

This Think Tank looks at teaching pronunciation, a long-time mysterious and thorny part of language teaching. The Main video shows us how the ability to hear phonemes narrows and sharpens in babyhood. The Lite video looks into social aspect of pronunciation.

Curtis Kelly gives us a historical view of pronunciation instruction and Skye Playsted ponders why teaching it is important. Then, Donna Brinton questions who should teach it and looks at native speakerism. Mohammad Khari takes us deeper into Kuhl’s ideas (from the Main video), and Meredith Stephens tells us about how a hearing-impaired learner taught her the importance of observation. Then, we get pronunciation teaching tips, when Michael Rost challenges the custom of focusing on individual words, followed by Jason Pipe’s complete guide to a syllabus. Stephen M. Ryan ends the Think Tank with some edgy observations on learner resistance and Tim Murphey follows up with a heart-touching story.

Our Thoughts on Pronunciation

Love-Hate Relationships with Pronunciation Curtis Kelly

The Reductionist Audiolingual approach was in its heyday when I came to Japan. Mim-Mem and Pat-Prac were part of the true road English. This was long before Braj Kachru and Larry Smith widened our ideas with the concept of World Englishes, and long before any but a handful of privileged Japanese went abroad. And so, at that time, it was an important social marker for Japanese to be able to speak English with an American or British accent. (Australia, Canada, etc., had not yet been discovered.) Those who could were accorded high status, and obviously, this gave undue, immense privilege to teachers from either of those two countries. Right Donna? (See her article in this issue.)

Think Tank Articles

Why Do We Need to Talk about Teaching Pronunciation? Skye Playsted

The sounds of different languages have always fascinated me. When I was young, my dad loved to play LPs by the great French singer, Edith Piaf. She was a favourite singer of my grandmother’s and I have strong memories of hearing the petite-framed Piaf’s voice belting out Non, Je ne Regrette Rien through the speakers, and filling the room with its power! My mum, who loved to sing and play piano, also taught me songs in German that her German-speaking teachers had taught her at a school for children of Lutheran missionaries in Papua New Guinea.I didn’t know what all the words meant, but I remember an interest in the languages, the sounds of their words and their meanings, from my earliest years. I would sit in front of the LP record player, moving the stylus over and over back to the start of Piaf’s song, trying to emulate the shape and sounds of her French words with my un-French lips and ears.

“The Celestial Openness” Mohammad Khari

As a language teacher, every now and then, you might ponder on some fundamental questions, no matter how long you have been in this profession. Every few weeks, there are new research-based findings and theories coming out, thanks to the advance of technology and the engineering marvels of fMRI and EEG. These findings enable us to form a more comprehensive understanding of how we learn in general, how we learn our mother tongue, how one acquires a second language, how and when babies can distinguish different sounds, what is the critical age for faster language acquisition, or why we learn better in the company of others. It is not possible to discuss all of these questions in one article, but I will try to go over some amazing work done mostly by Patricia K. Kuhl, Ph.D. who laid the foundation for further studies and research helping us understand when and how babies distinguish sounds, how the sound patterns are formed, and how early stages of a baby’s development affect their future language abilities.

Teaching Pronunciation: It Doesn’t Take a Native Speaker Donna M. Brinton

Some years ago, I was asked by my long-term pronunciation co-presenter and collaborator Linda Grant if I would write the epilogue to her volume in the popular University of Michigan Press “myths” series (Grant, 2014). I was glad to comply given the abundance of pronunciation myths; plus the task of writing the epilogue allowed me to summarize what other contributors had written while at the same time comment on best practices in the field. Curiously enough, one myth (and to my mind perhaps the most pervasive one) was not included in the table of contents—namely that it takes a native speaker to successfully teach pronunciation. So, it was with pleasure that I welcomed the invitation to contribute to this special pronunciation-themed issue of JALT Brain SIG’s Mind Brain Ed Think Tank+.[1] I hope with this brief article to continue the tradition of “myth busting” that Linda set into motion with her volume.

[1] This paper is an expanded version of the author’s webinar of the same name presented for CATESOL’s Teachers of Pronunciation special interest group.

Learning Pronunciation while Observing the Face Meredith Stephens

Several years ago, at the end of an undergraduate class, one of the students, Asana, asked me, “Can I sit at the front of the classroom every lesson, please? I have a hearing impairment.”

I agreed and resolved to speak more loudly. Despite repeated efforts to project my voice, those at the back often asked me to speak up.

Several years later Asana enrolled in my graduate class. Because there were only two students in the class I was able to get to know her much better than when she had been in the larger undergraduate class.

The Listening-Pronunciation Connection: Four Linked Practices for Improving “Pronunciation Flow” Michael Rost

Listening and pronunciation are closely linked—both in how we acquire the two skills and how they depend on each other neurologically. When we articulate sounds, our motor cortex gets direct messaging from our auditory cortex about the target sounds—informing us how to contort the muscles of our face, mouth, tongue, lips, and throat to produce speech. The way that we perceive sounds creates a template for how we will pronounce them. Simply put, we cannot consciously articulate what we can’t also perceive.

A Practical Approach in Teaching Pronunciation Jason Pipe

How many of us have had students say that they are embarrassed about their English abilities? They complain about their coursebooks being too easy but when asked to follow the listening tasks, they struggle. Or when the native-speaker teacher explains a point in class, the students do not understand what has just been said. At such times, it is necessary to address these comprehension gaps and this is not simply about vocabulary or grammar. Courses need to include tasks that effectively teach pronunciation, as this helps to address confusion over native-speaker accents in listening and speaking activities. However, teaching pronunciation to Japanese learners of English at university might seem the last area of second language acquisition to concentrate on in the classroom.

“That Froggy Stuff” or Identity Marking through Bad Pronunciation Stephen M. Ryan

Je suis un rock star

Je avais un residence

Je habiter la

A la south of France

Voulez vous

Partir with me?

And come and rester la

With me in France.

Bill Wyman

You don’t have to know much French to know that that’s not French. It is, at best, a string of uninflected French words shoe-horned into a pattern of English syntax. Enough to make any true speaker of French squirm.

Think Tank Plus

photo by Danny Choo

The Doze-Off-Mode of the Leaning Head on Christmas Eve Tim Murphey

She glanced at me as I sat down beside her in the train in the only available seat. Then quickly went back to her iPhone and then clicked it off. I saw out of the corner of my eye her head going forward, into the doze-off-mode, as many overworked people on Japanese trains do. But I had not read more than a page in my book before I felt her head lightly touching my shoulder. And then less lightly. And finally landing comfortably and decisively on my shoulder.

Call for Contributions: Ideas and Articles Think Tank Staff

Become a Think Tank star! Here are some of the future issue topics we are thinking about. Would you, or anyone you know, like to write about any of these? Or is there another topic you’d like to recommend? Do you have any suggestions for lead-in, or just plain interesting, videos? How about writing a book review? Or sending us a story about your experiences? Contact us.

Answers to Intro Article Quiz

Noam Chomsky, who helped free us from the Audiolingual approach

Larry Smith, of World Englishes fame

Curtis Kelly, in a job application photo when he first came to Japan

Donna Brinton, either teaching “o” sounds or blowing out candles

Michael Rost, back when he lived near a sauna in Suginami-ku, Tokyo

B. F. Skinner, whose Reductionist theories sprouted into Audiolingualism

Tim Murphey, feeling the winds of theory change

Time for some fun!

The Psychology of Accents


Heather Kretschmer told us about this amazing online tool for students interested in English accents. They type in a word, choose an accent type, and the search engine pulls up a video clip from that area with the word in it.

I did say “amazing,” right?

Don’t miss the new addition to our site! For teaching and learning…

MBE Logo

The MindBrained Think Tanks+

is produced by the Japan Association for Language Teaching (JALT) Mind, Brain, and Education Special Interest Group (BRAIN SIG). Kyoto, Japan. (ISSN 2434-1002)

Editorial Staff

Stephen M. Ryan                Julia Daley                   Marc Helgesen

              Curtis H. Kelly                 Skye Playsted               

    Jason Walters                               Mohammad Khari




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