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Learners have to hear the sounds

Learners have to hear the sounds. That is what this post is about. I’ll make the following points:

  • Learners have to hear the sounds to pronounce them correctly.
  • Of course, they have to hear the sounds to understand what is being said. Errors are the most common cause of communication breakdowns when two non-native speakers communicate with English.
  • And, being able to distinguish the sounds is critical for fluent reading.

My last three posts pointed out the importance of being able to hear the sounds with regard to pronunciation. I drew on the research of both Paula Escudero and  Kazuya Saito to support the claim that perception, being able to hear the sounds, is essential for production, being about to pronounce them.


The relationship between hearing the sounds and understanding spoken language was highlighted by Jennifer Jenkins (2000). Her groundbreaking study conducted on pairs of non-native speakers showed that mistakes with sounds (phonemes) were the biggest source of communicative problems. This flew in the face of what I had learned in my TESOL training but as she pointed out, the research that had informed me was flawed, or ESL biased. The still widely-held belief that suprasegmentals, (accent, rhythm and such) are more important than individual sounds (phonemes) is over-stated because the research backing the claim was done in ESL settings, with one speaker being a native. As Jenkins pointed out, when both speakers are non-natives there is a different dynamic. Features like intonation, and the way words are blended, are less problematic for the simple reason that non-native speakers tend to speak slower.


The importance of hearing the sounds for reading involves the ability to pronounce words (silently in one’s head) quickly and accurately and to read unknown words by decoding them. In alphabetic languages like English, readers link the letters to the sounds. This happens in two ways. One way involves mapping letters to sounds. This is decoding, phonics, or sometimes called “sounding out.” The other way readers connect letters to the sounds is through whole-word or sight recognition. This occurs when a reader has encountered a printed word previously and has memorized the pronunciation. Most developing readers will rely on both sight memory and decoding for words they have encountered. But all new words must be decoded, so learning to read is highly dependent on a reader’s ability to decode words accurately. This demands phonemic awareness, the ability to hear the different sounds.


Some native English-speaking children have problems with decoding. It is the biggest problem with learning to read among native English speaking children. Dr. Usha Goswami, the director of the Centre for Neuroscience in Education at St. John’s College, Cambridge has this to say:


…the way in which the brain represents the sound-structure of spoken language – phonology – is critical for the future development of literacy. The brain develops phonological ‘representations’ in response to spoken language exposure and learning to speak, and the quality of these phonological representations determines literacy acquisition. (emphasis added)


Children learn to read based on the way the language is represented in their brain, their phonology. She is talking about British children who have problems reading. That is her specialty, but isn’t it obvious how this would apply to all non-native children learning to read English? Teaching a Japanese child that “r” represents the sound in “road” and the letter “l” represents the sound in “load,” is not helpful if they cannot distinguish the sounds. And, of course, they can’t.


The good news is that children can learn to distinguish the sounds.

And that is what b4 does!


Jenkins J. (2000). The Phonology of English as an International Language. Oxford: Oxford

    University Press.








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