In this topic I am going to deal with the English consonant system. I will establish four different sections. First, I will introduce some definitions of concepts that are relevant to the topic being studied. In my second section I will deal with the organs of speech and the production of sound. Then I will move on to present the English consonant system, and how the different consonants are classified. Finally, in my fourth section I will establish a comparison between English and Spanish consonant systems and have reflected on the importance of teaching pronunciation.
Before start dealing with the topic I would like to point out that the model used when describing the phonological system of the English language is the so called R.P. English or Received Pronunciation. In, England, this accent, whose ancestral form developed in the late Middles Ages in London and the South-East, has come to stand out above all others, conveying associations of respectable social standing and good education. Hence, R. P. English, also known as BBC English of Southern English, is the model most commonly adopted when teaching pronunciation. The reasons for that are obvious: Received Pronunciation is a standard; most teaching-learning materials use R.P. English; it is widely intelligible and it does not have any regional characteristics; and it enjoys social prestige being spoken by upper-class and educated people.
In my first section I am going to define some concepts which aid understanding of this topic. First, I would like to establish a difference between phonetics and phonology. Phonetics is the discipline that deals with the characteristics of sounds themselves, without any reference to their function. Since the phonetic unit is the sound, it formulates methods of description and classification of the sound types that occur in speech (articulatory, auditory and acoustic; or stages of production). On the contrary, phonology studies the sounds form the point of view of their working in the language. It investigates the phonic differences with the differences in meaning.
Another distinction I would like to point out is that between speech sounds and phonemes. Phonetics deals with sounds. A speech sound is any phonetically distinct unit of sound, that is, any unit of sound produced by speech organs that can be distinguished by the phonetician from all other units of sounds produced by the speech organs. On the contrary, phonology deals with phonemes. A phoneme may be described as a family of sounds consisting of one important sound of the language (generally the most frequently used member of that family) together with other related sounds, called allophones, which take its place in particular sound sequences or under particular conditions of length, stress or intonation.
In my next section I am going to provide an overview of speech production and the organs involved in that process. In order to teach and learn a correct pronunciation, and especially in the case of consonants, it is essential for us, as second language teachers, to be able to know where the speech organs are and how they work. In all languages we speak with air from the lungs. The air-stream released by the lungs undergoes important modifications in the upper stages of the respiratory tract before it acquires the quality of speech sound. The air comes up through the trachea or wind-pipe and then passes through the larynx, which is commonly called the Adam’s apple. The larynx is formed of muscled and cartilage, and housed within this structure from back to front are the vocal cords, which are two small folds of ligament and elastic tissue. The cord may be brought together or parted, by the rotation of the cartilages through muscular action. The opening between the cords is known as the glottis, through which the air can pass freely when we breathe quietly in and out. When the vocal cords are brought together tightly, no air can pass. The most important function of the vocal cords is the production of voice. Voiced sounds are achieved when the vocal cords are vibrating close together, whereas voiceless sounds are made when the vocal cords are wide open, the air passes freely between them and there is no vibration.
The air-stream undergoes further modification according to the shape within the upper cavities of the pharynx, mouth and nasal cavities. The pharyngeal cavity extends from the top of the larynx to the region in the rear of the soft palate. We may find different positions of the soft palate. If it is lowered, the air escapes through the nose and the mouth and we obtained nasalized sounds; if it is held in its raised position, there is an oral escape through the mouth.
The shape of the mouth determines finally the quality of the majority of our speech sounds. The mouth is limited by the teeth at the front, the hard palate in the upper part and the soft palate in the rear. The area of the palate moving backwards from the teeth is known as alveolar ridge. The remaining organs, lips, tongue and soft palate with its pendent uvula, are movable. The teeth are used in English to some extent as passive articulators in sounds such as /t/.
The tongue is the most important of the organs of speech because it has the greatest variety of movement and flexibility so as to assume a variety of positions in the articulation. The lips are particularly significant in the formation of vowel quality and take up different positions. They can be brought firmly together so that they completely block the mouth, or they can be pushed forward to a greater or lesser extent.
After clarifying the concepts that are essential for the understanding of this topic and dealing with the speech organs and the production of sound, I am going to move to my third section, in which I will look at the English consonant system. Consonant sounds, from a phonological point of view are normally placed at the peripheral side of the syllable. Moreover, consonants are sounds whose production takes place with an obstruction of the passage of the air through the mouth in one or another place. Consonants are also said to be less sonorous than vowel sounds.
On the whole, in English there are 24 consonant sounds, which are represented in spelling by 21 letters. Consonants fall into several different interesting categories depending on the voice, the manner of articulation or the place of articulation. Thus, in the following lines, I shall describe consonant sounds, first in terms of the use of voice and then considering the manner of articulation as a basis and the place of articulation in a related way.
· According to the use of the voice, English consonant sounds are grouped into two categories. On the one hand, voiced consonants, whose production takes place with a vibration of the vocal cords and examples of them would be /b/ as in bad, /d/ as in do, /g/ as in girl, /v/ as in very, /z/ as in zoo, / ζ / in words such as pleasure or measure, and so on. Voiced consonants are / b, d, g, v, ∂, z, r, ζ , dζ, l, m, n, ŋ, ј, w /.
On the other hand voiceless consonants are those which are pronounced without vibration of the vocal cords. This is the case of consonants such as /p/ in paper, /t/ in tall, /k/ in key, /f/ in words such as fine , /Ө/ in think or thorough, the consonant /s/ as in assess, etc. Voiceless consonants are /p, t, k, f, Ө, s, h, ∫, t∫ /
· If we take into account the manner of articulation, that is to say, how a consonant sound is produced, we may distinguish seven main classes in the English language: plosives, affricate, nasal, lateral, rolled, fricative and semivowels. From now on a detailed description of these seven groups will be conveyed focusing at the same time on the place of articulation, which will provide us with a complete and global picture of the English consonant system.
v Plosive consonant sounds are formed by completely closing the air passage and suddenly removing the obstacle so that the air escapes making an explosive sound or plosion. In English there are six plosive consonants. Some of them are bilabial, that is, the sound is produced with the two lips. This is the case of /p/ in words like pupils and /b/ in those like boat or Bible. Some of them are alveolar, that is, they are pronounced with the tip of the tongue against the alveolar-ridge. It is the case of /t/ in task or /d/ in difficult. There are also velar plosives in English, produced when the back of the tongue is on or near the soft palate. For instance, the sound /k/, whose most frequent spelling can be k as in king or c as in cat; and the sound /g/, found in words such as good, gate or get.
v Fricative consonants are formed by a narrowing of the air passage at some point to such an extent that the air escaping produces an audible friction. There are ten fricative consonants in the English language. Some of them are labiodentals. It is the case of the sound /f/ in words like fur, or laugh, which is voiceless, and the sound /v/ found in words like save, average or nephew, which is voiced.
Other fricative consonants are dental, that is, they are articulated by the tip of the tongue against the upper teeth. This is the case of the voiceless consonant sound /Ө/ found in words like think always spelt with the consonant cluster th; and also with this spelling, the voiceless sound /∂/ found in words like rather.
Another group of fricative consonants are the alveolar fricatives, such as the voiceless consonant /s/ as in so and the voiced one /z/ as in zoo.
Palato-alveolar fricative consonant sounds are those articulated by the blade of the tongue against the alveolar-ridge. There are two palato-alveolar consonants in English: one of them is the voiceless sound / ∫ / which is normally represented in spelling by the consonant cluster sh, as in she, the ending –ssion such as in passion, and with the spelling ch in words like machine; and the sound / ζ / found in examples such as measure, visual or seizure
Another sound /h/is a voiceless glottal fricative. The mouth is held in a vowel position and the air is pushed quickly through the glottis. It is found in words like help, whole,etc.
The last consonant that can be included within this group is the sound /r/ which is also rolled. This sound is articulated with the tip of the tongue against the back part of the alveolar-ridge, then being post-alveolar. It is graphically represented by the letters r or rr in words such as hurry or story. However when the grapheme r appears at the end of a word, it is not pronounced, unless it is followed by a vowel sound within speech. And so, if the word car is not followed by a vowel, it is pronounced /ka:/ and not /ka:r/.
v Affricate consonants are a combination of plosives and fricatives. Air pressure is first built up, and it is released through a narrow passageway like a fricative. There are two main affricate consonant sounds: the sound / tζ /, found in words such as chain, furniture or question; and the sound / dζ /, which appears in words with spelling j like James, others spelt with g like giant or George and also the cluster dg in words like judgement.
v Nasal consonants are produced when the air passes through the nasal cavity since the oral passage is closed. All nasal consonants are voiced. There are three nasal sounds in the English consonant system: the bilabial nasal /m/ in words like man; the alveolar /n/ found in words such as no or onion; and the velar / ŋ /, which has a pronunciation similar to /m/ and /n/ and whose main spelling are the clusters ng in words like sing and the consonant cluster nk as in sink.
v Lateral /l/ is produced when the air stream flows along the sides of the tongue, while the front makes contact with the teeth. It is found in words such as holly or lorry. Two varieties of /l/ can be distinguished: clear /l/, which is characterised by having a relatively front vowel resonance and occurs only before vowels and before the sound /j/ such as in ladder or value; and dark /l/, which has a relatively back vowel resonance and is used before all other consonants, in word such as bell or tell.
v The sound /r/, which appears in words like red, rat or arrive is classified according to the manner of articulation as a rolled consonant. It is produced by a rapid succession of taps of some elastic part of the speech mechanism.
In order to end up with this classification of English consonants, I am going to deal with the so-called semivowel sounds. English semivowels may be defined as independent vowel glides in which the speech organs start by forming a weakly articulated close vowel and immediately move to another sound of equal or greater prominence. Despite the fact that semivowels are, in phonetic terms, generally vocalic, they are treated within the consonant class, mainly because their function is that of a consonant sound being preceded by the indefinite article a, and the weak form of the definite article /ə/, and they have a peripheral or marginal situation within the syllable. There are three semivowels, or what is the same, approximants, in English: the sounds /w/,/j/ and sometimes /r/.
The semivowel /w/ is represented in spelling by the letter w, when it occurs in initial positions like in want, wine or watch; or when the spelling w is preceded by a consonant as in twelve or twenty. This sound is also represented by the consonant cluster u+q and u+g as it is seen in quick or anguish.
The sound /j/ is normally represented in spelling as y in initial position, found in words such as yea; it is also found in medial position in words like tedious or companion, and sometimes this sound also appears before the sound /u:/., for instance in the words like university. This semivowel is usually called yot.
Finally, the sound /r/ is considered a semivowel especially when the grapheme r is placed in unstressed position in words such as very or more.
After having conveyed a detailed classification of the English consonant system, I am going to move to my fourth section and explore the main differences between the English and the Spanish consonant system. The differences between the English and the Spanish consonant system are striking and they must be pointed out in order to help our students to attain a better pronunciation of the foreign language.
As it was said at the very beginning, there are 27 consonants used in spoken Spanish and 24 in spoken English. Among them, there are only 11 similar phonemes.
As far as the syllable structure is concerned, English consonants occur in many positions not found in Spanish, especially in final position and consonant clusters such is in ask, street, etc. Some consonant clusters are found in both languages, such it is the case of /pl/ in plan or plano. Nevertheless, a lot of English consonant clusters never appear in Spanish like /sm/ in words like small or smoke or / Ө /, in words like thread or throw. These clusters present difficulties for Spanish learners of English, not only as far as pronunciation is concerned, but also in terms of written spelling. And so for instance we tend to add a vowel /e/ at the beginning of those clusters beginning with /s/: instead of pronouncing street /stri:t/, we will say /estri:t/. In addition, Spanish learners normally delete one of the two /s/ in the cluster /s/+consonant+/s/ as in the word crisps /krisps/. They also delete the final consonant or insert a vowel in final clusters with t or d. This is frequent in the pronunciation of the simple past of regular verbs, where we tend to delete the /t/ in forms such as stopped; the /d/ in forms like arrived or simply pronounced an /e/ sound.
Some clusters may be formed with the final elements of a word followed by the initial elements of the next. For example ‘Next Sunday’ / kst s /. These phonological characteristic of the English language poses many difficulties for Spanish students of English.
Other frequent problems for Spanish learners regarding English consonants are, for instance, the difficulty for us to aspirate the English sounds / p, t, k /. It is also confusing the difference between /v/ and /b/ since it does not exist in Spanish. So, though we say in Spanish vena and balon, both pronounced with the same consonant sound, we have to pronounce in English vein /v/ and ball /b/.
The same case takes place with the difference between the English sounds /s/ and /z/. We must say secret and zed, being voiceless in the first example and voiced in the second. This is especially complicated when these sounds are found in the last syllable of the word, for instance, in the pronunciation of plurals or the third person singular of English verbs, since Spanish learners tend to use the sound /s/ in all the occasions.
Another difference that must be enhanced by us, as teachers of English, is that the sounds /t/ and /d/ are not similar in Spanish and in English. In fact, they are dental in Spanish and alveolar in English. The best way to show this to our students is by means of examples. They have to notice that the /t/ in tea is quite different fro the /t/ in té; or the /d/ in day highly differs from that of Spanish día.
Finally, the sound /l/ is always clear in Spanish. We notice that in words such as lapiz or sal. However, in English the /l/ sound can be either clear as in link or dark as in little.
These differences between both consonant systems cause problems to Spanish learners of the English language. So these pronunciation differences should be pointed during the class, what will result in a better pronunciation competence on the part of pupils. In the English class teachers should pay attention to pronunciation. It is not a question of dramatising any minor error, but only those which affect understanding. We must create a relaxing and motivating atmosphere which will undermine our students’ feelings of shame and frustration when dealing with a language different from their own one.
In An Introduction to the Pronunciation of English for TESOL, PARKER and GRAHAM stated that “it is impossible for the foreigner to grasp the sound system of English” basing on the principle that English is a phonetic language. The view of Parker and Graham is too extreme, first of all because, as it is stated by the General Law of Spanish Education, it is not of the utmost importance to speak English with perfect R.P. English or another native accent. What is crucial is that we can understand and be understood. On the other hand, DAVID BRAZIL in his work Pronunciation for Advanced Learners of English also affirms that “good pronunciation is taken to be pronunciation which does not put a barrier between you and your listener”.
Therefore, we, as English teachers, must be aware of the problems that our pupils, as Spanish speakers, will encounter with the second language and how they can be addressed. We know that our pupils automatically impose their native sound system pronunciation, stress, intonation and so on, on the new language. They are not aware of the differences until the teachers point them out. The problem may increase when we are dealing with students from Extremadura or other communities such as Andalucia, where speakers tend to delete the final consonant of the majority of words and so they do in English. This is the case of the final ‘s’ in people from Extremadura.
To sum up, in this topic I have dealt with the English consonant system. I have established four different sections. First, I introduced some definitions of concepts that are relevant to the topic then I dealt with the organs of speech and the production of sound. Then I moved on to present the English consonant system, and how the different consonants are classified. Finally, in my fourth section I established a comparison between the English and Spanish consonant systems and have reflected on the importance of teaching pronunciation.